Peter Saul, Untitled, 1961. Pastel, color pencil on two sheets of paper; 25 1/2 x 36 in (64.8 x 91.4 cm). Private collection. © 2022 Peter Saul / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the Artist, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York
By Eli Anapur
Born in 1934 in San Francisco, Peter Saul has been one of the leading American artists who challenges societal complacency through his art. Although mainly known for his large-scale paintings, in the early years of his career, Saul created small works on paper that would become the basis for his larger pieces.
Exploring the legacy of these works, Venus Over Manhattan gallery has prepared an exhibition of 40 of his early works on paper covering the period between 1957 and 1965, in which the celebrated artist developed his unique style.
Making the World 'Life Size'
"What would you think of that sort of work, I wonder? Small paintings that resemble pages out of comic books. It seems to me that nothing could be more realistic for a small painting than to resemble the pages of a cheap magazine – directly from experience, life-size: making the word "life-size" a joke itself," wrote Peter Saul to his parents from Paris in 1959.
In these few sentences, he expressed the philosophy behind his small-scale works. He wanted to show a life-size image of the world, a realistic representation of a joke that life is, which would become an important step in developing his irreverent style. Rightfully considered an icon of modern and contemporary art, Saul made these 'small paintings,' as he would call them, during the first year of his career.
They allowed him to experiment with ideas and further develop this aspect of his work. The small format did not leave space for "good technical performance to take the place of idea," therefore, the 23-year-old artist had to prioritize the ideas he wanted to convey.
The Works on View
The works on view at Venus Over Manhattan cover the artist's early years, from 1957 to 1965. In 1956 he travelled to Europe and lived in various locations outside of Amsterdam. During this period, he started experimenting with pastels as an essential working ground for new approaches. On view at the exhibition is Yellow Car (1957), which shows his early preoccupation — the front view of an automobile.
After moving to Paris in 1958, Saul adopted the Abstract Expressionist style and discovered magazines such as Photoplay, MAD, LIFE, and Confidential that would inspire him to adapt the popular imagery in his work. Depicting this phase in his career are the works such as Untitled (Ice Box) (1959), Untitled (Kitchen) (1959), and Untitled (1960).
Untitled (I have to kill) (1963) and Untitled (1964) ridicule the failures of the criminal justice system, while his works on paper from 1962 to 1964 are critically commenting on American pop culture icons.
After moving to Rome in 1962, Saul became acquainted with art impresario Allan Frumkin who pushed him to develop large-scale canvases. Following his father's death, the artist moved to California, where his new preoccupation became the Vietnam war, reflected in the exhibition with pieces such as GI with Machinery (1965) and Altar of Cold Cash (1965).
Considered today the major figure of American art, Peter Saul developed his genius many decades ago in small paintings on paper, as illustrated by this exhibition.
Peter Saul at Venus Over Manhattan
The exhibition Peter Saul: Early Works on Paper (1957-1965) will be on view at the Venus Over Manhattan gallery in New York from November 14th, 2022, until January 21st, 2023.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog featuring new texts by Max Hollein, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and noted curator Robert Storr.