David Salle

mickyates Art, Documentary, Falmouth, Figures, MA, Masters, Painterly, Photography Leave a Comment

So why should I be fascinated with David Salle’s work?

On the one hand, his fugitive style was a welcome break from conceptual art and minimalism – although he continued to work with monochrome fields. Whilst he was influenced by ‘Pop Art’, and in fact used photographs extensively in his work, Salle is not a story-teller.

He was more interested in renewing painting, to create new vocabularies, now defined as post-modernism.

Unitled (Camus), 1976
mixed media on paper
108 x 156 inches

He was  influenced by Minimalism, though he wanted painting to do more. Similar to Minimalist works, his canvases use scale and (monochromatic) colour.

And there is no beginning or end in his work. It just ‘is’.

Rainy Night in Rubber City, 1980
acrylic and conte crayon on canvas
58 x 88 inches

His work is always epic, demanding attention. I am not going to get into his subject matter – in early days he  featured female nudes, occasionally bordering but not quite being pornography – and occasionally he was criticised because of that.

More relevantly, he used tracings of photographs that he took to create drawings before he painted, so the figures often have a radically ‘posed’ look.

From the essay Ghost Paintings (2013):

‘The figures that populate Salle’s canvases are .. appropriated. … Almost all of the figurative motifs in his paintings derive from scenarios that he staged in his studio, photographed, and then reworked as fragments in his canvas’. (pg 9)

What also attracts me is that Salle’s canvases became more complex. I have seen many exhibitions of his work, and find it is hard to walk past any one of his paintings and not ponder awhile. I think it has a lot to do with his intention. The ‘slow down and look’ effect on the audience seems exactly what he planned.

Kevin Power, in the catalogue for the show at the Staatsgalerie in Munch in 1989, described Salle’s work as having ‘fields’ and ‘screens’. The ‘field’ is an open, inclusive place where things come together, in harmony though with disconnection. ‘Screens’ use layers of imagery, with shallow depth, to create new perspectives.

Salle projected an almost endless series of styles and themes onto his canvases from the world (and history) of plastic art – yet somehow the end result appears deceptively simple.  Carter Ratcliffe, in the Boymans catalogue, says:

‘In all their vexed complexity, [the paintings] take on the air of the simple, the self-evident, the given’. (pg 38)

Coral Made, 1985
acrylic and oil on canvas with wood
108 x 168.25 inches

So, Salle was instrumental in re-invigorating painting. The first time we saw Salle was at the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, in 1983. Ingrid and I visited what was his first one-man show outside of a commercial gallery.

I was especially intrigued by the diptychs Salle employed. Each half complements the other, yet also stands alone. As Beeren, in the Boymans catalogue questions:

‘To what extent is it possible to see twice 50% as not being 100% each’? (pg 20)

His diptychs have come back to my mind as I grapple with the Cambodia project.

My latest WIP took separate, yet parallel tracks, with negatives and positives. As I think about how to move this work forward, and eventually to present it, there is much to learn from Salle’s diptychs.

Miner, 1985
acrylic, oil, wood tables wtih metal frames and fabric on canvas
96 x 162.25 inches

Yet, as noted above, Salle was not (and still isn’t) a classical storyteller. There is never a clear narrative in any one image – and even the titles rarely resonate with the subject matter. Nor is there a sequence of images. Each is unique.

He thus lets his work stand on its own terms, not quite with the sterility of ‘art for arts sake’, but close. Salle creates images which tend to ignore both the subject and the audience. They demand attention, but to what end?

Carter Ratcliffe, in the Boymans catalogue, writes:

‘He presents us with artworks that deserve to be seen first as artworks, as visual forms’. (pg 25)

Is that something I need to explore, to break through the rather pedestrian approaches of traditional documentary work?

We’ll Shake the Bag, 1980
acrylic on canvas
48 x 72 inches

Salle’s work is film-like, with fleeting and haunting imagery, always carefully drafted. Yet somehow the totality stands higher than any of the components in his work, wherever it is ‘borrowed’ from.

When I first saw his work, each canvas felt complete, context not necessary.

Ironically each canvas IS a a form of story in its totality, but not in its details.

Poverty Is No Disgrace, 1982
oil, acrylic, and chair on canvas
72 x 96 inches

I have noted before how this MA keeps inviting to dig into my art heritage, and then hopefully move my image making forward in new ways.

In his opening comments on the Boymans catalogue, Beeren suggests that Salle’s work had progressed:

‘… from a  deliberate planning of the visual information within a rigid framework towards a violent presentation, aggressively rendered on a massive surface‘. (pg 17)

The Blue Room, 1982
oil and acrylic on canvas
90 x 177 inches

Let’s see where David Salle takes me.

Some early experiments.


Beeren, W.A. L. & Schoon, Talitha (Eds). 1983. David Salle. Rotterdam: Museum Boymans van Beunigen.

Fuchs, R., Mignot, D. & Mulder, A. 1999. David Salle. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Mileaf, Jean (Forward). 2013. Ghost Paintings: David Salle in Conversation with Hal Foster. Chicago: Arts Club of Chicago.

Power, Kevin. 1989. David Salle: Seeing it My Way. Munich: Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst.

Images from:

Salle, David. 2018. Website. Available at: http://www.davidsallestudio.net. (Accessed 16.10.2018).

Back to the Beginning

mickyates Art, B&W, Burton on Trent, Colour, Documentary, Falmouth, film, FilmIsNotDead, India, MA, Masters, Original artwork, Photography, Photoshop, Travel, United Kingdom Leave a Comment

As part of my MA, I was asked to review my earliest work and reflect: What do you see in it? Thought I’d post my answers here.

I have to really start at the beginning here. I was a painter (and I wrote poetry). In fact, I wanted to go to Art College, but as a first generation ‘boomer’, I was encouraged instead to do a more useful degree. So, a frustrated artist. I did collages, painted, drew and generally experimented with most things that the 1960s had to offer.

I was (and still am) always open to new visual ideas, reading and discovering as much as I could, and my work at the time shows that.

Mick Yates, Mixed Media, 1967-1968

Frankly, I did not have a lot of disposable cash, so when I managed to upgrade from an old Kodak to a Prinz Mastermatic III 35mm camera, I was delighted.

My Dad had been a lifelong photographer, and I caught the bug, to capture what was around me. Perhaps in a foretaste of my current work, a lot of it was documentary, archival and even had glimpses of my ‘traces’ imagery.

Burton on Trent, 1969

Paying my way through Uni, I was a ‘travelling salesman’, visiting the colliery towns and villages of Derbyshire. I did a photo essay on one such place, Albert Village. Here is a selection:

Albert Village, Derbyshire, 1969

Naturally, I also took family snapshots. But not as many as my dad did. I do think my art training affected my composition.

In 1969/70, I also worked as a photographer for the Leeds Student Newspaper – my first experience of a ‘proper’ camera (Pentax Spotmatic). Here’s the ‘kidnap’ of Dave Allsopp, Engineer’s President, as part of the (successful) anti-Apartheid ‘Stop the Cricket Tour’ Campaign, alongside my contact sheet.

I have all of my negatives and slides, going back to the 1960s. And, happily, now I also have all of Dad’s, from the 1930s onwards.

At some point I will do a proper archive job. I had hoped that would be part of this MA, but sadly it seems against the rules for new work.

Can you find a theme that connects it to the work you make today?

It’s clear that documentary and reporting what is around me is a consistent theme. I could not travel much in those days, so, like many others of my generation, I made do with my immediate surroundings.

I have always been interested in people, but in the sense of seeing them in context. When I could afford to travel, that became a mainstay.

Agra, 1978

It’s only in recent years that I have been doing a lot of portrait work, though still with an environmental slant.

What do you like and dislike about the early work?

I am continually amazed at how often I got the composition ‘right’ in camera, and even the exposure was decent. None of the above are cropped much. Whilst I fully embrace digital, and need it, in fact, for some of my event work, I can see much value in ‘slow photography’.

I can also see that story-telling is very much embedded in how I approach photography, even though my approach to urban settings was almost ‘new topographical’. I guess it was the era of Pop and Conceptual Art!

And, whilst in those early years, black and white was the only way I could create photographs, colour is very important to how I see the world.

The improvement areas are several.

Firstly, I am seeking more intimacy in my images, as discussed in Surfaces and Strategies. I am usually pretty good at connecting and engaging with people, in either street or formal settings. Whilst I still prefer a ‘candid’ style, I do feel intimacy would drive impact.

Second, given that I am focusing on telling stories from the time of the Khmer Rouge Genocide, I am continuing to learn and experiment with new ways of dealing with aftermath.

Third, I am expanding my portrait repertoire, partly reflecting the ‘intimacy’ point above, and partly because I increasingly enjoy this kind of photography.

What was it about these photographs that made you want to be a photographer?

I think that is a superfluous question – I have always been a photographer.

A better question might be ‘why do I want to get better’?

Because that is in my nature.


I posted this on FaceBook, and got seem interesting feedback. In particular, James Kezman noted:

You have a great eye for textures in both your painting and in your photography. The monochrome images are a feast for the eyes with contrasting textures and geometries — the rugged earthiness of the open pit mine versus the smooth towers of the buildings beyond; The lovely organic lead in to the tree contrasted with the harsh metallic buildings behind; The curves of the dilapidated car versus the tumbledown bricks. Good stuff. It is interesting to see how you moved from urban/rural landscape to a more figurative style, like in your paintings. Seems like you found a way to meld the two facets of your art. Oh and I love the surrealist elements in your paintings/collages. Did you ever do any photo collages?

My reply:

James, thanks for taking the time to comment. Would you mind if I added this as an addendum on my post? I think I have always been fascinated by ‘layers’ in images (and stories for that matter). That said I am very conscious of pursuing rather rigorous compositions and layouts – too formal in fact. Funnily enough, when I started getting back into serious photography, I felt dissatisfied with the lack of ‘humanity’ in my work – hence I consciously did a lot of street and portrait work. Going full circle, I now see that we can visualise humanity in less obvious ways – hence some of my latest work on the MA with traces and negatives. Maybe I am simply going back to where I started?

And, should have said I did some photo collage … a few here … Psych Sixties

And, from James:

Please do, Mick! It’s always good to circle back to where you started in whatever art it is that you are pursing. I pull out my “Introduction to Photography” work binder about once as year to remind me of where I started. As you know, art is a continual process — you build upon what you’ve learned, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve lived. Sometimes we get stuck and try something new. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but it all goes into that big pot we call creativity. So, keep digging and keep creating!