Peter Saul
King Kong
Dan Duray
15 October 2016

Peter Saul’s home and studio in upstate New York isn’t far from my parent’s home in Connecticut so I made a weekend of my trip up north from Williamsburg, the pseudo-bohemian neighborhood in Brooklyn where my rent-stabilized apartment is located. I can stand Williamsburg, but I tend to take breaks because it can be so needy. It always has to remind you of its pleasantness, of how relevant and easy-going it has made you. Why, for example, are there so many upscale tattoo parlours? How frequently are these cool, cool people getting tattoos?

Sauls’ paintings evoke political cartoons, graffiti, and the psychedelic offerings of Zap Comix. Day glo is the order of the day as is war, hedonism, Americana, self-absorption and crucifixion. They’re mish-mashes of raw material, I will learn at the studio, where he shows me sketches and words that will come together to someday form paintings (“Homosote”, he’s written down somewhere. Doesn’t know what it means, but likes that it sounds like “homosexual”.) The radio offerings up North seemed to offer the same kind of emotions and politics he samples: overly personal Taylor Swift breakup songs, a station playing an Orson Welles serial based on “The Third Man”, and, of course, on the news: Trump, Trump, Trump. It rained, so only the colors were different. Grey and green. 

Sauls’ work is often classified as Pop, and like those works they’re a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, but nobody loathes such labels and movements more than Saul. His work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre Pompidou, LACMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, but he has done his own neon version of “Guernica”, and “Donald Duck Descending a Staircase”.

Saul is counter. Though he grew up in San Francisco – before it, like my Brooklyn neighborhood, was conquered by money – he is even counter-counter-culture, trying marijuana just three times, and learning of the hippie movement through a letter from his mother in 1958. Saul was living in Europe at the time. The letter said, “Some friends of ours joined us in Berkeley this weekend and wanted to go look at the beatniks in the café, but I don’t think it’s right to look at people just because they don’t take a bath. Do you?”

My parents are the same, earnest, kind of removed from everything. They folded laundry a lot and just couldn’t understand how Donald Trump had come to the head of a major party ticket. I was tired talking about him, so I mostly hid in their sauna with some comic books from the basement, superhero things from my childhood that I wouldn’t miss when the heat disintegrated them.

"I read the comic books that I liked,” Saul told me at the sparkling new two-story studio he and his wife Sally share, outside their nicely restored 1860s farmhouse. “’Crime does not pay,’ those kind of things, back in 1939 through 1944.” It wasn’t until 1958, in Europe, that he discovered MAD magazine, and it only took him reading 30 seconds of it before he put it down, and went and made a painting based on it. “My parents lived on Octavia Street and every morning you would see Alcatraz,” he added. “The children of the Alcatraz guards went to the same school as me when I was little kid. Crime got into my head early as a thing to be interested in.”

He was criticizing an earlier work of his, hanging on the studio wall, when I began recording. I asked him why he didn’t like it.

Peter: Well, it’s painted in the way I’ve painted in 1970, which is less glamorously real than now.

DD: When you say glamorously real…

Peter: That new one there? Glamorously real.

DD: “Glamorous,” meaning?

Peter: Looks good on the wall.

DD: It’s more vivid?

Peter: Vivid or looks good on the wall. Either phrase is ok. At that moment, I thought, “Boy, this is a chance for my picture to look outstanding. I’m going to do it.” I think illusion is really important. Whenever I see something that’s not supposed to be there, in art, I just go for it immediately.

DD: … When you say, “Not supposed to be there…”

Peter: Well, there are always silly rules applying to visual arts. Whenever I find those silly rules, I disobey them.

DD: Can you give an example of that?

Peter: A silly rule that I disobeyed as soon as I knew it existed is: Pop Art is not supposed to be imaginative. You just use things you know, from the ads and photos. That’s silly. I use my imagination – always make things up.

DD: Have you ever tried to appropriate something?

Peter: Appropriate really just means “copy”. I admire that a great deal but, no, I would never have the guts for that because I would think that the person or viewer had seen it before. It’s just like an ad. I totally fail to understand an art viewer who doesn’t need originality. I need it. I’ve never wanted to look up any [laughs] photographs or comics. You know what I mean? If I’ve seen the image, I don’t want to see it again.

