Meet Peter Saul, The Art World's Resident Octogenarian Rebel

Meet Peter Saul, The Art World's Resident Octogenarian Rebel

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No Title, 1966, Work on paper, 54 x 41 inches

Peter Saul may be 80 years old, but inside he feels like a 14-year-old boy. Since the 1950s, Saul has offended, grossed out and entranced the art world with his neon infused, cartoon snarls, jam-packed with gore, psychosexual mumbo jumbo and all kinds of visual excess. If pubescent Picasso read one too many tabloids and was doodling in detention, you'd see quite the resemblance.

Saul was born in San Francisco in 1934. His father worked for Shell Oil, his mother was a secretary. He became interested in art at an early age, drawing inspiration from cartoons as well as his boyish obsessions with "war and chaos and murder." He attended art school at the California School of Fine Arts and Washington University in St. Louis, and later moved from Europe to San Francisco to Chicago to Austin to New York -- where he lives now with his wife.

For over a half a century, Saul has plucked elements of Pop Art, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Chicago Imagism, San Francisco Funk and cartoon culture to craft elasticized jumbles of cultural touchstones, political keynotes, psychological undertones, boobs, tongues, toilets and other omens of deliciously poor taste.

His flagrant subject matter treats the viewers' eyes like blisters to be popped, with heated content ranging from Angela Davis' crucifixion to O.J. Simpson's execution by electric chair. His works can teeter on the verge of racism or misogyny, but, as Saul explains, the artworks don't reflect the artist's own beliefs -- he doesn't have any. Rather, they take a life of their own, offending whoever is wound up enough to care. "There’s a tremendous need to not be seen as racist, not seen as sexist," Saul told Holland Cotter in 2008. "So I want to make sure I am seen as those things."

A series of Saul's work from the 1960s and '70s will go on view next week in an exhibition titled "From Pop to Punk" at New York's Venus Over Manhattan. The Day-Glo visions occupy a moral grey zone, with social commentary buckled and skewed until it's nearly unrecognizable. Today, many artists share Saul's love of the puerile and grotesque, from '90s bad boys like Mike Kelley and Raymond Pettibon to emerging contemporary artists like Jamian Juliano-Villani and Rebecca Morgan.

But Saul, and his love of fluid bodies and bodily fluids, came first.

We reached out to the artist to learn more...


G. I. Christ, 1967, Oil on canvas, 92 x 86 inches

How does it feel returning to your work from the '60s and '70s after all this time?

Actually, all this work was shown in New York City around the time I made it.

And how does it feel looking back?

Well, I don't know yet (laughs). When I showed the work at that time, the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist, was to imply no attention to any content, but just to judge the picture in terms of its technique. Thick paint, thin paint, stuff like that. It's going to be different this time because these pictures are full of content.

Do you think now both style and content are equally appreciated and evaluated?

Yes, yes. Much more so. Those days were very rigid. The art appreciation in 1966 was very rigid. Now it's much more flexible. I'm very pleased with the way things have turned out and am looking forward to seeing my pictures.

Your work was recently shown alongside Susan Te Kahurangi King's work at the Outsider Art Fair. Can you talk about that?

It's true I'm an outsider, but mainly that's my opinion. So I'm not sure I should have been there.

Overall, how do you think the art world has changed from the time you created these works to when they're showing now?

Supposedly it's gotten more corporate. But I haven't gotten more corporate. You never know about the art world because it's a matter of opinion. If you look at old art like Rembrandt and Vermeer it's not completely a matter of opinion. The pictures confront you and you see exactly what it is. In modern art a lot of it is suggestive, and it becomes a matter of opinion.

Today's masterpiece could become tomorrow's piece of junk. The only thing separating it from a piece of junk is the opinion, the profound and well-educated opinion of a few important people. They might get hit by a car, they might change their mind, who knows what's going to happen?

