This fall, Michael Werner Gallery, New York is pleased to present Peter Saul: Murder in the Kitchen, Early Works, featuring paintings and works on paper from 1959 to 1966. The exhibition charts the artist's development as he emerges as one of the most original voices in 20th century American painting.
Peter Saul (b. 1934) has a career that spans over 60 years and a body of work that is difficult to categorize, particularly since he never wanted to belong to any artistic group. After graduating from art school in 1956, Saul moved to Europe, leaving an oppressive America steeped in McCarthyism with the intention of never returning. While abroad, Saul followed what he thought was expected of an artist and painted abstract works, but ultimately he wanted to create a signature style of his own.
Curator and scholar Annabelle Ténèze explains:
“[Saul] was part of a significant movement in which artists, particularly on the American scene but in fact all over the world, individually and in spite of the then fashionable taste for abstraction, embraced a new form of representation that would take into account the profound changes in modern life and the image. … He painted the Iceboxes, refrigerators overflowing with food and, soon after, dollars, weapons, phalluses and more; cheerful but also bleak symbols of the opulent excess of the American Way of Life. … Was it the lucid outsider's eye – Saul had been living in voluntary exile in Europe since 1956 – that allowed him to hold such an accurate mirror up to the transformations that were taking place in American life and the art that echoed it?”
“This is one of my favorites of that year for composition - I like the way the shapes all seem suddenly flung together in a spontaneous arrangement - not at all formal or “stately” in appearance. I probably did not realize the swastika was inverted (backwards) because had not seen one since WWII comic books, 1940-44. I tried to think of as many hot or banned or unpleasant things as possible to put in my pictures to be against the idea of “cool”. I was very isolated, and happy to be isolated even though that’s probably a bad sign for my mental health. But even so, somebody must have shown me an art mag, most likely Art International and I thought this is a lot of crap, too much to think about and not enough to look at.
When it occurred to me to take this path, tell stories, make wrong kind of art deliberately, back in 1958, the very first subjects that occurred to me were Donald Duck, the electric chair, guns, bullets and knives, penis, and so on. I had not had enough personal experience to paint an “interesting” picture in my opinion, so I just made the whole thing up and still do. The swastika first occurred to me in 1960—the picture was called “Hitler’s bathroom” and may have been in my first NY show in 62, but I noticed Frumkin did not much like it, so probably used it only once or twice since. Anyway, the whole idea was to heat up my art, combat cool which I associate with pompous abstraction. The cigarette package is kind of simplified looking because I’d already painted them a lot and didn’t want to look repetitive.”
- Peter Saul, discussing “Untitled”, 1962 (above)
Art Historian Martina Weinhart writes, “looking at his beginings fresh out of the academy, Saul made his way to Europe, and as a young man spent his early, formative years first near Amsterdam, later in Paris and Rome, before returning to San Francisco. Insulated by these long sojourns far from home, he developed his own, very special perspective. He experienced American culture from a distance, and distance often sharpens one’s gaze. Disrespectful in the best sense, in the mid-1950s Saul thus turned to the phenomena of mass and consumer culture. This is particularly apparent in the exuberant deployment of objects in Saul’s early Ice Box Paintings.”
From Peter Saul: Pop, Funk, and Anti-Heroes by Martina Weinhart
Originally featured in Peter Saul, published in 2017 by Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt
“I painted a number of these Iceboxes and they were looked at carefully because of the coincidence of Pop Art, which I didn’t know anything about until six weeks after my show closed, sometime in February/March 1962 [...]
[Icebox #6] has the queen for a day. Housewife with big red cheeks and breasts that are 1½ feet long that stick right into the icebox. She has a long soft arm which holds a phone, which Superman, who is flying in from the other side of the canvas, is speaking into while a small red stick figure runs along the shelves, down, down.”
-Peter Saul discussing his Icebox series, from Peter Saul: Professional Artist Correspondence 1945-1976, transcribed and edited by Dan Nadel and published by Bad Dimension Press.