DD: I imagine you’re a bit bored.

Peter: I realized, right away, that I always needed something that would be interesting. Why did I ever paint Vietnam? It’s like Vietnam fell into my hands. I looked into the newspaper, “Vietnam War going on.” What do you know? I thought: “Has anybody used it in the art field?” “No.” “Why?” “Because everybody is doing… geometry.” You know what I mean? Conceptual, abstract stuff.  You know what I mean?

DD: So you saw it fit for material, but did you not have strong feelings about the war before?

Peter: Of course I protested the war as soon as I knew of it, but the pictures weren’t a protest. Ridiculous idea, the picture as a protest. If the picture wanted to go fascist I let it happen, the picture’s appearance has to be real, in my opinion. I don’t demand the pictures to agree with me. I paint violence but I personally am not interested in knowing people who bump people off or something like that. I’m just using what the culture gives me.

DD: How did you come to Ronald Reagan?

Peter: He was there. He was the president. Before that, he was a governor of California. He simply seemed to be an authoritative figure that if used, especially sexually, could be a problem for people. I had an anxiety of not being viewed and, having taught now for a number of years, I realized there’s two anxieties that artists have. One is really widespread, all my students, almost, had this: they’re afraid if they’re not doing the right thing, they won’t be approved of. Like thick paint is going on and my paint is thin, or vice versa. Or abstraction. You know what I mean. Something is wrong, so you won’t be accepted. That’s the number one anxiety.  The lesser anxiety is the one I have, which is that you won’t be noticed if you’re insufficiently different. People will say, “Oh God, he’s so boring. I’ve seen that so often, especially lately.

DD: And those are obviously, completely opposing anxieties. You said if the painting wants to go fascist to let it…

Peter: This was before clinical dragnets. I wasn’t aware until around 1970 that people were paying attention to the artist’s attitude towards groups of people. Like how do you feel towards women, blacks, Chinese or the Vietcong? I didn’t pay attention to that. It existed but it hadn’t influenced me yet. Once I knew about it, I tried to go against it, to the best of my ability.

DD: Why is that?

Peter: Just to… go against it. Just to be noticed, perhaps, or to feel free, no good reason.

DD: I’m sure you’ve received some criticism for your portrayals of women. Do you laugh it off?

Peter: I try to. Frankly, it probably hurts me some, but nothing I can do about it. I just let it be, I take the advice, a little bit, from my first art dealer Allan Frumkin. After I had been showing for two or three shows starting in 1960, I was doing pretty good. I had a ton of money compared to other artists.

Everything was sold, of course, because of the vague resemblance to Pop Art, and I felt, “Hey, he must be happy with me.” So I fished for a compliment. I said, “I’m doing pretty good, don’t you think?” He said, “Why don’t you just pay attention to what you’re doing and pay no attention to what other people think you’re worth, because what you want to do is like tennis: you get the ball in your court so you can slam it.” I said, “OK I’ll give that a try”, and before I could even paint another picture, almost my art career collapsed. I mean I stopped selling, which is a normal event, but I didn’t know anything about this, being an isolated artist. What often happens, if not always, is that you sell a lot of pictures because you’re a young newly discovered artist. Then it suddenly stops, for a while anyway.

I didn’t realize this, so then I felt I was just holding to his word and I just continued and paid no attention to sales or reviews. Now, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention either because I feel if you don’t pay attention to the negatives, it’s unfair to pay attention to the positives. You might as well just not pay very much attention at all. That’s what I’m doing today … I feel loose and friendly… am I not being friendly?

DD: One hundred percent.

Peter: But I’m very uninteresting.

DD: Do you find race and gender are harder to incorporate these days?

Peter: I try to avoid it as much as I can.

DD: Why is that?

Peter: It generally makes a non-commercial painting, although it doesn’t make an absolutely non-commercial painting. Things I made [laughs] in the late 60’s do show up and they’re worth something but they’re not worth much. I read, in The New York Times, an article by Carol Vogel about a Gaugin painting. It was supposed to cost $75 million at an auction some years ago now, but because there was a woman urinating in the corner, it was only $20 million or something like that, because you can’t give it to a museum. You can’t show it in the home.

DD: But that strikes me as the detail that you would love to include in one of your works.

Peter: Of course, yes. I try to keep it at least humorous. Please, let it be humorous. That's my attitude. Let it look humorous. I don’t want it to look like I sincerely dislike something or another.

DD: Well it’s all ironic, of course.

Peter: I guess so. What does ironic mean?

DD: The distance between what something says and something means. You said sometimes a painting wants to go fascist. That doesn’t mean you’re fascist.

Peter: No I let that happen. I let everything happen.

DD: I know we’re supposed to talk about politics, modern politics. Have you been following the presidential race?

Peter: Oh, for sure.

DD: Have you done any work about it?

Peter: No, [laughs] I felt I could, but the problem is, it’s such an acceptable thing now, to deal with politics. When I did it, it was completely against the art rules, so it was a lot of fun, but now, you have everybody disliking Trump. I would have to make a pro-Trump painting somewhat, to get any juice out of it.

DD: Have you tried?

Peter: No, I certainly hope he loses of course, and Hilary wins, but I haven’t

DD: His existing colors seem perfect for you.

Peter: And his attitude, and his personality. Everybody’s got a little bit of Trump in them, including me.

DD: Really?

Peter: Don’t you think?

DD: When I think of him, the vibe I get is, sex, blatant sex with violence, and anger, and insecurity. That’s what he says to me. Is that what you mean when you say, we all have a little bit of-

Peter: No, I mean, what I say is that it’s already being done. There’s a lot of political art these days. Doesn’t need my help

DD: Do you watch much television?

Peter: [pointing to a picture in which a woman puts a gun to a barking man’s head saying ‘To Kiss My Ass You Got to Be Very Sorry”]. That one there is about a TV program called “Snapped.” You ever watched Snapped?

DD: You’re kidding.

Peter: I’m not kidding you. This has been going on for a few years. They’re run out of big cases now but they still have the program. You can find it. My favourite case is the heavy blond woman who owned a medical testing lab. She didn’t like her husband, so she bumped him off, and put him in a vat of sulfuric acid and kept him in the lab. Then she told everybody, like the cops, that he ran off with his secretary. They looked and looked for six months and couldn’t find him. Finally, someone opened the can of sulfuric acid. That interested me.

No, I don’t watch much, we watch public television, watch Jane Austen movies. Frankly, my viewing is guided by the fact that I’m living with somebody. I only watch things like, Snapped, or other true-crime type things. If I’m by myself, for some reason, in some hotel room, somewhere in the world, it doesn’t happen very often as we travel together.

I watch Cops but it makes me unhappy, because I feel sympathetic to the crook, most of the time. They’re so rude, the police, they’re unbelievably rude.

DD: And racist.

Peter: Disgusts me. I can’t watch it very much, Cops, because I don’t feel good about it. Broken tail light, the next thing you know the guy’s got no license either, then they’ve got him on the ground, putting handcuffs on him. It could happen to anybody. It could’ve happened to me when I was in Europe, back then.

DD: Do you think America has a class problem?

Peter: I guess so, I guess it does.

DD: Why do you make fun of abstract painting?

Peter: Why not? It’s a nice, fresh attitude. But I’ve made fun of Rembrandt, too: “The Rembrandt Duck”.

DD: I don’t think I’ve seen that one.

Peter: It’s a Rembrandt portrait with a cartoon character. It’s a duck. You haven’t seen it because it was in Europe. A lot of my work is in Europe, most of them.

DD: Why do you think that is?

Peter: Partly accidental, and partly my lack of belief in these loony intellectual ideas that Americans tend to believe in. I have to be careful about that because I don’t believe in any of it, actually. But everyone I know believes in some little bit of it. I don’t want to insult anyone accidentally, and I probably do.

DD: When you said these loony intellectual ideas, are they specific…?

Peter: All of them, even before Abstract Expressionism. It’s something when you can throw in words, and you can’t deny it exactly. When Jackson Pollock was once asked about nature, or something, he said, “I am nature.” It’s a good phrase -- well said. That bald headed guy, smoking a cigarette: “I’m nature.” It makes sense and yet I don’t believe in any of it. I don’t believe in Cézanne either. He looks hopelessly untalented to me.

DD: Don’t you think it’s important, on some level, to be part of a movement?

