Cézanne had Émile Zola; Picasso had Guillaume Apollinaire. Artists and writers have teamed up throughout history, each helping the other hone their ambitions. The artist gives visual form to the writer’s ideas and the writer often acts as a champion for the artist’s work. Some artists have merged those two roles into one: think Donald Judd, who first stepped out into the world as a critic before becoming known for his art. Five decades later, artist David Salle has assumed this mantle with the publication of his book How to See (see page 96), a collection of witty essays exploring cultural production and art criticism.
Salle first met Francine Prose at the American Academy in Rome more than 15 years ago. Few contemporary writers have as enviable a work ethic as Prose; she’s penned 21 books and is a frequent contributor on the subjects of art, books and travel to publications such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Review of Books.
An artist and writer with a good rapport can hatch a rare gem of a conversation, which is precisely what happened when Prose met Salle in his Brooklyn studio to talk about coincidence, critics and the kiss of death.
Salle shot to stardom with his daring figurative paintings amid the money-fuelled excesses of the 1980s art world. His work has been collected by many of the world’s most prominent museums, including the Whitney and Tate Modern, and shown in galleries across the globe. Also a prolific writer, his newest book How to See has been acclaimed by critics.
Prose is the author of 21 lauded novels, including A Changed Man, which garnered a Dayton Literary Peace prize, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. Currently a distinguished writer in residence at Bard College, she was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a former president of the PEN American Center.
Francine Prose: You talk a lot about art criticism in the book. I think that people – with a few exceptions that you can count on two hands – who don’t make art just shouldn’t talk about it because if you try to make anything you come from the position of knowing how hard it is.
David Salle: Art-appreciation classes usually begin with content, which is OK but obscures the art part. People ask, “How do I start? How do I learn to look?” Here’s one way: go to the art supply store and buy some canvas, some paint and brushes. Take them home. Make a painting. Just the act of buying all the stuff that goes into it is already so much trouble that it makes you reconsider your priorities. Even producing a beautifully proportioned rectangle is more difficult than it looks. If you were to really do the exercise you would most likely throw away the first few hundred attempts – and eventually you would then look at paintings differently.
FP: Because you would know how difficult it is and what a miracle it is that anything gets done at all. Did you see the Diane Arbus show at the Met Breuer?
DS: I did not see it.
FP: It was great. The way it was hung was so ingenious. Every photo had its own column. It wasn’t like a forced march around the room. You had a different relationship with every photograph. It was fantastic.
DS: I haven’t tried to write about photography but I think it might be the hardest thing to write about because how do you talk about it without talking about the subject matter? How do we talk about what the photographer actually does?
FP: I’ve written about photography a lot.
DS: How do you approach it?
FP: Well, for example, when I wrote about Helen Levitt and I just talked about the way that – and you could say this about a lot of things – after you look at a lot of Helen Levitt photography you then go out into the street and see Helen Levitt everywhere. She makes you see how beautiful people are in a way that you might not be paying attention to unless you just looked at a whole bunch of her work. Sometimes when you write about art the thrill is that you feel like you’re seeing something that everybody else missed and you can’t figure out how everybody missed it. It seems so obvious to you.
DS: I do feel like I never really know what I think about something until I sit down to write about it. We all have our opinions but the real heart of it – how it works, why it works – that stuff you only figure out from the effort of trying to describe it.
FP: I know. It’s great that way. But it can have the opposite effect. One of the reasons that I’m glad I don’t write regularly about art is because when I was going to a show, I’d stand there at the beginning thinking, “What’s my lead sentence going to be?” And if it was a big show I’d be in hell because I’d go, “Oh shit, there are about 20 rooms here!” Whereas when I’m not writing about it I’m happy that there’s a lot of it. It’s the complete opposite.
DS: Yes, it’s a funny kind of inversion. But isn’t it fun to think about what the lead sentence would be for each of the rooms?
FP: It depends. It can really get in the way of your experience. I used to do a lot of travel pieces and I’d be walking around Miami thinking, “Where do I begin? What’s my lead sentence?” You know what I mean?
DS: It’s not a bad exercise, though, don’t you think?
FP: It’s not a bad exercise. The trouble is that when you’ve done it a lot it’s hard not to do it, or else you think, “What am I doing here?”
DS: I just had a conversation with the writer Emma Cline, who had recently reread The Great Gatsby. I said, “Isn’t it great?” She said that she didn’t like all the coincidences – she felt it was contrived. But in a way, what else do you have to work with? Isn’t coincidence the beginning of drama? When someone walks out in front of a car…
FP: …and it turns out to be the wife or husband of your lover. That’s the hard thing: coincidences happen all the time. They happen all the time and they’re weird. Does it ever happen in a painting that you’ll paint something and then see it?
DS: Well, yes, to me it does. I operate on that vibrational level; my approach is completely intuitive. I might know that a picture needs a yellow form but I don’t know exactly what shape it should be. And then I’ll see something in the room and that’s the shape.
FP: You know you’re on the wrong track when something happens and you’re not paying attention when you should have been. I was just trying to write something that had a cop in it. We were upstate and I went into a 7-Eleven and was just looking at my phone or something. As we pulled away I realised that there’d been a cop in the store. It was exactly the guy I needed to pay attention to for that character and I hadn’t been. I thought “This thing I’m working on is not going to work out. It’s just not going to happen.”
DS: There’s definitely an equivalent in painting.
FP: Which is?
DS: Well, just the quality of attention. Sometimes you feel that your attention was not 100 per cent present and you realise that you’ve been painting a generic rather than a specific thing. And you have to get rid of it.
FP: Yeah, generic is the kiss of death.