From satirical works of Stalin to his social commentary on food and sex, Peter Saul on not taking his work too seriously and why he loves Pop Art more now than before
The recognition of Peter Saul’s surrealist and cartoonish paintings only really started to gain momentum in the past 20 years, with art critics and students of fine art alike becoming enthralled by a social commentary that is consumed by a lack of seriousness. Combining an unapologetic critique of pop culture with an overriding detachment from the subject matter, this painter creates provocative imagery that laughs in the face of a politically correct society.
Peter has been dubbed the “father of pop art” because of his ties to the movement from the 1950s onwards, but while others abandoned the practice in subsequent years he stayed true to his roots. “I love it more today than I did in the 50s,” he says, championing painting as a medium that has “lost its sex appeal” in the digital age. However, a renewed nostalgia for creatives who tackle contemporary issues with brush strokes has seen Saul come to be revered by the liberal left. Having previously taken on controversial topics such as the Vietnam War, Ronald Regan and Joseph Stalin, he understandably represents a crucial point in time but lacks the clear progressive mantra many millennials are seeking – and that’s no bad thing. Saul describes himself as “having the wrong attitude” when it comes to his more controversial work; on-the-one-hand he recognises the late Russian dictator as a mass murderer but on the other, he sees him as a comical figure.
“Probably painting has lost a lot of ‘sex appeal.’ For this, I blame art schools where too much time is spent talking, not enough painting. No, maybe it’s worse than that, it’s actually ‘dead.’ But so what!” – Peter Saul
By distorting and playing around with his subjects, often in a crude and sexualised manner, this artist arrives at poignant and at times hilarious conclusions, but it’s not obvious what those conclusions exactly are. His latest exhibition entitled Some Terrible Problems, which is currently being shown at the Michael Werner Gallery in London, incorporates Peter’s trademark style with an added dose of loony expressionism.
Now in his 80s, the San Franciscan is extending his lifelong piss take of consumerist America with a collection of paintings involving sex, food, religion, art appreciation and the cubism, surrealism and pop movements. “There is nothing overall that I’m trying to say, no idea of art or conviction about it,” he explains, “the only requirement is the subject matter has to interest me enough to paint it.” While the increasingly internet-driven art world is awash with explosive social commentary, it’s refreshing to encounter an artist painting for paint’s sake. The end product may be one of fervent significance but it precedes intention; a chicken-egg dichotomy so to speak. We chatted to Saul about his latest exhibition, the legacy of painting and his ‘hands-off’ approach to the modern art scene.
Tell me about your latest exhibition. What was the influence for it? What are you trying to say, if anything?
Peter Saul: I paint picture by picture. The only requirement is the subject matter has to interest me enough to paint it. There is nothing overall I am trying to say, no idea of art or conviction about it.
In what ways is it an extension of your previous work?
Peter Saul: As far as I can tell this is the way I’ve always worked. I look for a subject that intrigues me and hope I can make it interesting to viewers.
What is the relevance of food within your paintings? And sex?
Peter Saul: It’s true – a number of my pictures seem to involve food and sex. However, of the seven pictures in this show, my first in London, only two involve food, “Abstract Expressionist Still Life,” and “Cowboy’s Last Drink?” One of the pictures, “Snapped” involves sex. Of the other four pictures in the show, one involves religion, one involves art appreciation and two are about the art movement “cubism” mixed with “surrealism” and “pop.”
There is a lot of humour in your paintings. Are you interested in being taken seriously?
Peter Saul: There’s always going to be some unhappy realisation the artist has to face up to, in my case a severe lack of seriousness. But so what? I’ve actually never given it a thought in 65 years of painting.
How has the political and social climate of today shaped and changed your artwork?
Peter Saul: I think the political and social climate of today has shaped my work a great deal. I want my pictures to be part of the culture. On the other hand, I keep an apartment a 10-minute walk from the Metropolitan Museum in NY and go there frequently to look closely at pictures from the past and continue to paint my versions of famous subjects like “The Nightwatch”, “Sardanapalus”, “Guernica” and “Napolean Crossing the Alps”.
Are you trying to be overtly political, or does it just come out in your work?
Peter Saul: I don’t know. “Politics” seems to be involved in many of my pictures, so I must have thought it would be interesting to look at.
“There’s always going to be some unhappy realisation the artist has to face up to, in my case a severe lack of seriousness. But so what? I’ve actually never given it a thought in 65 years of painting” – Peter Saul
How do you choose your subjects? For example, Stalin featured heavily in some of your work.
Peter Saul: Stalin appears three times in pictures a few years ago. I think I have the wrong attitude. On the one hand, I know he’s a bad guy who killed millions of people. On the other hand, he makes me laugh, especially if I shorten him to about 3 feet 6 inches. I hope to paint him again in the future. He’s a good subject. I began using him in a picture titled “Hitler’s Bunker” in which he assists Eisenhower in finishing off Hitler.
How do you feel about being dubbed ‘the father of pop art’? Do you see yourself carrying on the legacy of that era?
Peter Saul: It makes me very happy to be dubbed “the father of pop art.” It’s extremely flattering. However, it’s not true because “pop art” was a spontaneous eruption in about 20 places – a sudden realisation of new subject matter! What might distinguish me is I never outgrew it, but I love it more today than back in the 1950s when it first occurred to me.
What are your thoughts about the digitisation of art today, particularly by younger artists? Has painting lost its appeal? And why does it appeal to you?
Peter Saul: I haven’t had time to look into digitisation of art, so can say nothing about it. Probably painting has lost a lot of “sex appeal.” For this, I blame art schools where too much time is spent talking, not enough painting. No, maybe it’s worse than that, it’s actually “dead.” But so what! There’s no law against painting and I continue to make it look better and better – a visual improvement.
How has the reception to your paintings in the art world changed over the years?
Peter Saul: Over the last 20 years, there’s been big improvement in the appreciation of my work. I feel lucky indeed! However, I can see no way to predict art appreciation. It can come or go. I advise paying as little attention to it as possible. On the one hand, you need to know what’s going on out there to be a professional artist. On the other hand, if you get too involved, your thinking will be distorted and you’ll lose your independence of vision.
What’s next for you?
Peter Saul: Currently, I’m painting “Donald Duck Nightwatch” – a large and hopefully glamorous new version of the Rembrandt masterpiece. After that comes “Alamo #2,” a new version of my own picture from 1990. Then “Global Warming” – a new subject for me, perhaps two pictures, one of which will feature Donald Trump boiling in hot water. That’s for my next show at Mary Boone. After that, I want to get more abstract, on shaped canvasses. I want to zig and zag, paint pictures one by one.
Some Terrible Problems continues at Michael Werner until 5 November 2016. See a video of Saul, made exclusively for the exhibition, below: