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The Point

Shock Value: Peter Saul's American Icons

December 29, 2020

Painting by Peter Saul titled Human Dignity from 1966

Peter Saul, Human Dignity, 1966

By J. Hoberman

If a painting is the material expression of an idea and if the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, can we call Peter Saul our quintessential painter?

Certainly, Saul is the contemporary American artist who most acutely registers the putrid, deranged quality of American public life during the Trump era. A good part of the public would deem his paintings vulgar, tasteless, unfunny (or very funny), gross, crass, misogynistic, racist, hideous, obscene or offensive. In a word, objectionable. That’s easy to understand, because in Saul’s work there’s no ambiguity, no uplift, no “culture.” Nevertheless, his canvases are sensationally (or perversely) well-painted and visually organized. Even if one might find his work objectionable, it’s possible to recognize its virtuosity, and appreciate—if that is the word—his direct pipeline to our national id.

A mild sensation in the late Sixties, a cult artist in the early Aughts, and now a seasoned art world veteran, Saul, who is 86, is having a moment. “How long until Peter Saul is rediscovered once and for all,” Beau Rutland wrote on the occasion of Saul’s comprehensive 2017 show at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. European retrospectives and newly respectful reviews have culminated in a two-floor survey at the New Museum last February. It is Saul’s first retrospective in New York City, accompanied by a lavish catalog and the publication of his “professional artist correspondence,” a fascinating collection of letters written to his parents and his longtime gallerist Allan Frumkin.

Aptly named “Crime and Punishment,” the New Museum exhibition, which closes this week, is both seductive and off-putting. Each canvas is a consummately designed riot. The colors—hot pink, bilious lime, deep purple—scream. The images deliquesce. If you are in range, you’re spattered or slimed. The paintings are hung in a double row, maximizing their impact. War is ubiquitous: Ronald Reagan flies over Grenada brandishing a wad of dollars in one hand and wreaking havoc with the monstrous talons that sprout from his other. Relatively heroic, a stunted, gun-toting Stalin pulverizes a squadron of cartoon Nazis or appears beside a smiling Mao Zedong who holds aloft the heads of his enemies, like a uniformed Kali. George W. Bush pilots a plane that’s half-monstrous backside, bombing Iraq with Hitler, making a gun with his forefinger, with one of Saul’s trademark ducks in tow.

Saul has his own form of caricature, attaching recognizable faces to elongated or shortened, grotesquely contorted bodies. In his terrific “Bush at Abu Ghraib,” the foolishly grinning president poses with his finger inserted in the cheek of a torture victim whose face is somewhere between a chunk of meat and a bug-eyed monster from outer space. Nearby, a big-headed Newt Gingrich chokes on a piece of pie as a spindly version of the comic-strip heroine Little Orphan Annie kicks him in his scrawny groin while her dog Sandy barfs on the head of a figure labeled “Rush.” In a more recent canvas, Donald Trump merges with Wonder Woman, holding a pink representation of the Capitol in one hand and a buck-toothed Kim Jong-il in the other.

Saul may be tough on his subjects, but no painting of his is more hideous than a self-portrait from 1987. In a frame-filling close-up, the artist appears with a snub nose, enormous Walter Keane eyes, and a moronically lolling head split open as if for brain surgery, revealing a spongy red cavity out of which emerge a burning candle, a smoldering cigarette, a crucified beer can, and a teaspoon labeled “knowledge.”

Peter Saul was born in San Francisco in 1934, the only child of well-off parents who inexplicably packed him off to Shawnigan Lake, at the time reputed to be the strictest boarding school in North America. There he was not only subject to corporal punishment but bullied and persecuted because both his teachers and classmates assumed (incorrectly) that he was a Jew.

After studying art in St. Louis, Saul spent the rest of the 1950s in Paris painting and living on a dollar a day. He worked odd jobs, including hawking the international edition of the New York Herald Tribune—coincidentally, the same job Jean Seberg had in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Letters written to his parents show him absorbing and interpreting the lessons of Dada, surrealism, and Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. The real idea of Dada, he explained to them, is that

"Art can act on ordinary, non-aesthetic people—force itself on them via shock, shocking familiarity, shocking commonness, or shocking unusualness—so that the painting cannot be ignored, but must be decided upon. Sort of like Norman Rockwell."

Saul was evidently impressed by the echt Middle American artist’s capacity to generate immediately apprehendable American icons. Rockwell “acts on people in a very strong way,” Saul wrote. “Unfortunately, he does it in a sentimental vein.”

In 1959, Saul made a painting of a Kleenex box (“just a blue thing on red, no artistic modulation, except technically”). Other crudely rendered grocery store items followed, typically framed within a cartoonish icebox. Around 1960, he began incorporating Donald Duck and Superman into these playful, purposefully childish abstractions. Saul has always claimed that his big influence was not New York painters like Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein but instead Mad magazine, which he first saw in a Paris bookstore in 1959.

