PETER SAUL (B. 1934)
PETER SAUL (B. 1934)
PETER SAUL (B. 1934)
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PETER SAUL (B. 1934)
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PETER SAUL (B. 1934)

Human Dignity

PETER SAUL (B. 1934)
Human Dignity
signed and dated 'SAUL '66' (lower left)
acrylic, metallic paint, oil and ink on canvas
58 7/8 x 59 in. (149.5 x 149.9 cm.)
Executed in 1966.
Allan Frumkin Gallery, Chicago and New York, acquired directly from the artist
Estate of Allan Frumkin, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
R. Brem, “Neon, Op, Pop – – It’s All In International,” The Pittsburgh Press, 26 October 1967, p. 2.
D. Vorpahl, “Social Comment Exhibition Theme,” Post-Crescent, 25 February 1968, p. C14.
“Unusual Show Opens,” Daily Northwestern, 6 March 1968, p. 15.
“Paintings Speak Out,” The Wooster Voice, 1 November 1968, p. 3.
“A Little Bit of Relaxation and a Bit of Dignity,” Omaha World Herald, 8 January 1969, p. 14 (illustrated).
Peter Saul: New Paintings and Works on Paper, exh. cat., New York, Allan Frumkin Gallery, 1987, n.p. (illustrated).
D. Kuspit, “Peter Saul: Frumkin/Adams,” Artforum, February 1991, p. 122.
Peter Saul, exh. cat., Les Sables d’Olonne, Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix, 1999, p. 50 (illustrated).
D. McCarthy, “Defending Allusion: Peter Saul on the Aesthetics of Rhetoric,” Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 46, nos. 3-4, Fall 2007, p. 50 (in situ view illustrated).
R. Smith, “A Firebrand Willing to Offend,” New York Times, 13 March 2015, p. C23 (illustrated).
Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2019, p. 17, fig. 11 (illustrated).
E. Pricco, “Crime and Punishment: Peter Saul Finally Gets His First NYC Survey @ New Museum,” JUXTAPOZ, 19 February 2020 (illustrated).
J. Arn, “Is Peter Saul’s Gross-Out Painting Political?,” Art in America, April 2020, pp. 83-84.
B. Hainley, et al., Peter Saul, New York, 2021, p. 120 (illustrated).
Bologna, Galleria de’ Foscherari 60, Peter Saul, November-December 1967, no. 10.
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, October 1967-January 1968, p. 317, no. 301.
Appleton, Worcester Art Center at Lawrence University; Ithaca, Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University; Brunswick, Bowdoin College Museum of Art; Haas Gallery of Art at Bloomsburg State College; Art Center at College of Wooster; Milo Ball Student Center at University of Nebraska at Omaha; Greencastle, DePauw University Art Center; Sloan Galleries of American Painting at Valparaiso University and Mankato State College, Social Comment in American Art: An Exhibition Circulated by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 1968-June 1969, no. 68.457 (illustrated).
DeKalb, Swen Parson Gallery at Northern Illinois University and Madison Art Center, Peter Saul: Retrospective, November 1980-March 1981, p. 20 (illustrated).
New York and Chicago, Phyllis Kind Gallery, Human Concern/Personal Torment: The Grotesque in American Art Revisited, October 1989-January 1990, p. 23 (illustrated).
New York, Frumkin/Adams Gallery, Peter Saul: Political Paintings: 1965-1971, October-November 1990, p. 5 (illustrated).
Costa Mesa, Orange County Museum of Art; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and New Orleans, Contemporary Arts Center, Peter Saul: A Retrospective, June 2008-May 2009, n.p., pl. 25 (illustrated).
New York, Venus Over Manhattan, Peter Saul: From Pop to Punk, February-April 2015, pp. 34-35 (illustrated).
New York, New Museum, Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment, February 2020-January 2021, p. 109 and 182 (illustrated).