I like to see things. I see a lot more art than I'd like to see. We have to be polite and see the art shows of people we know. We see a lot of art. A mistake I've made is I have not worried sufficiently about the art world, really. I have not concerned myself with the other people in the art world. I've been a little too singular and that's a mistake I've made. But everybody makes a mistake of some kind and if that's my only mistake, I'm happy.

So can you talk a little about some of the works on view this year?

The whole thing is my imagination, that's the first thing you need to understand. I made it up. That's not commonplace in visual arts. You would think it would be, but it's not. I just imagine the war, I've never been to war. Have no experience to back it up whatsoever. I've never handled a gun. Never been in the military. Likewise, with a lot of those psychosexual portraits, I have no experience to back it up. I've been married twice, the current time for almost a half century.

So basically, this is just an imaginative thing I felt like doing. And I think the reason I felt like doing it, and what put a lot of force into it, was that art was going in the other direction and I wanted my art to not go in that direction. It was too formal, too dead, too technical. I wanted my art to be more like a movie. And also, of course, I have a style that makes good use of psychology. I really lay it on.


All the Money in Palestine, 1969, Acrylic on canvas, 68 x 96 inches

Do you think your artwork has had an influence on the current popularity of bad taste in art?

So I'm told! I'm told I have an influence, but I never know about that because I spend my days by myself. My wife and I have a studio up here in the country and we just hang out there so I don't know. We go to openings sometimes and I meet young artists but they all roll together into one big person and I have a hard time distinguishing one from another. I don't know what to say about my effect on the art world. I hope I have some, but you never know for certain.

You also mentioned in a previous interview that you were still pretending to be a rebellious youth at 75. At 80, how are you feeling now?

I think it keeps you in good shape. It's not that I'm pretending to be rebellious, I just think it's a romantic role to play in art. Who would want to play any other role? Any other role would be academic by definition. I try to be rebellious as long as there's no danger. In art there's no danger. It's not like you're jumping out of an airplane without wearing a parachute. There is no danger in art. You just do it. You stand there, you make it up.

Do you still feel like there is no danger in art following the recent Charlie Hebdo attack?

There can be danger in art if you paint a picture of the prophet. I promise not to deal with several subjects, I promise my wife. One of which is the prophet. Absolutely I won't deal with the prophet and… What else? I think that's about it. I don't believe in anything. I don't have any beliefs. I don't believe in any art styles, I don't believe in any religions or anything like that. I just live my life peacefully and make things up as a hobby or as a sport, as an art.

I use my imagination a lot and I feel in the position of a 14-year-old kid who has just seen a war movie and suddenly decides to write a war novel as a result. Except I think I can do it a little more convincingly. I like it best when two ideas collide -- like when you have a crazed attitude towards women combined with a crazed attitude towards the Vietnamese. I like that. Even if it's not true, I don't care whether it's true or false. I just do it.

Do you make art with your children?

Yes, I have three kids and they're all good cartoonists. You have to do something in the restaurant while you're waiting for the food to be served. So you start early and five years later, they're pretty good.


Self-Defense, 1969, Oil on canvas, 68 x 96 inches

Do you think growing up in San Francisco had any influence on your aversion to political correctness or political beliefs?

Perhaps it did. I did grow up there, but the meaningful time I had there was 1964 to 1973. I never used drugs beyond marijuana four or five times -- I was talked into it, I didn't enjoy it very much -- but drugs were a huge subject for people to think about. I took note of that, put it in my pictures. And I also put in the kind of psychology that was going on. In Marin County, Mill Valley, everybody was undergoing psychic change, it seemed. I couldn't help but make use of that, even though I personally didn't go through any psychic change -- I don't think. I just mixed the whole thing up with politics.

My actual politics are just left. I try to vote as left as I can. I hope that my paintings will coincide and be far left, but frequently they're not. Frequently the painting rebels and goes fascist on me. I don't mind! I don't mind! The painting is made up and has a life of its own. I think it up and I put it there and that's it.

Can you describe the experience of an artwork rebelling against you?

