Book review: David Salle How to See


David Salle
How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art
W. W. Norton & Company

A great collection of essays by Salle, covering a wide variety of artists and ideas. His clear concise writing reminds me of Matthew Collings’ (no International Art English here), combining an insider’s knowledge with an outsider’s scepticism, and allowing undisguised personal preferences to arise in an honest and affable way. Salle dismisses the fixed values and linearity of some art history (“whose story is this so-called main one? By whose lights is the winner in that race called?”p.185), and he picks his subjects freely from the canon and its margins (there is a whole essay devoted to Derain’s late, largely ignored paintings).   He’s wonderful as a painter writing on painting, and I especially enjoyed his chapter on Dana Schutz.

As with my post on the Guston book, I’m going to let Salle’s words speak for themselves. How to See is full of great quotes, here are a few:

“We need to pay attention to what a work of art actually does-as distinct from whatever may be its supposed intention.” p.7

“… the performative aspect of painting: material so fluid finally coming to rest in a way that will remain just so, forever.” p.21

“A spirit of childish refusal runs through the centre of the avant-garde impulse; in adults it’s called resistance. No, I won’t use colour; I won’t make beautiful things; I won’t entertain.” p.30

(on Christopher Wool) “He has the great gift of knowing when to stop.” p.33


Christopher Wool Untitled (1994) enamel on linen 228.6 x 152.4cm

(on Sigmar Polke’s work from the 60s, including Socken) “Part of what Polke does in this period is to give the viewer access to the deep pleasure that comes with seeing the familiar as something irrationally strange.” p.38


Sigmar Polke Socken [Socks] (1963) (anyone have dimensions or medium info on this? let me know, thanks!)

“…where there is imagery, a story – implicit or explicit – is not far behind. The rhythmic thrum of narrative constantly unspooling in the brain was for decades thought to be at odds with art’s desired state of autonomy. Why art had to be autonomous we as a culture can no longer even remember, but trust me, it was important. Art could not point to or represent things; it had to be something – period. This separation of being and representing was itself an odd cul-de-sac in the history of modernism, though no one questioned it at the time – as if the two things could ever really be separate.” p.44

“… with all effective art, the greatness is partly a matter of the imagination behind it and partly a matter of style.” p.48

“Sigmar Polke bequeathed to painting a new idea of composition that seemed to mirror a mental disorder, or that of society; it was collage taken to the level of Schwitters’ Merzbau – the total environment.” p.52

(on Dana Schutz) “Remember talent? A person who is said to have talent can do something; it’s often physical, like throwing a football or playing the cello. Then there is imagination; the difference between it and talent is often misunderstood. Imagination fuels talent and funnels into it, but on its own lacks body. Today talent is easily confused with knowingness or a desire for attention, and what passes for imagination is often nothing more than a reshuffling of cultural signs. That’s fashion. Occasionally an artist comes along with both real talent and real imagination, as well as the ability to combine them – to cast an original narrative idea into pictorial form.” p.57


Dana Schutz Face Eater (2004) oil on canvas 58.4 x 45.7cm

“There’s a lot of loose talk today, just nervous chatter really, about conceptual painting, the idea that painting should be the result of an off-site decision-making process – but the buzz usually boils down to someone unwilling to make much of a commitment to the materials and exigencies of painting. Metapainting, or sort-of painting, or things that mimic painting but still hold something back, are all right as far as they go, but the results tend to be a kind of aesthetic or moral version of wanting it both ways, and coming up snake eyes.” p.66

(on Roy Lichtenstein) “He was confronted, as is every mature artist, by the very different challenge of keeping the work moving forward without sacrificing its pictorial identity and, beyond that, of making the internal pressure of one’s own evolution somehow reflect the social forces at work in the culture.” p.68

“Every long and serious career is a movement toward greater freedom and dissolution (think of Monet)…” p.69


Claude Monet Les Bassin aux nymphéas [The Basin to the Nympheas] (1917-19) oil on canvas 100 x 200cm

