Contemporary Art

David Salle on How To See Art

By Alexandra Owens

NEW YORK – In his new book How to See: Looking, Talking and Thinking About Art (Norton), the painter David Salle asks and answers the fundamental questions of how to teach someone to look at art and – ultimately – what makes a work good. Still, speaking with Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison at a conversation on 6 November in celebration of his book’s release, Salle was quick to distinguish himself from the typical critic. “The premise for the book is to talk about art the way artists talk about art,” he told the crowd at Sotheby’s. “Which is much more prosaic – almost mechanistic. I think works of art can be talked about as if they have personalities.” Take, for example, this excerpt of his description of Jeff Koons:

"If abstract painting expresses the idea 'You are what you do,' and pop art expresses the idea 'You are what you like,' then Koons’s art says, 'You are what other people like.'"

LISA DENNISON AND DAVID SALLE. PHOTO: JULIAN CASSADY.

Similarly, Salle suggests that when viewing art, one should rely on your eyes above all else. “That first impression is something we can trust to a certain extent,” he says. Wall labels, audio guides and background information should only come second. “Not to say that type of thing is not important, but the supposed meaning or intention of a work can be hard to get around once you frontload it into the experience.”

DAVID SALLE. PHOTO: JULIAN CASSADY.

As for his own work, which can be found in the permanent collections of institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Salle is continuing to paint – a process he describes as more difficult than writing. “After inhabiting other people’s work like I have been, it’s interesting to come back around to myself.”

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