Peter Saul: California Artist

Peter Saul painted California Artist (1973) two years before the San Francisco-born painter left his home state for New York. Six years after that, he quit New York, too, in favor of Austin, Texas—in part because the city, at that time in thrall to Warhol, wasn’t ready for a painter like Saul.

Is California Artist a self-portrait? It’s tempting to think so; although, when I saw it at George Adams Gallery in New York last week, I at first took it to be a satirical swipe at the stereotypical artist that Saul thought he was leaving behind.

But the winning thing about Saul’s paintings is that, despite their viciousness and vulgarity, it is never entirely clear who is the target of his attacks. In this case, the message is further muddled by the fact that Saul is very often, but incorrectly, associated with Chicago artists, in particular Imagist painters such as Jim Nutt and Leon Golub.

In fact, Saul admitted in a 2010 interview that he’d only visited the city once, in 1964, for two weeks with his wife. The Chicago artists refused to meet with him, apparently because, in his words, “I wasn’t smooth enough; I wasn’t sophisticated enough. I took it to mean more social inadequacy. I just thought, “Oh, to hell with it.”” Whether he liked it or not, he really was a California artist after all.

Image: Peter Saul, California Artist, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and George Adams Gallery, New York.