Peter: Yes. I realize now the importance. I mean, I realize the importance professionally. If you want to have money and power in the art world, it’s best to believe in these ideas. My attitude is completely wrong. The art world is people doing things altogether, not individuals trying to be different.

DD: Have you ever tried to be a joiner, try to be part of something, anything like that?

Peter: I’ve joined things accidentally. The Funk Art Movement. Peter Selz put me in the show in 1967.

DD: How did you join it accidentally?

Peter: I had been in California, about one year or a year and a half. I just started the Vietnam paintings. I received a call from UC Berkeley. They said, “Professor Selz would like to come and visit your studio”. I said, “Oh boy.” I said, “Sure.” So here he comes. There are people behind him. He said what did I think of funk? He has a thick German accent. I thought he said the work “fuck”, but he actually said the word “funk”. I said nothing. Then I said, “I don’t think anything.” And he said, “That’s what I thought.” He left after a few minutes, and I didn’t hear anything more from him. But when he put together the Funk show seven months later, I was part of it. This caused a certain bitterness among the Funk artists, because I think the reason they put me in it was because he was a friend of Allan Frumkin. I had a sculpture, Man in Electric Chair, done in Styrofoam.

DD: That was in the show?

Peter: That was in the show, and the Big Vietnam painting the Whitney owns.

DD: I meant to ask you about crucifixes. How did you come to them?

Peter: God. I started religious paintings in Rome, Italy because I lost my studio. It was a farm house, behind a rather large mansion, which was next to a smaller, nice modern home. This was all owned by the Catholic Church. It was on the outskirts of Rome where we moved in 1962. This is my previous life. I had met Allan Frumkin a couple of years before. We celebrated our prosperity by moving to Rome. There we were on the edge of it. The last street in Rome, officially, was the one we were on. There were two houses , a big mansion, and a smaller house which we rented.

We were living our life, and I was in the studio painting these pictures to show at Allan Frumkin gallery. All of a sudden, I lost my studio. They kicked me out because the mansion had been rented to Madame Nhu, the dragon lady of Vietnam. She was the boss of South Vietnam. Anyway, suddenly she appears to be living there. As a result, I had to leave my studio which was in a farm building behind the mansion, because she assumed I was an American spy. The priest in charge of these buildings felt a little sorry for me. He said, “Would you paint in the church, except on Sunday morning?” In this part here. He showed me this bare concrete room behind the altar. I don’t know what it was for. This was my studio for the remaining time I was in Rome. I thought, “Here I am painting in the church. Why not paint religious subject matter?” I started immediately. I had Donald Duck crucified and stuff like that. It just continued.

DD: Were you religiously raised?

Peter: No. Parents were not religious.

DD: What do you think appeals to you about the crucifix?

Peter: It’s just a religious symbol, and painful looking. Why not? Sex and violence can be included in this religious thing. It gets psychology into the picture. I used to write Frumkin letters about this kind of thing: “Going to get psychology into the picture.” My anxiety is not being noticed.

DD: Just because we keep circling around true crime, have you had much experience with crime yourself. Burglary or…?

Peter: No. We had one case here, right in the studio, some months ago of a guy who walked in…

DD: Here?

Peter: Yeah, and then he walked out with a little mirror that Sally was using for self-portrait drawing.

DD: That’s very strange.

Peter: So, I asked him as he came out of the studio. I asked him what he was doing. He said “Well, I used to live here, we just built this thing.” We got into a little confrontation, and I said I’m going to call the cops, and he walked away. I tried to call the cops, and nothing happened. I phoned 911, seven or eight times, waiting each time, nothing happened, meanwhile he’s gone. So finally I tried the house phone, that too, I thought maybe my little phone doesn’t work, nothing happened. Then Sally came out. She said, "“What’s going on?” So I told her and she said, “Let me have it.” She picked up the phone, and dialed 911. Finally we did, we got an answer and then what happened then, a cop arrived, and I explained to him- a very nice fellow. He found him right away down by the landing, and he brought him up, and he said, “Do you want to meet him?” I said, “No, no, and don’t press charges, just take him away.”

DD: Strange, very strange. It’s like out of a David Lynch movie or something.

Peter: Then we learned how to lock the door; we hadn’t done that before, because the carpenter left without explaining it.

DD: How to lock the door?

Peter: Yes, we called him back, and he came. And showed us how to do it.