In 1962, Saul’s widowed mother offered to subsidize him if he would return to California. He did, and soon discovered that he had been classified as a Pop Artist. Settled in Mill Valley in the San Francisco Bay, Saul became more strident and topical. The open, commodity-crammed icebox that had been a motif in Paris was superseded by a death machine. His “Superman in the Electric Chair” (1963), which predates Warhol’s first electric chair by a year, is insolent, convoluted and gonzo, whereas Warhol’s austere study in silver and black is the deadpan image of an image. Over the course of his career, Saul would return to the subject of state-sanctioned execution with increasing ferocity. Stylized yet visceral, his all-but-unbearable “Ethel Rosenberg in Electric Chair” (1987) is the twentieth-century equivalent of a medieval painting of Christ on the cross.

Saul eventually discovered Day-Glo paint and, for the first time, a circle of convivial colleagues, namely the “funk” painters and sculptors based in and around Mill Valley. They were laid back; he was not. His topical paintings veered into vehement, intentionally shocking protest art, which was focused mainly on the war in Vietnam. While the funk artists were amused or bemused by Saul’s new work, underground cartoonists recognized a kindred soul and attempted, without luck, to get him to contribute to Zap Comix—the R. Crumb publication, first published in 1968, that introduced the world to some of San Francisco’s most outrageous countercultural satirists.

Saul’s icebox paintings are funny and appealing, and with their deceptively casual charm they anticipate the graffiti-based neo-primitive abstractions that Jean-Michel Basquiat would paint some twenty years later. The Vietnam work, by contrast, is off-putting and hellish. At least by Saul’s account, when they were shown at the newly established Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in nearby Carmel Valley, these garish, blobby paintings—intricate cartoony phantasmagorias in which white, helmeted American soldiers appear to dismember and violate smaller, yellow, mainly female figures—freaked out the institute’s then-26-year-old founder, Joan Baez.

“I always start out to make it very anti-American and anti-the-war,” Saul explained at the time. “I want it be treasonable if possible.” No matter how intricate their patterns, which could easily be mistaken for a toxic swirl of pooled paint, the awfulness of paintings like “Yankee Garbage” (1966), “Human Dignity” (1966) and “GI Christ” (1967) is impossible to miss. Yet so is their artistic daring. The superb “Target Practice” (1968) adapts the visual language of Plastic Man comics and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s hot rod decalcomania to evoke dehumanized atrocity.

Saul’s first masterpiece, “Saigon” (1967), is a widescreen horror show in which peasant women shaped like warped inflatable balloons—the central one labeled “innocent virgin”—are attacked, shackled and crucified by spiky American bombs. A three-star general appears as a monstrous disembodied tongue, and a Coke-swilling ghoul swirls through and contaminates a tropical landscape of green-blue palms and hot pink blood. Mock Chinese letters spell out “White Boys Torturing and Raping the People of Saigon” on one side of the canvas and “High Class Version” on the other.

That these images were made a few miles from Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love adds to their power. Saul may have been a longhair but he was not a hippie. As noted by Dan Cameron in the catalog for Saul’s first major U.S. retrospective, at the Orange County Museum of Art in 2008, the artist’s “uncanny gift for transforming the cultural myth of the Age of Aquarius into a blown-up snapshot of unremitting bloodlust, racism and misogyny” makes his work of the time “the pictorial equivalent” of the infamous 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont—where Woodstock’s wholesome peace, love and rock ’n’ roll curdled into violence.

Saul’s Vietnam canvases coincided with Philip Guston’s much-maligned return to making representational images—most notably his caricatures of then-president Richard Nixon and spooky paintings of hooded Klansmen (the same ones that recently got a scheduled retrospective of Guston’s work suspended). As a former Abstract Expressionist, Guston was attacked for regressing to the socially conscious art of the 1930s; Saul, to the degree to which the art world noticed him at all, was deemed merely tasteless. A rare exception was the critic Harold Rosenberg, who praised Saul, along with Guston, in a mid-1970s talk as “a particularly fierce, though at times hilarious, politically oriented artist [who] tore into America’s devastation of Vietnam with obscenities and disfigurations that seemed to declare that his style matched his subject matter.”