Well, I kind of regret it but I don't make any attempt to correct it. It might be hard to sell. All these pictures in the show come from the collection of one man, an art dealer. He supported me for 37 years. He bought the work directly from me. So I guess you could say he was an enabler, to say the least! He even is in a couple of the pictures, on a psychosexual level. But he only showed up like one day a year, so I didn't get to know him very well.

Saul's "From Pop to Punk" runs from February 25 until April 18 at Venus Over Manhattan in New York. See a preview below.

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Before You Go

1973: Destroy All Monsters Collective, "Greetings from Detroit", from the installation work, "Strange Früt: Rock Apocrypha, 2001
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Kelley formed experimental noise band "Destroy All Monsters" with Jim Shaw, Cary Loren and Niagara (Lynn Rovner) when they were attending University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He described it as "a pastiche of serious avant-garde music, free jazz, and hard rock, leavened with black humor..." The cut-and-paste improv rock strays from conventional musicality, opting instead for the vibrating textures of an aural collage. "I thought of 'Destroy All Monsters' as an art band," Kelley told Interview. "I was much more invested in Krautrock bands like Kraftwerk or the machinic disco of Giorgio Moroder than I was in the emerging New York punk movement."
1978: Catholic Birdhouse, from Birdhouses series
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
In his final year at CalArts Kelley made a series of birdhouse sculptures transforming crafty, DIY artworks into the holy realm of conceptual art. The houses, including "Catholic Birdhouse" pictured above, incorporate not-very-birdlike conditions into their creation, adding a bizarre element to the traditional handiwork. The works also weave in Kelley's ongoing investigation of family and architectural forms that may or may not be homes. Note: This particular birdhouse is not on view.
1980: The Little Girl's Room
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
In a statement written by Kelley he explained that this project "grew out of a dream within a dream in which a 'little girl' envisioned the face of a pimplike man whose smile revealed an infinity of sharp teeth." After awakening from the dream, the little girl transforms her room from traditionally girly to minimalist and geometric, symbolizing her entrance into puberty. This piece invokes Kelley's interest in adolescence, puberty and the darker moments of childhood. Although Kelley originally intended to create a performance to accompany the installation, he later decided the installation should function alone.
1983: The Banana Man
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Kelley's 28-minute video project pieced together a character study of the Banana Man, a character from the children's television show "Captain Kangaroo." Having never watched the Banana Man himself, Kelley enlisted his childhood friends to recount their memories of him, memories which were weaved together into a fragmented narrative.
1986: Trickle Down and Swaddling Clothes
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
These works were included in "Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile," which examined issues of light and darkness, representation and simulation through lenses of Western philosophy, American painting and American history. The series contained everything from Rorschach tests to tainted religious symbolism, creating an alternate narrative of the heroic male through spirituality, art and politics. Part of the original installation could only be accessed by crawling through an entrance below a painting of a cave.
1987-93: Half A Man
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This project takes the form of a complex psychodrama about innocence corrupted, that incorporates questions about gender and the family. "Eviscerated Corpse," a 1989 installation of stuffed animals and rag dolls, sewn together to morph into a human-centipede-esque serpent of cutified commodities. The piece also dismantled the association of dealing with craft objects as "woman's work."
1987: More Love Hours Then Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This piece, also part of the "Half a Man" project, weaves together used children's toys onto a wall hanging, resembling a nightmarishly cute interpretation of an AbEx canvas. "I said if each one of these toys took 600 hours to make then that’s 600 hours of love; and if I gave this to you, you owe me 600 hours of love; and that’s a lot. And if you can’t pay it back right away it keeps accumulating," Kelley said in an interview with BOMB. "That’s more love that you can ever pay back. So what? You’re just fucked then. I wasn’t even thinking about the objects as objects, I was thinking about them as just hours-of-attention."
1988: Pay for Your Pleasure
Photo: Brian Forrest, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts
"Pay for Your Pleasure" consists of 42 colorful banners depicting poets, politicians and artists, lining the walls of a hallway. Each banner features a quotation comparing artmaking and criminality in some way, such as Francis Picabia's quote "I love the unfrocked priest, the freed convict;; they are without past and without future and so live in the present." At the end of the hall you'll find an artwork made by a local violent criminal and at the entrance, a donation box for a victim's rights group. "The gooey notion that art should somehow be good for you -- Vitamin C for the soul -- is very American, and it's a sentiment Kelley skewers with Catholic wit," Christopher Knight wrote in the LA Times.
1991-99: Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites
Photo credit: Nic Tenwiggenhorn, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
These fuzzy planets have become some of Kelley's most iconic pieces, the discarded toys clustered and sanitized to the ranks of serious sculptures. "'With Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites' Mike Kelley had created a quintessentially American environment," Bettina Gilois explained, "and explored the American dream expressed through the excess of consumption, bulk buying, and the habit of collecting by a prosperous society that believed its own myth;; a society obsessed with luxury and life-style, lavishly garish color coordination and the most transient objects of low quality, which ironically stand for quality of life. All of it scented and deodorized like the constant cleansing of a bad conscience."Note: This work is not on view at MOCA.
1987/2003 : From My Institution to Yours
Photo courtesy of MOCA, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This piece, which was originally shown in LACMA, features stock animation character drawings found floating around CalArts accompanied by slogans posted around the school (which was also his workplace.) The materials were gathered from sites of menial labor, exploring the space that often exists between museum-goers and workers.
1989: With Malice Towards None; With Charity For All, from Reconstructed History
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This series consists of photographs and collages created by defacing illustrations from second-hand American History textbooks that Kelley found. The doodles and impromptu captions are reminiscent of adolescent yearbook scribbles or graffiti. John Waters described it as "a real history text book that Mike defaced with glee, the same thing all of us who were bored in high school wanted to do in reaction to teachers who didn’t challenge us or discouraged our rabid interests. Our boredom turned to anger and then to rage and if we were lucky, then to art. 'Barf' adds Mike to the patriotic 'Signing of the Declaration of Independence' illustration and now, on the 4th of July, I can finally feel patriotic thanks to Mike Kelley’s troublemaking defiant reinvention of this school book."
1990: Nostalgic Depiction of the Innocence of Childhood
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This photo (which serves as one half of a diptych), features a man and woman ( the LA based artists Bob Flannagan and Sheree Rose) squatting naked over stuffed animals, the man's butt smeared with dark liquid. The fake pornography references and satirizes the understanding that children's imaginations are more vivid than adults', extending this advantage to encompass sexual fantasies. The sepia tone of the photograph adds to the ambiguity of what exactly is going on and what exactly is smeared all over that buttocks.
1991: Ahh...Youth!
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Eight frontal photos rest side by side, most capturing the faces of thrift-store stuffed animals, with one depicting Kelley himself. Standing out against the fuzzy majority, Kelley appears menacing if not completely sociopathic, like an unwelcome stranger peeking into a child's bedroom. The arresting image also served as the cover of Sonic Youth's "Dirty."
1993: Roth/Mouse/Wolverton Drawing Exercise #8
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Here Kelley toys with the powers of attraction and repulsion, using monstrous features, warped distortions and grotesque details to create surprisingly appealing images. "My personal interest in the monstrous is more sexual in orientation," Kelley explained. "I have always been, primarily, interested in abstract monsters-the blob monster. When I thought about it, I realized this stemmed from my childhood, when I didn't know what female genitals looked like. I thought the blob monsters in films and comic books were what genitals must look like, so such monsters were very sexual to me. They were not purely repellent-they were mystifying and alluring."
1995: Educational Complex
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