(on Jeff Koons) “… what of the counterculture? The Left? They can just go in a closet and suck eggs… That’s all been taken care of – by the market. It’s not so much that capitalism triumphed as that it reset the terms by which we establish value in art.” p.78

“In the souk that is contemporary art, some things work by giving viewers a more complex or complete way to ingest what it is they already like but weren’t conscious of liking as much as they do.” p.92-93

“Form – that all-important thing. Once a form is found, ideas that have lain beneath layers of consciousness, inchoately biding their time, bubble up to the surface.” p.106

“… the dream of every artist; the longing for completion that comes from uniting form and content, something accomplished by making one’s own life and real preoccupations the material of one’s art.” p.108

“Painting is one of the few things in life for which youth holds no advantage.” p.129

“… all the arguments against painting, which are determinist, economic, and political, have little to do with the practice of painting, and have in fact had little impact on it.” p.135

“… the difference between intention and realisation – a difference that has more or less collapsed in today’s art world. … What is the difference between a form-giver and an appropriationist?” p.149

“An artist is often the last to know what his or her real strengths are; doing and knowing what one has done are two different things.” p.154

“Modernism’s long reign was also a kind of de facto repression; its core mechanism was exclusion.” p.172

“Most things in art are derived from a chain of influence; the question is what’s behind the borrowing.” p.174

“… the things that really matter are invention and originality…” p.177

“… (Derain) exposes the “narrow and cracked determinism,” to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion, of contemporary art history, the more or less complete failure of that history to take into account what it actually feels like to make something, … as well the special feeling of looking at it.” p.187

“… art history; its supposed linearity is of little consequence in the studio.” p.187

“The narrative of art history is not fixed; it evolves.” p.190

(on Francis Picabia) “His pictures struck a strange, dissonant chord that coincided with the general collapse of formalist pieties. I had never before seen paintings as untethered to notions of taste or intention; there was no way of knowing how to take it, or whether to take it seriously at all. The work was so undefended – it was exhilarating.” p.194-5


Francis Picabia Femmes au bull-dog [Two Women with Bulldog] (1942) oil on cardboard 106 x 76cm

“Every generation must feel some version of wanting to correct the story, … letting the air out of the story of linear progress had been our mission in a way. We wanted to create our own precursors.” p.197

“… the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.” p.212

(on a survey exhibition of painting in 2014) “Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief.” p.213

“Contemporary art is divided into two main camps. On the one side, there exists the centuries-long continuity of work that I call pictorial, and on the other, the growing body of work that is more presentational in attitude – that is, art that privileges intentionality and the delivery system, or context for art.” p.229

“… the proliferation of presentational art makes my heart sink. The inconvenient truth is this: It’s easier to present art than to make it. It’s easier to select than it is to invent.” p.231

“When something is judged to be passé, what’s really meant is that the image of the artist encoded in those patterns is the wrong one for the moment.” p.234

“Popularity in art is similar to that in politics: the result of a simple message, endlessly repeated.” p.250

“Since the dawn of modernism, we’ve been awash in theory, and theory is shaped by the vagaries of fashion.” p.255

“… modern art has always hungered for philosophical, theoretical, and verbal expression as an armature on which to hang what are primarily visual, nonverbal phenomena.” p.255


David Salle Buick-Town (2016) oil, acrylic, charcoal and archival digital 167.6 x 121.9cm


5 thoughts on “Book review: David Salle How to See

  1. thanks for this reference mate. I’ll chase it up. it is a compulsion of mine to see and regard art without the bindings of fashion and the arterati. I’m fairly confident that I rarely escape these things.

    Thanks also for your many quotes from Salle – he’s as witty and wily as Gertrude Stein. She once said something like… an artist always knows what’s wrong with his paintings – what is doesn’t know is what is right about it.

    So much of what Salle says in relation to art applies equally to music and its making.


    • That’s a good compulsion. I’m not sure if this books escapes “the bindings of fashion and the arterati”, since Salle must surely count as part of the established art world, but I like his writing anyway. I’ve still never read any Gertrude Stein. I should do! Thanks for reminding me. 🙂


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