Brought to you by

Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Human Dignity is a groundbreaking painting in which Peter Saul challenges America to consider its ever increasing role in global politics. Painted in 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, Saul uses his signature style to test the limits of what painting is capable of. Going further than Warhol ever dared, by combining hyperchromatic Day-Glo colors, caricatures of American culture, and motifs taken directly from Vietnam, Saul looks to force his audience to directly confront their own feelings as to the legitimacy of the war. Described by the New York Times critic Roberta Smith as “an early masterpiece” (R. Smith, “Review: ‘Peter Saul: From Pop to Punk,’ a Firebrand Willing to Offend,” New York Times, March 12, 2015), Human Dignity sits alongside other examples from this important body of work, many of which are now in public museum collections including Saigon (1967, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), White Nurse (1965, the Art Institute of Chicago), and Little Joe in Hanoi (1968, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dole).

Exhibited at the 1967 Pittsburgh International, and subsequently at several of the artist’s important retrospectives including most recently at New York’s New Museum in 2020, Human Dignity emerged from Saul’s formative years in the San Francisco Bay Area. It presents a phantasmagoria composed of bold psychedelic colors. Floating above the palm trees are three figures, including one—emblazoned with the work’s title across their chest—that evokes a Superman like superhero, a striking symbol of American cultural hegemony. Additionally, as noted by Smith, an American G.I. mounted on a soft, white polka-dot cross “a little like Wonder Bread packaging” (Ibid.). This Pop sensibility—putting American cultural and commercial power under the microscope—expands on the detached coolness of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein by incorporating a much more biting form of social critique. Human Dignity wears its heart on its sleeve, unafraid to be loud, bold, and decisive. An outsider for much of his career, Saul is able to look at American culture and politics with a fresh, incisive gaze.

In Human Dignity, Saul adopts evokes the radical nature of some of his artistic heroes, including Paul Cadmus and Mike Kelley. Kelley’s work in particular has strong parallels with present work, in that it adopts a level of idiosyncratic language to jolt the viewer into considered introspection. The influence of the Bay Area can also be seen in the cartoonish figures that evoke the psychodelia of the 1960s. Yet within this naiveite lies difficult and pressing topics. Text plays a large part in the work; the painting’s title is emblazed on the central figure, for example. In addition, to reinforce this Saul stamps the green soldier’s helmet with the moniker “White Garbage.” The rest of the soldier’s uniform bursts open to reveal a dripping red chest that recalls the strange bodies of Paul Gauguin’s sinewy The Yellow Christ (1889). Saul cleverly melds together these formal histories with his own fundamental commentary.

The artist described the essence of Human Dignity on the occasion of his retrospective at the New Museum, “I wanted [my] political art…not to be in the middle. My feeling about politics in art is that it’s usually feeble, because it delivers the expected message. The expected message is dead on arrival, because all it does is point out that the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. I wanted work that was far, far more troubling. If a picture isn’t troubling, why even think about it?” (P. Saul, “Audio Guide: Human Dignity,” New York, New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2020-2021, In Human Dignity, Saul achieves this in full, the hypocrisy and grotesque horrors of war are on full display. As the artist himself notes, “To be not shocking means to be furniture” (P. Saul, quoted by M. Isreal, “Disasters of War,” in M. Gioni & G. Carrion-Murayari, Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment, exh. cat. New Museum, New York, 2020, p. 35).

As critic Donald Kuspit writes of Saul’s paintings, “It is their expressive bravado—their sheer physical opulence and sardonic intensity—that gives them extraordinary carrying power, and keeps them from becoming moralistic and farcically punitive, like so much politically oriented art” (D. Kuspit, “Peter Saul: Frumkin/Adams,” Artforum, February 1991, Unsurprisingly, Saul’s extraordinary career over six decades has been met with widespread acclaim as he turns 88 this year. His 1999 retrospective toured France, and his 2008 retrospective, curated by Dan Cameron, travelled from the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans. In 2010, Saul was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“If a picture isn’t troubling, why even think about it?” - Peter Saul

Human Dignity predicts Saul’s influential career and sets the stage for many decades of pressing and rigorous painterly interventions into art history and culture at large. He has pioneered a style completely his own within the Pop art vernacular by remaining as dedicated to the properties of paint as he is to the politics he represents. Human Dignity reminds us that the role of art has always been to elevate humanity and provide outlets for humanistic discussion. Saul’s oeuvre has always accomplished this mandate, especially in the face of controversial global events. The surreal, shocking colors and forms of Human Dignity ensure that we know it is a Peter Saul, and yet its subjects are universal and timeless; indeed, Human Dignity is a history painting for modern times.

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