At First Glance: Fischl Sculptures & Salle Photographs @Skarstedt

JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black and white photographs by David Salle and 5 bronze sculptures by Eric Fischl. All of the photographs are gelatin silver prints, made between 1980 and 1990. Each is sized 14×11 inches and is available in an edition of 5. The sculptures were made between 1996 and 2010. Physical sizes range from roughly 21x17x25 to 38x30x30 inches, and the works are variously available in edition sizes ranging from 3+1AP to 9+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It has often been the case that artists working in other mediums have turned to photography as a handy tool. Some have used photographs to substitute for sketching or quick visual note taking, while others have made their pictures into more formal steps toward end product works, either as part of an artistic problem solving exercise or as discrete elements that are then reused or translated into paint, ink, or even bronze. Whatever the impulse, the process of using a camera can break up (or extend) the artist’s usual work- or idea- flow, thereby opening the door to the infusion of new lines of thinking.

David Salle’s photographic female nudes from the 1980s were just such an artistic extension. Wanting to study the subtle ways cast light played across the human form, he created a series of staged interior setups, ultimately making a total of 58 images during the rough period of a decade. Many of the photographs became part of Salle’s paintings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as painted facsimiles of the originals embedded in larger compositions (like Fooling with Your Hair, from 1985, Sextant in Dogtown, from 1987, and Backdrop, Mingus in Mexico, and Pavanne, all from 1990, among others), or as the raw material for the Ghost paintings, made in the early 1992 and rediscovered relatively recently.

The nude (and semi-nude) images sourced from these photographs received heavy scrutiny at the time, some critics finding the reworked images that became part of Salle’s paintings offensive, or just brazenly leering. And while the most explicit images from the series aren’t part of this show of photographs, from the sample on view here, it is certainly possible to understand how the performative aspect of these setups could turn more graphic.

While I don’t think that anyone would confuse these photographs for those made by a woman, Salle’s consistent (and obvious) male gaze is only part of what is taking place in these pictures. Many of the images have an overt sense of theatricality, where partially clad models pose in harlequin costumes, marching band uniforms, and sparkly dresses, and interact with musical instruments (particularly violins) and even other paintings, the costuming and props jostling with the bareness of the bodies. The models also hide underneath billowing sheets, twisting the forms into studies of enveloping drapery. The whole atmosphere of the staging feels casually performative, the women seeming to understand that they are consciously performing for Salle’s camera.

These scenes take place in a dark, murky, almost nocturnal light, and the prints are executed in warm tones that feel tactile and burnished. Many of the women interact with light fixtures, the lamps and lanterns creating areas of shadow and light that wash across their bodies. In other pictures, the light is cast from the side and below, adding underneath highlights to formal studies or creating situations where half of the body is light and the other half dark. A careful, sequential look at these photographs finds Salle controlling the placement of the light almost as much as he is directing the poses of the models; the direction of the light systematically moves around, as if Salle was deliberately testing different scenarios and moods. The resulting images have a softened sense of contrast, leading to a lingering hint of going-through-the-motions, sultry melancholy.

Salle’s images partially share a surreal look with many of the shadowy female nudes made between the wars, but their overt sexiness fights with that cerebral quirkiness and pushes them into a zone where their gestures and bodily exposures become more provocative. While drinking from a glass might seem tame, there are a few too many bent over bodies seen from behind and props coyly placed between legs, so any echoes of surrealism morph into something much more suggestive, the potential poetry diluted by the more overt act of looking.

Salle’s photographs are paired with a handful of sculptures by Eric Fischl, and this combination intellectually anchors us in studies of gesture. Fischl’s tumbling woman is astonishingly kinetic, the upended falling motion frozen in mid air with elegance and grace. His other works capture women bending, squatting, and kneeling, but the poses don’t feel particularly sexualized; he’s clearly working through issues of abstracted angle and volume, wrestling with the presence of form in three dimensions. When we go back to Salle’s photographs after seeing the sculptures, there are a few gestural similarities, but Fischl’s academic distance has been replaced with close-in intimacy, and that switch meaningfully transforms the heat of the photographs.

At a time when the sexualized male gaze is rightfully being questioned with more intensity, these Salle nudes have an emerged-from-a-time-capsule quality to them that feels a bit out of step. While they made sense in the context of the layered performative scenarios Salle was constructing in the 1980s, their simmering drama and seductiveness now overpower their underlying impulses toward gestural abstraction more clearly. It’s as if the aesthetics of Helmut Newton and Edward Weston are pulling on opposite sides of Salle’s instincts, leaving the photographs somewhere in the middle, variously populated by elements of each. That battle does generate some unexpected stand alone compositions, but in the end, the photographs seem to largely function as Salle’s own visual raw material, expressive piece parts designed to populate a more layered process of artistic thinking.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced at $15000 each. Salle’s photographs have little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

David Salle, Skarstedt Gallery

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