David Salle’s artistic work is characterized by unexpected and often disquieting combinations of images, some self-generated and some sourced from pop culture or the history of art. His pieces, which have helped to shape the entire postmodern art movement, consist of layered images on massive canvasses. Apart from his paintings, which have been exhibited in museums ranging from the Whitney in New York to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, he is also known for his other artistic endeavors — he directed the 1995 film “Search and Destroy” and has designed theater sets and costumes for choreographer Karole Armitage. Salle sat down with WEEKEND before speaking at the School of Art to discuss his art’s evolution, his creative process and how it feels to be misinterpreted.
Q. You’re giving a talk today at the School of Art — what do you plan to speak about?
A. There are a couple of things on my mind. I want to try to reimagine how we talk about art, how we judge its effect on us. Another idea is about intentionality — that it’s overrated. And I’m going to stake out the difference between the presentational mode and the pictorial — what do we mean when we say that something is pictorial?
Q. Do you often give talks?
A. No, but I’ve been doing more of it recently. I’ve been a little more engaged with trying to write and speak — to give form to a desire to talk about art in a different way.
Q. When you do give talks, is it usually to art students?
A. Usually. Museum groups sometimes. But I’m also doing this because I’m interested in what is on the students’ minds. As much as I have things I want to talk about, I’m also curious to hear what the students have to say.
Q. Could you talk a little about your evolution as an artist? Have you always been interested in art?
A. Well, it’s a little bit of a cliché to say that I made it up as a little kid, but I kind of did. I got the call early on and I didn’t take too many detours along the way.
Q. Your work has a very distinct style. Did you always create art using multiple images from different sources?
A. No I didn’t, but I think I always wanted to make something that gave the appearance of — the feeling of — several things happening simultaneously. Not just the painting, but the wall behind the painting as well — that impulse was there early on.
Q. What is the process of art-making like for you? For example, with the multiple images that you use, do you collect the images throughout your life in a library that you then go back to?
A. I have a library, but it’s a library without any card catalog or any alphabetizing. It’s a library of chaos, really. But there are images that keep recurring, themes within the images that keep recurring.
Q. Is there a certain source or place from which your images come that you seem to revisit?
A. It might sound funny to say this, but I’m not really interested in sources as such — I’m not so much making references as I am using a pictorial language. “Reference” is part of that language but not the main part. I am interested in the so-called classical genres — still life, landscape, the nude — but in a kind of notational or direct way of painting an image. So 19th- and early 20th-century painting leads the way to that.
Q. Do you feel as if your work has changed since you began making art?
A. I think two things are true about art-making in general. One is that it’s a long, continual evolution. I think I’ve been very restless and have followed a number of digressive paths in my art — not all of which have necessarily been fruitful. But on the other hand, I could just as easily say I’ve been making the same paintings since I was 14. Both would have some truth.
Q. You’ve also worked with costume and set design and film directing. What is it like changing media so drastically?
A. There’s nothing drastic about it. I think if you can do one thing, you can usually do more than one thing if you want to. What all of those have in common, the one thing painting doesn’t have, is duration — images unfolding in time. I’ve always wanted to make [my paintings] have some notion of a prolonged viewing time and a specific duration, which you really can’t do in painting, but you can in these other forms.
Q. With painting you have control over the entire product, while with these other projects, your work becomes a part of a collaborative artistic endeavor.
A. It’s true, but it doesn’t faze me to be a part of someone else’s vision, as long as we’re on the same wavelength.
Q. Your work seems very open to multiple interpretations and gives a lot of freedom to the viewer. Is it ever frightening or unnerving to create a work that has a lot of personal meaning and then release into a world where viewers create their own connections?
A. It’s not frightening at all — I can say that. Are you asking how it feels to be misinterpreted?
Q. Or to have the possibility of being misinterpreted.
A. I think it’s kind of a given. I’ve always identified with that André Gide quote: “Don’t understand me too quickly.” I think if something’s interesting, then the way in which it creates meaning in the world is subject to great fluctuations. That’s a sign of its aliveness.