“The refrigerator was the fetish of 1950s consumer culture. If you thumb through magazines like LIFE, ads for the monster appliances leap out at you. Well stocked and neatly ordered: cola bottles in strict rows, here the dairy bar, there the butter dish, the shelf for eggs, the cheese keeper, an attractively packaged roast. “No messy ice trays,” we are promised. Provisioned in this way, you are ready for anything. The refrigerator became a symbol of affluent society. lt spoke to middle-class yearnings in the postwar period, a time characterized by home sweet home, Tide euphoria, and consumer marvels. In his Mythologies Roland Barthes rightly notes: “the whole implemental paradise of magazines, like Elle or L'Express, which glorifies the closure of the hearth, is aproned and slippered introversion, everything which busies home life, infantilizes it, accentuates its innocence, and severs it from a widened social responsibility.” A small house in the suburbs, the husband earning the money, the wife keeping house. Peter Saul's Ice Boxes are the antithesis of this well-ordered universe. They are more reminiscent of Pandora's box.”
“This is one of the last paintings I made in Europe before returning to the United States in 1964, and I think I’m getting more conscious of how to paint the subject and skip the art style. And also, of course, I become aware by this time that my work is viewed humorously. So I’m into jokes. I noticed a lack of jokes in Modern Art – mostly it was very serious. So I felt I was contributing more by putting the jokes in then trying to have a serious attitude, which was already exemplified by a vast number of artists. There were a large number of artists, very serious, in 1964, thinking about art.
However, this is jokes about medical attention. It looks like specimens of the body have been placed under a bell jar on the left, priced at $29, and that 29 is written by a fountain pen, which is absorbing money. And of course the “Ouchwitz” word refers to the concentration camp, a forbidden subject. I never pay any attention to what is appropriate or not when I paint. So that’s neither here nor there. There’s a dog howling, who knows why, a hammer pounding, hatchets. There’s a duck with a red cross.
It’s partly about invention. Partly about flow of consciousness, letting your brain be free to make up anything it wants to, on any level, at any time, and not be bound by serious rules at any time. I was already aware from reading Art International magazine in 1964. That was the only one that was available and of course it was a very serious magazine. It had a lot of people explaining the importance something that I looked at, but it was not trying to be interesting. So I thought I’d try to be interesting, and make a painting that would hopefully be something to look at, at least.”
- Peter Saul, discussing “Mad Docter”, 1964 (above)
A Letter from Rome
Excerpted from Peter Saul: Professional Artist Correspondence 1945-1976, edited and annotated by Dan Nadel. Bad Dimension Press, Los Angeles, 2020.
It will no doubt be as you say that pop art will be short-lived, as far as the galleries and collectors are concerned. However, I disagree with this prediction as regards what the artists will do. Pop art is going to last 6 or 7 years anyway, in my opinion, because it will take that long for the lesser members, the [Tom] Wesselmanns and [Jim] Dines, etc., to fill in all the holes. Del Monte cans etc. have a way of giving a new twist (utterly false of course) to tired ideas. We have yet to see it combined with junk sculpture, cubism, impressionism, etc. I’m sure it’s being done this term in the art schools and will hit the galleries in the next couple of years, unless, as you say, the important people tire of it, the collectors, magazines, etc. It will be a sort of limbo, not exactly without merit and yet dead as a doornail.
I think it’s useless to deny that I am a pop artist because any fool can see these Supermen, Del Monte cans, etc. in my work. It may be too timid to try and deny it. Why not try and come to terms with it? Can I be considered “pop” without being connected with the others? Which way is there any commercial advantage? You can present me as one of the first of the pop artists if you want because I got the idea in October 1955 in a movie house in St. Louis and by March 1956 I had already produced cars, motorboats, Olympic skiers, etc. Unfortunately, I have little work extant of that period, only a few pieces. If not that then you can point out that it is not the commercial culture per se which is in my work but the morals and psychology that are built on it and the commercial art itself plays a secondary role. I have always been influenced by Beckmann’s work, but restrict the influence of abstract-exp. to de Kooning himself, like for instance his Gotham News period. I am a humanistic type.
