Spanning over three metres wide, Mr. Lucky (1998) is a rich and compelling painting by David Salle. It is constructed of three large canvases, which interact in a dreamlike panorama of juxtaposition and association. A horizontal top panel sets a pair of golden angel busts amid a downpour of white brushstrokes reminiscent of Robert Ryman; a vertical panel depicts a still life of fish on a plate, hovering in an abstract blue field; the largest section holds a bleached picture of a Modernist living room, over which float the ghostly outline of a guitar and an orange, raindrop-filled star. The star is in fact itself a shaped, separate canvas, set flush within the larger panel. This complex construction is typical of Salle’s works from this period, which would bring the millennium to a close with a major travelling European retrospective opening at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1999. Suggestive formal rhymes inflect Mr. Lucky’s composition. The dabs of white, the star’s droplets and the vertical blue strokes – together curiously evocative of rainfall – are echoed in the rustic stone wall-cladding of the living room: abstract pattern and depicted surface are placed on the same decorative plane. Dabs of gold within the blue panel answer the warm hue of the angels. The interior, ranging from the stone wall to a Navajo rug, Modernist furniture and slick glass conservatory, has a mid-century eclecticism that speaks to Salle’s own signature clashing of styles, images and pastiche. Yet as with all of Salle’s work, Mr. Lucky refuses to be decoded. Despite layering them with captivating, ambiguous figuration, he intends his paintings to be only about themselves. He regards his second-hand sources, which often include advertisements and magazines of the fifties and sixties, as no more than a pretext for the relational music of form, scale and colour. ‘Images are just stuff’, he reflected recently. ‘Experience – and, in an even more heightened way, painting – is the ordering of stuff. In a way, that’s the only distinction that has to be made’ (D. Salle, quoted in B. Walsh, ‘What Words Fail to Describe: The Paintings of David Salle’, Forbes, 29 September 2017).
Salle came of age in the explosive 1980s New York scene, where Neo-Expressionism and Appropriation Art reigned supreme. Having been declared dead during the Minimal and Conceptual dominion of the preceding decades, painting roared back to life. ‘In Salle’s case,’ wrote Peter Schjeldahl in 1982, ‘withering hyperconsciousness of painting’s historically deadened condition, made manifest with painting’s own tools, ends up giving painting a vitality and conviction it hasn’t enjoyed in many years’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘David Salle’, in The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990, Berkeley 1991, p. 120). Salle’s works, however, while often spoken of as the first to explicitly tackle ‘postmodernity’ in art, were not merely commentaries on a specific moment in visual culture. Their content and modus operandi have remained remarkably consistent over the following years, bespeaking an intense, suspended focus that sits apart from the real world, and stamps these seemingly impersonal paintings with a sensibility as distinct as it is elusive. Art, for Salle, needn’t have a ‘subject’ any more than a piece of music. His approach to the canvas is that of a composer or performer. ‘I am trying to do two things that are seemingly contradictory,’ he explains, ‘but are actually complimentary. One is immediate visual impact. The second is that the image unfolds slowly over time, and repays prolonged looking. To that end, there is a great deal of consideration put into the structural underpinnings. How the compositions are made to work as structures that hold these things, or contain these things. There are certain rhythms and velocities, and directions that the eye gets engaged with’ (D. Salle, quoted in B. Walsh, ibid.). With its hallucinatory aura and subtle, commanding assonances of shape and tone, Mr. Lucky sees a maestro of simultaneity at play.