David Salle, Sextant in Dogtown, 1987. Oil and synthetic polymer on canvas, five panels: 96 3/16 × 126 1/4 in. (244.3 × 320.7 cm) overall. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 88.8a-e
NARRATOR: This painting, called Sextant in Dogtown, is by artist David Salle. Although it seems to be telling a story, one would be hard-pressed to say exactly what the artist is trying to communicate. He presents us with an odd assortment of seemingly unrelated images: a woman performing a bizarre striptease act, a couple of nasty-looking clowns, and a strange figure operating an old-fashioned sea navigation device called a sextant. Salle’s images come from a variety of sources including magazines, stock photographs, and pornography. Salle puts these images together in a painting the way another artist might create a collage using scraps of paper. Each of these fragments brings with it a series of associations and meanings.
Salle began making paintings in the late 1970s, when painting itself was considered by many to be passé. When his work was first shown, it generated controversy. What seems clear now is that it captures a particular cultural moment, and comments on the media-saturation and consumerism of the Reagan era. The cool irony and pastiche of borrowed images in this painting heralds a new direction in American art. Some of the other artists whose work you’ll see in this gallery share Salle’s postmodern aesthetic.