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One painter on why understanding art is as simple as looking

December 13, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
What do we see when we look at art? Many of us aren't sure what we're supposed to absorb. For artist David Salle, reading a painting should be natural, not intimidating. He believes that museum-goers should enjoy the act of looking and appreciate how art is made. He sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss his new book, “How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: freeing yourself to appreciate art in all its forms and colors. That’s the focus of our latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

And for that, we go to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do we see when we look at art? Something that gives us pleasure or moves us not at all. Many of us perhaps aren’t sure what it is we’re supposed to be taking in or trying to understand.

The painter David Salle wants us to trust ourselves more in looking, but also to consider how something is made, as well as what it is. His new book is titled “How to See.”

DAVID SALLE, Author, “How to See”: I think it enhances one’s enjoyment, if you can put yourself a little bit into the place of the maker, imagine how it was made, imagine what’s involved in making it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because it is a thing that was made, right?

DAVID SALLE: Art is something someone made. It’s a product of human endeavor.

As such, it’s not that different from having a conversation with someone. The painter is telling us something. Just, how do they — what’s their syntax? What’s their inflection?

JEFFREY BROWN: Which, in painterly terms, means what brush you use, what…

DAVID SALLE: It can be. Can be how wide the brush is, or how skinny the rectangle is, or if it’s even a painting at all, if it has any marks on it at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Salle himself has been a prominent artist since the 1980s, known for his large-scale collage-style paintings that incorporate disparate images from a variety of sources.

Some newer ones hung in his Brooklyn studio, where we talked recently. One way to look at a painting is to notice those images, here a car, a watermelon, a cigarette pack, and more. But how you make these connections is what most interests Salle.

DAVID SALLE: What this painting does, and most paintings do, is gives you a path for your eye to move around.

The painting actually tells your eye, go here, now go here, now go here, go here. So all you have to do is look at it, give it a few seconds, and your eye will start to move through the painting.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his book of essays, Salle offers an artist’s view of other artists, Georg Baselitz, Dana Schutz, John Baldessari, and many others, and the decisions they made, the paths they chose, the reasons a painting works or doesn’t, as with a favorite and friend of his, Alex Katz.

DAVID SALLE: Big brush or small brush? I mean, in Alex’s case, a really big brush, a really big brush moved with some velocity, using his whole arm, across a pretty big surface, ending in a very fine point, doing that in a way which seems both premeditated and also free and spontaneous.

That’s what you see. And then your brain translates that into Maine Woods. Oh, I like that place. I want to go back there.

But what enables you to have that sensation is the physical act of painting.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talk about the artist Christopher Wool. So, that’s an abstract painting. I don’t quite know what I’m looking at in that sense, or at least it’s not recognizable.

DAVID SALLE: Right. So, in the example of Christopher Wool, the not quite knowing what you’re looking at is part of the experience.

His paintings are made with such a complicated, impacted and self-referential set of gestures, marks and mechanical representations of gestures and marks and their interaction. It’s very hard to tease them apart.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what you mean by “the how” in a case like that, all those kinds of decisions?


“The how” is also the scale, the size, the color. The — all of the physical characteristics of the thing are “the how.”

JEFFREY BROWN: And then one more example would be Malcolm Morley, right, in…


So, Malcolm paints — typically paints paintings of models, thousands of densely packed brush strokes made with a very small brush, intensely concentrated over small areas of the canvas, one after the other. So, this agitated, densely packed surface is “the how,” which becomes the what.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re a painter, so you go look at these things and say, oh, how did he do this, how did she do that?

Do I have to know “the how”? Do I have to know how it was done?

DAVID SALLE: I don’t think you have to know anything, really.

But I think if you look for more than 10 seconds, you will start to — without being told anything, you will start to notice those things. You will notice. If you go to a concert, you will notice, is it loud? Is the music fast? Is it predominately strings or brass?

There are things we can all register, whether we are musicians or not. Painting’s no different. Taking pleasure in projecting oneself into the painting is the act of looking. That’s what looking is.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write at one point, it’s a mistake to ask a work of art to be all things to all people.

What can we ask of a work of art? What should we ask of it?

DAVID SALLE: I think a good painting or a good work of art does many things it wants, I mean, maybe 15 or 20 or 100.

One of the things a painting does is to make the room look better. It improves the wall that it’s on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, nothing wrong with that.

DAVID SALLE: Which is much harder than it looks. And that’s a good thing.

And if one engages with a painting on that level, that’s fine, that’s great. After some time, familiarity, the other things that a painting does, the other layers, they just start to make themselves felt.

People are still making paintings. People are still enjoying paintings, looking at paintings. Paintings still have something to tell us.

There’s a way of being in the world that painting brings to us, that painters bring to the task that we absorb and are able to be in dialogue with. That’s something that’s part of us.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s wonderful to hear what an artist thinks art is, for a change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes. Yes, because we always wonder, what was the painter thinking?