The architectural piece above contains small models of every school Kelley ever attended and his childhood home, with the spaces he could not remember left as blank. He facetiously claimed these spots were forgotten because he'd been abused there and had blocked out the memory as a response to the trauma. Kelley was intrigued by Repressed Memory Syndrome, a psychological theory that aligns child abuse with dysfunctional behavior. "What was my problem? Why was I playing with these toys? Had I been abused?" Kelley explained of his artistic motivation. "Was I a pedophile? I didn't understand what they were talking about. But when I did a bit of research, I discovered how culturally omnipresent this infatuation with child abuse was. Since everybody seemed to be so interested in my personal biography, I thought I should make some overtly biographical work-pseudo-biographical work."
1996: Untitled #3 from Land O'Lakes series
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
The muse for this series was the woman on the "Land O'Lakes" butter packaging, originally made by Arthur Hanson in 1928. Growing up, Kelley would squeeze his butter carton in a way that made her knees appear to be her breasts. "She was the object of my childhood sexual fantasies," Kelley explained. A series of drawings and paintings contort the girl in various ways, inverting, multiplying, sexualizing and making psychedelic the iconic American image.
1999: Framed and Frame (Miniature Reproduction "Chinatown Wishing Well" Built by Mike Kelley after "Miniature Reproduction 'Seven Star Cavern' Built by Prof. H. K. Lu"
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Kelley created a life-sized reconstruction of a wishing well in LA's Chinatown, toying with the space between real and imagined spaces. The realistic sculpture is complete with Chinese figurines and coins from imaginary well-wishers. The installation also contains an NSFW portion. A reminder from Carolina Miranda: "Don’t forget to take a peek under and inside many of his pieces, since they often seem to contain little surprises. Under the architectural models, you’ll find a mattress; a pink dresser hides books about sex and a packet of birth control pills; and inside the 'Wishing Well' is a mattress, a box of Kleenex, some candles and tub of Vaseline. (This latter space he once described as a 'crawl space/fuck room.')"Note: This is a two part piece. Only half of the work is pictured.
1999-2001: Kandors
Getty Images
Kelley takes Kandor, the capital of Superman's fictional origin planet Krypton, which, in the comics, was shrunken by the villainous Brainiac and stored in Superman's hyperbaric chamber. Kelley's three-dimensional sculptures encompass various Kandors described throughout the Superman comic's history. "When I researched it, I discovered that Kandor had never been drawn the same way twice in the Superman comics," Kelley explained. "It was such an unimportant part of the Superman mythos that a fixed city plan was never developed." Kelley originally intended to create Kandor-Con 2000, a convention for Superman fanatics devoted to this mythical utopia. But the piece, about more than just comic books, speaks to alienation, imagination and the home. "Kandor now sits, frozen in time, a perpetual reminder of his inability to escape that past, and his alienated relationship to his present world."
2000-2011: Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #34 (The King and Us/The Queens and Me), 2010
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
"Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions" was originally conceived as a 365-part video project, one for each day of the year,meant to cycle completely in a 24-hour event. He completed 36 of the videos, all based off found photographs of “extracurricular activities” and combined them with sculptural elements. The first is a one-act melodrama that restages a high school yearbook photograph of a play, and numbers 2-32 also known as Day Is Done, are a lo-fi series of video-sculptures featuring vampires, hillbillies, goths and other characters. A particularly trippy moment of the series,( seen above), features a life-sized Colonel Sanders peering into a diorama featuring a mini Freud puffing on a cigar. Identical swirling colors adorn the miniature floor and the large-scale one.
2005-2013: Mobile Homestead
Photo credit: CorineVermuelen, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This installation is a full size reproduction of the home Kelley grew up in, located in Westland, Michigan just west of Detroit. The front of the house is removable and designed like a mobile home so that it may be driven in and around the environs of Detroit doing "public" service.. The remainder of the house rests on a lot by the MOCAD and is used for community projects and exhibitions, such as "haircuts, social services, meeting space and a place to hold barbecues and perhaps for the homeless to pick up mail." Kelley also documented the people and places he encountered during a 2010 journey of the Mobile Homestead in a three part video work, which showed at the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

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