Once “Saigon” was acquired by the Whitney Museum in 1969, Saul lost interest in Vietnam as a subject. (He’s said that had the Whitney not purchased the painting he would have given it as a gift to North Vietnam.) Asked about his shift, he explained that “I probably just got a better idea, which was to paint troubling, insane, psychotic pictures of celebrities and politicians.” A snaky, vampiric Ronald Reagan leers out of “The Government of California” (1969), but Saul’s most controversial subject was the persecuted militant Angela Davis, whom he depicted in “San Quentin #1” (1971) as contorted into a pretzel and violated by versions of Disney’s Three Little Pigs wearing mortarboards labeled “Justis,” “Munny,” and “Powur.” Equally assaultive and even more iconic is “Crucifixion of Angela Davis,” in which the subject’s sinewy torso is pierced by five switchblade knives (each labeled with a variation of “Jeez Us”). Her formidable afro crowned with a halo, Davis ascends contorted in space before a dead tree stump.

Here, as with the Vietnam paintings, agonized style matches painful subject matter. Unlike Dana Shutz’s notorious “Open Casket,” the scandal of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Saul’s “Crucifixion” is not a painterly tour-de-force. “Open Casket,” which was widely criticized for racial insensitivity as well as appropriation, essentially aestheticizes Shutz’s subject, rendering the brutalized body of Emmett Till in a thick, pleasing impasto. By contrast, Saul’s flamboyant, if not shocking, stylization accentuates his subject’s suffering and martyrdom. It is not Davis who is shamed but us.

On the occasion of Saul’s Orange County retrospective in 2008, the critic-curator Michael Duncan suggested that the artist had invented his own form of istoria—the elevated narrative or “history” painting that originated in fifteenth-century Italy and was theorized by Leon Battista Alberti who saw painting as the most noble of human endeavors.

More concerned with civics than religion, istoria, as it has developed, is essentially a form of public, commemorative art, such as Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” Twentieth-century instances include the Mexican and WPA muralists as well as Soviet and Chinese socialist realism and even Hollywood extravaganzas like How the West Was Won. Saul has been influenced by and is in some ways heir to the radical muralists José Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros as well as the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton (although, in his politics, Saul is also something of the anti-Benton, exaggerating Benton’s mannerism and mocking his patriotism.) Rather than the “promulgation of nobility,” as Duncan wrote, Saul’s form of istoria addresses “the base elements of contemporary culture. In perverse narratives founded on historical events, art history, and mythology,” he has “revealed the lust, greed, envy, gluttony, pride, sloth, and wrath that have made America the disgraced superpower that it is today.”

Saul’s history paintings are splendid, even liberating, in their deflationary antagonism. “Columbus Discovers America” (1992-95) has the eponymous bug-eyed conquistador, outsized crucifix in one hand and colossal sword in the other, sailing out from the void to hack open the deep-red residents of a verdant green and gold land. Marginally more heroic, the artful mayhem of “Custer’s Last Stand #1” (1973) is a boisterous reminder that reproductions of that massacre were standard barroom décor into the twentieth century. “The Alamo” (1990) similarly reduces a patriotic symbol to a drunken brawl while “Return to the Alamo” (2017) marginalizes Davy Crockett, et al., to put a three-man Mexican army at its center. “Saigon” and its masterful follow-up “Pinkville” (1970), Saul’s response to the My Lai Massacre, in which an octopus-like GI casually murders four female villagers, belong in whatever wing of the Smithsonian is ultimately dedicated to the Vietnam War.

Ditto, mutatis mutandis, for Saul’s recent presidential paintings. If Trump ever builds a presidential library (like the one recently proposed, tongue-in-cheek, by an anonymous architect online) Saul’s canvases “President Trump Becomes a Wonder Woman, Unifies the Country and Fights Rocket Man” or “Abstract Expressionist Portrait of Donald Trump,” a garish wallpaper-like design based on the president’s distinctive coiffure, would lend the space an appropriate touch of anti-gravitas.

It is, however, difficult to out-gauche Trump. The curator of the Guggenheim Museum, Nancy Spector, tried to do just that when, after entering the White House, the new president sought a loan for his and Melania’s private living quarters. He boldly requested what he likely deemed the priciest item in the Guggenheim’s collection, Van Gogh’s “Landscape with Snow.” Spector proposed instead Maurizio Cattelan’s solid gold toilet, a piece entitled “America” that had almost been as well-documented in the New York Post as Trump himself. The presidential response is unknown, although the transaction and potential posturing does suggest material for a suitably anti-heroic istoria.

Still, Saul’s relatively minor “Donald Trump in Florida,” in which the subject shares the composition with several pustular alligators, and even merges with one, seems almost too well-suited for Mar-a-Lago. “By the time I even thought about painting Trump, ten thousand people had painted him at every level,” Saul told the curators of “Crime and Punishment,” confessing, “I just felt like I was arriving way too late. But that was part of the challenge, because apparently I have this reputation for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

Shockingly common or shockingly unusual, Trump is a thing that cannot be ignored but must be decided upon. His crafted persona has rendered the artist irrelevant. Indeed, as a monument to 21st century America, Trump is his own Peter Saul.

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