It’s with great reluctance I feel bad toward this “pop” thing that’s going on. Only because it looks so bad, especially Wesselmann and Dine—how can people who have spent years examining the fine points of de Kooning etc. now be interested in second-string people like them? The reality of art collectors is beyond me, obviously. I have 5 new iceboxes lined up. The 4 that you have had were all flat icebox outlines with the stuff set against it, sometimes with a slight illusion of inner space. These all begin with the reality of the icebox itself and proceed to the reality of the stuff inside.
One [Icebox #9, 1963] begins with utter realism: I copied an icebox advertisement from Paris Match and set it in a room with a skyblue wall and a lead-red floor together with a man, a mad salesman running beside it with a Coke bottle in each hand. From the waist up he’s realistic and from the waist down he’s cartoon with green and yellow polka dots and long green rubbery legs. He has a crown on his head, king for a day. When it dries I’m going to distort the icebox to match him. Another is wavy outline on dark brown with all sorts of closed compartments coming open to reveal beefsteaks, like sticking out your tongue. The top half is again figurative, lurid even, compared to the bottom. It is in 3 bands of color, red, blue, and yellow with a giant slingshot stuck in the door which is slinging other beefsteaks into some compartments. Two others proceed more from a cartoonist’s conception and become more real due to what’s added because to begin with they’re just boxes.
One [Icebox #6, 1963] has the queen for a day. Housewife with big red cheeks and breasts that are 1. feet long that stick right into the icebox. She has a long soft arm which holds a phone, which Superman, who is flying in from the other side of the canvas, is speaking into while a small red stick figure runs along the shelves, down, down. Another [Icebox, 1963] is a terrible scene which has the icebox attacking the queen who has a long neck, about 2 feet and 1 inch thick, with a branch coming off it that ends in a WC that has “defrost” written on it. That is from the amusing viewpoint. What excites me most is to see paintings standing side by side that proceed from different premises only to arrive at what I want in the end. Like one started out as a copy of a photo, another as a brown mess, and yet it made no difference. I also have a businessman, my first truly dark-colored painting.
“Fortunately, Abstract Expressionism turned out to be easy to do: just relax, splash the paint and it will give the picture a fresh look. In two weeks I was more or less an expert and was wondering what else should be on the canvas along with this “art style”, to give it some difference. To be successful with a viewer, to be actually looked at with interest, my picture would need to have some potential for being right or wrong, better or worse, in someone’s opinion, than some other picture.”
Life Story (Not a Life Story)
by Peter Saul
I’ve decided not to tell my life story over again: how I was born in San Francisco, went to art school in St. Louis, and so on. Not that it’s completely uninteresting. But I’ve already said it, to numerous interviewers.
Today I want to start at June 1950. That’s when I graduated from six years at a really, really crazy, old fashioned English style boarding school on Vancouver Island, western Canada. I’ve always described this place as a terrible experience, and it was, of course, with the beatings (which only occasionally drew a little blood), the racial prejudice (of the 80 boys, I was the only one accused of “having Jewish blood”, because of my biblical last name), and the general pain and misery.
But today, 68 years later, I want to see if I can think of something positive to say. Yes, it was very toughening. First of all, physically. All sports were compulsory, English football (I played hook and wing on the second fifteen), boxing, and cricket. This left me with a real hatred of “sports”. I’m absolutely not a team player. And I think that has had a big effect on my art, in that it never occurred to me to look for any group to belong to. If I ever knew the names of any professional sports teams, I’ve forgotten them, and I don’t care who wins at anything. Consequently, when I graduated from art school, it didn’t occur to me to go to New York, live in a loft, be one of the young artists getting to know Pollock, de Kooning etc. Instead, I wanted a romantic life – a beautiful room in a foreign country where I could paint my pictures. Something else needed? A beautiful woman and a lot of cigarettes to smoke would have been my simple answer.
Psychologically, the school was also very toughening. Waiting for an appointment to feel pain; waiting for a beating you know you’re going to get was grim, no fun. This gave me an appreciation of smoking, of why they always offer a condemned man a last cigarette. Taking a few puffs before and after the beating really helped a lot.
