David Salle’s Trip to Rome Ends at the Parrish
A yearly ritual — the reinstallation of the permanent collection galleries of the Parrish Art Museum — is enlivened this year with a grand and imposing new gift, a trio of David Salle paintings from 2005 and 2006 inspired by Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
For an artist who disavows the meaning of the images from mid-to-late-20th-century advertising that he draws upon for his paintings, the symbol-laden biblical stories illustrated in the chapel are less than ideal as subject matter. The stories from Genesis and the “Last Judgment” that make up Michelangelo’s contributions are not only resonant from a religious standpoint, but they also exemplify the Western canon. “The challenge here was to develop a correspondence among the emotional, narrative, and thematic lines of the subject matter and the formal considerations that generally occupy me,” the East Hampton artist told Artforum in 2006.
Further, the project was a commission (originally intended for Andy Warhol) by Carlo Bilotti, an art collector, for his museum in Rome. Mr. Salle worked with Mr. Bilotti, not unlike Michelangelo and Pope Julius II, to determine the subjects taken from the chapel: “the Creation, the Flood, and the Last Judgment as being representative of the whole.”
The artist admitted to being awed by the chapel from his visits there, but found a way in through the iconography’s metaphorical qualities, Michelangelo’s embrace of the humanist concept of God as creator and artist, for example. “The idea of the commission was not to repaint the ceiling, but to make some kind of contemporary reference to it,” he said in 2006.
The diptychs are monumentally large, about 8 by 15 feet, including both panels. Each contains recognizable elements of the original work stacked and veiled with additions that share visual or thematic references. In general Mr. Salle does not rely on much prep work. For this, however, he researched the iconography and drew and redrew Michelangelo’s images to understand them and how they could be used without overwhelming the composition. This is fitting, given that Michelangelo’s frescoes required months of similar prep work, even as some believe he often drew in freehand once on the scaffolding. In fresco, artists must work fast before the wet plaster dries. Compositions were typically determined days and weeks ahead in a series of drawings that resulted in the final drawing to be transferred to the wall. Even Mr. Salle’s choice to paint the old scenes in acrylic reflected an intention to have them correspond more closely to the flatness of fresco as opposed to oil’s luminescence, which he saved for his contemporary elements.
His “Creation” is not the “Creation of Adam,” an image so overused as to border on kitsch. Rather, he chose “The Creation of the Sun and Moon,” a work that shows God as an action hero, rushing to finish the world in seven days. In the original, God’s arms are spread wide as he brings the sun into being with his right hand and the moon with his left. In the same panel, he is shown racing off to the left side of the composition to create the earth’s vegetation.
The original’s cartoonish qualities appear well suited to Mr. Salle. As in the original, God’s dramatic stance on the right is reminiscent of a club kid in mid-rave. On the left side, Michelangelo essentially exposed God’s backside to us in what was a radical and masterful demonstration of foreshortening, but also cheeky, in both senses of the word.
In Mr. Salle’s version, the possible blasphemy is covered with an image of a lamp, which could shed light on this portion of the painting. Additionally, it might be a reference to censorship and other ways that Michelangelo’s original renderings of anatomy were obscured by more sensitive clerics over the many years of their existence.
Also in the mix is a figure of Eve borrowed from the panel that depicts her creation from Adam’s rib. Michelangelo has Eve stepping out from Adam’s chest with arms in prayer, compelled by God’s command. In Mr. Salle’s version, Adam is not to be found. The linear nude figure sketched in paint over much of Eve appears to be a woman, and the arm raised to expose the ribs seems a feminist critique of Western culture’s most famous origin story.
There’s a fragment of the prophet Jeremiah and the figure that holds up Daniel’s book taken from the ceiling’s margins, a mushroom and tree (a nod to the plants God created in the original?), some raindrops depicting weather and seasons in suburbia, and a dove, a traditional symbol of the holy spirit or a harbinger of the next panel’s “Flood.” A ruler, lightbulb, crane, easel, and pickax are elements of building and invention.
Working in a way that incorporates his own free association, Mr. Salle has stated that he expects the viewer to put the pieces of the work into alignment. The two other subjects are just as full of potential correspondences and meaning.
It is notable that the other panel of this diptych, the vortex on the right, has not even been addressed yet. The artist began incorporating the vortex motif into his paintings in 2004 just before he took up this commission. The forms refer to his childhood in Wichita, Kan., and the tornadoes that threatened the landscape there. A female figure from a painting or popular culture, such as Sailor Moon from Japanese comics, gets whirled up digitally and painted on the canvas in a way that, according to an essay by Jeffrey Deitch, encompasses “the grand sweep of the American landscape as evoked by Pollock and Clyfford Still, the sensuous flesh of de Kooning, and the emotionally charged Pop iconography of Warhol.” The paintings struck him as Mr. Salle’s “most personal and autobiographical work,” and in this way may act as his signature here.
In “Creation,” the vortex is looser than most, more like a nautilus than a whirlwind. The swirled and stretched blue eyes are cartoonish, but not quite like Sailor Moon’s. Under a shiny pink canopy, roughly sketched figures in brown appear to wait like souls about to come into existence. The trough, long and narrow with a big bundle of blue and a long parcel wrapped in green, suggests both a manger and a sarcophagus. The planks joined in exes at each end read as crosses in this context.
What is engaging about picking apart these images in the classical sense is that the art being appropriated here employed such rich symbolism at a sophisticated level. Yet, most who encountered the work at the time would have clearly comprehended those connections. Once known, it is hard to shake them. Over the years, Mr. Salle has stressed that the elements he chooses are not to be taken in a literal sense. He told Galleries Now in 2016 that he wanted “to interrupt the mind’s tendency to reach automatic assumptions. . . . Things are broken apart and isolated from their contexts so they can be put back together.”
He said in Artforum, “this is the first time I’ve consciously kept a family of images tied together, like spokes in a wheel.” Their subject matter and the associations that come with them could not be abandoned in this context. Being literal-minded and making those connections between the centuries — Noah’s Flood to Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, for example — “didn’t kill the painting; it didn’t kill the art.”
It was in 2006 when he said, “we live in a moment that is so crisis-laden that biblical or apocalyptic metaphors seem appropriate — and the scale seems right — whereas in another time they might have felt preposterous.” With news stories of war, drought, flood, famine, and pestilence reaching us daily, it doesn’t feel any different more than a decade later.