Peter Saul lampoons politics, culture, and “good taste” in his surreal, deliberately impolite images painted in vivid, cartoony colors and rubbery shapes. Born in San Francisco, Saul studied art at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1950 to 1952 and received his BFA from Washington University School of Fine Arts in St. Louis, Missouri in 1956. During his last year as a student at Washington University, he decided to begin making paintings from the photographs he saw in National Geographic magazine. In an art world dominated by Abstract Expressionism, this idiosyncratic decision resolutely set Saul apart from his peers. While visiting Paris in 1958, Saul saw a copy of Mad Magazine, which further inspired the development of his energetic visual style and interest in political satire. In his paintings, he drew from these magazine sources as well as the imagery of Walt Disney, even incorporating Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and other cartoon figures into his work. Saul has stated that rendering images in a cartoon style is the “modern way to draw, any other style is copying from the last century.”
From 1956 to 1964, Saul lived in Holland, Paris, and Rome in relative isolation, though he did meet his long-time dealer Allan Frumkin and the Surrealist Roberto Matta during this period. In the mid-1960s, he returned to California and began making paintings prompted by the Vietnam War. Saul described his decision to delve into the heated politics of the war: “I was thumbing through Time magazine in a motel room in Ohio when suddenly I remembered one of the rules of modern art is you’re not supposed to have any political content (for no good reason, some nonsense about a lot of artists doing it in the 30s, therefore no one is supposed to do it again). How could I resist breaking such a stupid rule? I began immediately. . .The more I thought about it, the more I protested the war.”
In the 1970s, Saul embarked on a series of pictures based on well-known works by masters such as Jacques-Louis David, Willem de Kooning, and Pablo Picasso, recasting these works in his own satirical style. In the 1980s, Saul moved to Austin, Texas, where he taught and painted for nearly twenty years before settling in New York. He continues to make hilarious, often gruesome and deliberately offensive works based on a range of subjects, from politics and popular culture to self-portraiture.
Michael Duncan, The Spectacular Wrath of Saul: Peter Saul’s History Paintings, from an unpublished, recorded interview by Victoria Lautman, WBEZ, Chicago, 1996, 61.
Northern Illinois University Artist Series, 1980.