The antisemitism at the school was just one of these crazy things that suddenly starts, and equally suddenly stops. At age 10, I certainly didn’t know I was Jewish, my parents never attended a church: Sunday morning was for reading the comics and doing nothing. It’s probable I had never heard of the word “Jewish”. Now I was accused of this bad blood. I dared not ask my parents because how am I to know what kind of blood was in my veins? Maybe I really was Jewish. I protested! Kept on saying “I am not Jewish”. I think what happened after about 3 years is my mother gave me a beginner’s oil painting set and Saul the artist became more interesting to talk about than Saul the Jew. In a way it may have increased or deepened my capacity to have a sense of humor, to have lived a tiny mockery of the 20th Century’s worst event. Today, and possibly ever since then, if the picture I’m working on requires me to have a humorous attitude for freshness or vigor, I can do it. No kidding! I know it’s immature and probably wrong but I can laugh at anything. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to, just that I could if my picture asks me to.
Blame the picture!
So there I was in June 1950, needing to decide what to do with my life. Knowing very little (my only sources of information were my parents, Time and Life magazines, and Reader’s Digest), it seemed there were few options for men. Lacking any special talent like music, medicine or sports, it was either work in an office building where you wear a necktie, sit at a desk and talk about money, or push around cardboard boxes in a warehouse. If I’d known how to use the public library, or even where a public library was – because my parent’s home was in a remote suburb and I was too young to drive a car – it would have been possible for me to see more complexity in the work place, more choices.
I decided to be an artist based on my experience painting 10 or 12 little pictures on canvas boards. It seemed possible to get more interesting over time, and what I really liked about paint and canvas was you got to do it all by yourself, no permission or judgment from anyone, just a free-for-all of conflicting ideas, any one of which could be right or wrong in anyone's opinion. The opposite of mathematics, it really attracted me! Thanks to Time and Life, I was aware of some famous artists of the late 1940s. Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Utrillo. And in this country George Tooker (his "chess game" really astonished me - heavy psychology), and Jaskon Pollock in 1949 - his resemblance to the patterns usually found on linoleum seemed very daring. Unfortunately, I didn't read the accompanying article (by Clement Greenburg) explaining Pollock's importance. If i had would by life have been different? It didn't look interesting, so I skipped it. From Time magazine I kenw of Buffet and Dubuffet and remember also Graham Sutherland's portrait of Winston Churchill which made a big impression on me.
Twice I got to visit the San Francisco Art Museum with my mother, in 1947 and 1949 and saw the work of Karl Knaths anad Mark Tobey. There was only one art gallery in San Francisco I knew of but never visited. So when I decided to be an artist I probably knew as much about art as the average person, maybe a little more. When I told my parents I wanted to be an artist (in late 1951 or early 1952, it took time for me to work up my courage), they were totally, totally crushed - but only for about a half hour. Then they kind of accepted it, sadly realizing I would never be able to earn a living. They had seen me painting all the time and very much approved of the way I was enjoying my hobby, but at the same time had naturally hopes their only child would become an important person, an exectuive in a large company.
Now I want to skip ahead, past art school and a couple of years in Europe to March 1953. I'm on a train from Amsterdam to Paris with Vickie, my girlfriend from art school, with two suitcases and about 300 dollars. Finally going to one of the world's two art capitals (Paris and New York seemed to me then the only art capitals).
This is going to be a chance to exhibit my work in art gallery and sell it to art collectors, if I were to be lucky. But I would need an “art style”, something obvious and visual to repeat from one picture to the next. What could that be? As the train rattled along, that’s what I was thinking about. We’d been forced to leave Holland because we had been there over a year but had neglected to get visas. We were renting a couple of rooms in Bergen aan Zee, a tiny town in the north so Vicki could paint the local scene, sand dunes and forests, when all of a sudden the local policeman asked to see our passports and told us politely that we would have to leave the next day.
In Paris I found studio space in the American Student and Artist’s Club, on Boulevard Raspail. The place had an atelier on the top floor where anyone with an American passport could paint. It only cost $12 a year and you had to wear a necktie to cross the lobby and walk up the stairs. Not crowded at all, never more than 5 or 6 artists there, including me. I decided to abandon my “principles” which were, basically, to be as singular as possible, and to “join up”, try to take part in the abstract-expressionist art movement I was acquainted with through reading Art News magazine back in Art School. The mere handful of people I knew up to this point all agreed that to be sold, a picture had to have the Abstract Expressionist “look”.
