Mad About You:
Peter Saul vs. America
Methods in Contemporary Art History,
Excerpted from an essay. Please contact for full text.
One of Saul’s signatures is his incendiary treatment of the American psyche. He gladly rakes beloved public figures through the coals. Initially the title of Pop Art was thrust upon his body of work . Though he staunchly defied the reserved treatment many Pop Artists used of their subject matter. Richard Shiff, in quoting Saul, reveals this fascination with increasingly lurid imagery:
“I decided to maintain the direction of my pictures. I tried to increase the psychological impact, put more unusual characters in the electric chair”… Saul’s retrospective statement may seem flippant. Yet it conveys a blunt truth: he came to regard his well-developed drawing and painting techniques as enabling what was far more important for him—the viewer’s engagement with the subject matter.
Saul enjoys the role of enfant terrible.13 But, for Saul, the key is not in critical dissection, but social reception. The audience is lured in with a basal interest in phalluses, breasts, and an appealingly vivid smorgasbord of body parts and colors. Upon close inspection of the 1969 painting “The Government of California”, the audience might, perhaps, identify the disembodied head of Martin Luther King Jr. alongside Ronald Reagan and stop there. But the interwoven nature of the work prompts the viewer to trace the web. The tentacle labeled “honest” extending from King’s head gingerly clutches a Bank of America which is being pried open by a wrench clutched in another of King’s tentacles. Coins roll out and into the tentacle labeled “poor”. Yet another tentacle, this one labeled “clean” dusts the erect penis of Ronald Reagan with “syphilis”. Over the Golden Gate Bridge hang a series of toilet paper banners.
As the initial shock of the imagery washes away, we must make sense of what we see. Each element deftly weaves into another element. The caricatured figures force us to acknowledge the politically charged conversation of race in America. The tentacled figure recalls anti-semitic imagery of Jewish influence. The tentacles in a 1981 image called “Our old Friend to the Octopus” stem from an old man’s face. He has a large bulbous nose and is strangling several labeled figures like “Comedy” and “Tragedy”. Behind him is a label of “Jerusalem”. Like “The Government of California”, “Our old Friend to the Octopus” depicts the caricature as a nefarious controller. However, Saul’s critique is pointing to clear political figures and naming them as the nefarious controllers. He is carefully depicting the systematized abuses of political powers.
Can we critique a figure like Martin Luther King Jr.? