January 1, 1998

Peter Saul: Early Paintings and Related Drawings, 1960-1964, George Adams Gallery, NYC

Peter Saul: Early Paintings and Related Drawings, 1960-1964
George Adams Gallery, New York
January 1 – 31, 1998

In 1956, Peter Saul graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and moved with his first wife to Europe. After a brief stay in London, they lived in Amsterdam (1956-1958), near Paris (1958-1962), and finally in Rome (1962 -1964) before returning to the US and settling in Mill Valley, California. It was during this period that Saul defined himself as an artist. At the outset a self-described expressionist painter of landscapes and interiors, Peter Saul soon developed the major themes that remain central to his work even today. The present exhibition consists of paintings and drawings made during his years in Europe which reflect Peter Saul's artistic development as a social critic as well as his involvement with Pop Art, a movement with which he was identified during this time.

Peter Saul was fascinated from an early age by movies and the comics, and even after art school their influence persisted. According to Peter Saul, "The years 1959 - 1961 were pretty much used in reconciling specific drawings from Mad [Magazine] with my need to resemble deKooning." The influence of popular culture - especially the comics - is evident not only in Saul's style and use of cartoon characters - Superman, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck appear as early as 1960  - but also of dialogue balloons, and multi-panel compositions. Along with a cast of characters out of Disney, greed, sex and violence - tabloid subjects that continue to remain central to Peter Saul's work  - make their first appearances during this period.

Peter Saul was not interested in simply making cartoon painting, however: "The problem with cartooniness is that it smooths out too many bumps... To get those 'bumps' back is a lot of work... I summon my memory of drawings on lavatory walls. That usually does it." These early paintings and drawings employ an over-all composition and mark-making typically associated with abstract-expressionism and, at the same time, a visual vocabulary composed entirely of images from popular culture. For all their references to popular culture, Peter Saul was not in fact a "Pop" artist. While he was initially considered a member of the movement and was even included in several Pop surveys (Lucy Lippard's Pop Art of 1966, for example), he was soon dropped and only recently reinstated through his inclusion in the LA County/Whitney Museum's recent "Hand Painted Pop."

The most important distinction between Peter Saul and the artists usually identified with Pop Art is that Peter Saul was interested in the psychological. And, while his early works share similarities with artists such as Lichtenstein, Rivers or Rosenquist, it is artists such as deKooning, Beckmann and Francis Bacon who should be looked to as more important sources. Paintings such as IceBox #3 or Valda Sherman, for example, are rooted less in the Pop Art of Rivers than in social commentary of Bacon and Beckmann. According to Peter Saul, as far as Pop Art was concerned, "my painting had too much emotion."