This was undoubtedly a very stupid decision I made. Unknown to me, the more sophisticated people in the art world were getting tired of ab-ex just at the very moment I was starting to do it. Why was I so isolated? So unknowing of what was going on? There is no good reason. Today, looking back I see I have always enjoyed a certain amount of isolation. Right now I have very little idea of what is going on in New York which is only two hours away. Fortunately, Abstract Expressionism turned out to be easy to do: just relax, splash the paint and it will give the picture a fresh look.
There was a large table with various magazines for collectors of American culture like Photoplay and Confidential. One was Mad. It reminded me of when I was 7 or 8, with titles like “Crime does not pay”, except better, looser thinking, more of a joke. It simply occurred to me, standing there thumbing through this magazine that there was a rule I could break. My next picture could tell a story. For reasons unknown, “serious” artists weren’t telling stories in 1958. Perhaps they were all under the influence of Cézanne, or perhaps they had no story or form to say it in. Looking back, from right now, in 2018, it occurs to me when I find one of these “rules” good artists tend to obey, I feel very, very lucky and get right to work breaking the rule, if I can. And hoping I’m first to do so. Of course in recent decades this is much harder to do because a lot of artists realize the fun + opportunity in breaking any rule and practically no one wants to be in the foolish position of obeying a “rule” to start with.
So I put the magazine down, went directly to where I was working at the American Students and Artist’s Club, stretched a new canvas and got right to work. As I remember it, a large cigarette package had a hand with a gun which was shooting a number of bullets into an abstract shape that said “ow”. I forget how I continued, but during the next couple of months I got Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Dick Tracy’s enemies Moleman, Flattop and Pruneface, electric chair, Smokey Stover – what I was able to remember, into my pictures. This produced kind of a “story”, not exactly translatable into words and yet an obvious narrative that surprised me because usually I didn’t know what would happen next. By about September, five months after arriving in Paris, my “art style” was complete. However, it took me until sometime in 1960 to make successful contact with galleries.
Looking back, I think I was able to figure out very quickly how to paint an interesting-to-look-at picture. On that score, I feel proud of myself. However, I had no idea how to be an interesting person. I expected my pictures to do all the work, simply make the viewer say “wow!” all by themselves, while I remained at home, relaxed. That’s unrealistic! Every object, from the Mona Lisa on down, is entirely helpless without the help of a lot of people’s enthusiasm, which has to start with the artist him or herself. I failed to realize the obvious fact that it’s impossible to become an interesting person except in the opinion of other people. After I turned seventy-five, some people began to think of me as an interesting person, a lucky break!
In two weeks I was more or less an expert and was wondering what else should be on the canvas along with this “art style”, to give it some difference. To be successful with a viewer, to be actually looked at with interest, my picture would need to have some potential for being right or wrong, better or worse, in someone’s opinion, than some other picture.
So I found some photos of common commercial objects – ice cream cones, cars, cigarettes, etc. – and put them in the picture which turned out not to be so easy because Ab-ex looks great by itself but is pretty hopeless for making a convincing image of something on a canvas. After a couple more weeks of effort, I decided to simply accept the lack of unity, some parts of the picture would be totally loose and abstract, other parts “tighter”, representing “things”, cars, cigarettes and so on.
I now had a few pictures the few visitors to the atelier could look at with interest. Who were the visitors? I don’t know. There were occasional social functions in the building and small groups of people, probably French, who would wander in to the atelier to see what the artists were doing. I watched these occasional visitors very carefully, out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes they seemed very pleased with my pictures, laughed and pointed.
That was a good sign. Glad to be entertaining! On the other hand it was disquieting because if there’s one certainty about “modern” art, it’s that in order to please a select handful of supposedly important viewers, it has to displease a lot of the others, appear wrong or nonsensical if not worse. My problem was solved when I wandered into the Mistral bookstore.
I failed to realize the obvious fact that it’s impossible to become an interesting person except in the opinion of other people. After I turned seventy-five, some people began to
think of me as an interesting person, a lucky break!
Anyway, with financial pressure removed, thanks to Allan Frumkin in New York and Denise Breteau in Paris, I was totally free from about 1960 onwards. Vicki and I celebrated by moving to Rome, Italy in 1962. It seemed to us a more luxurious lifestyle would be available there, and more sunshine.
Now I’m skipping ahead to 1984. I’m 50 years old and while I was a famous artist in 1962, I’ve gradually become little known, a sort of respected “cult artist”. But this unfortunate professional decline has been barely noticeable because my life has become so pleasant. I’ve been re-married for over 10 years, to Sally, totally happy this time. And I’ve become an expert at painting very disturbing pictures in a glamorous way: subway massacre, various people in the electric chair, Oedipus Jr., Girl Trouble and so on – what I regard as my mature work.
So why paint this “gloom and doom” if I’m so happy? It’s a question I was often asked and often couldn’t think of an answer. Finally, my oldest son, who is not a fan of my art, said “you only paint these things because they’re not you”. That sounds like the right answer, and it fits in with my lifelong tendency to seek catastrophic or violent subjects, usually historical and often fictional. Sort of like knocking on wood for good luck, but also for laughs because you don’t believe in luck anyway.
Of course I’ve had a lot of sincere and intelligent criticism from professional critics, curators and thinkers for not being honest with myself, true to my beliefs, origins, etc. Well, yes, I am going to paint any picture that occurs to me as interesting to look a at. However, over the years I’ve gone from needing zero approval to a much more normal attitude, where a good review is worth a bottle of champagne.
Before going on, I want to go back, to 1965. After 8 years in Europe, I’d just returned to the U.S. and was living in a small town just north of San Francisco. The subjects I’d been painting – Donald Duck in the electric chair, Mickey Mouse versus the Japs, and so on, did not seem interesting to continue. I wanted something new. But what? Where? Just like years before when I picked up an example of Mad comic book in the Mistral bookstore, this time I looked in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, and there was everything my art needed. Page 1, Vietnam War. Page 2, drugs and crimes committed by lunatics. I just put the whole thing on one big canvas. In the long run it turned out a lucky break that I was able to contrast with all the other New York art shows which were totally involved in technical contrasts like the shape of canvas, the thickness of paint, and had zero humanistic content. But back then, 1968 or ’69, I couldn’t figure out why my pictures weren’t getting any appreciation.
Now I want to zoom ahead to 2000. After 19 years, I’ve just retired from my teaching job in Austin, Texas. It was a pleasure! Not only is teaching “modern” art very easy money – open your mouth twice a week and who knows what spontaneous wisdom may come out of it, but at the same time teaching trains your voice to actually sound more convincing. Year by year, you sound, at least to yourself, like more of an authority, more expert at whatever you talk about. So, Sally and I move to New York, to perhaps enjoy more normal art careers, something we weren’t able to do before, me because of my silly fears from early experiences described in this essay, Sally because of her modesty.
How’s it going after 18 years in or near the art capital? Fine. We’re right in the middle of things. I still want to be an outsider – to some extent. It embarrasses me slightly that I now hire someone to stretch and prime my canvasses. On the other hand it’s nice to have plenty of money. Sally has a lot more energy + interest in people than I do. Concerning “art”, it still makes me laugh that anyone ever believed in any idea of it. I actually have always considered all hand painted pictures about equal. If there’s a difference between them it’s that some are carried through more confidently than others. It’s just so called “intelligent + educated” opinion that separates the good from the bad. And I hope I’m still bad, at least most of the time, because it’s more unusual and fun to look at. From visiting art shows and art schools, I’d say, with typical exaggeration, there’s a 100 good pictures for every bad one.
If there’s a difference between painting a picture right now, in 2018, and 60 years ago 1958 when I first arrived in Paris, it’s that I’m not concerned with “art style” anymore. Instead I’m more concerned with the individuality of the picture. When it comes to actual painting, I let the subject matter guide me, as much as possible.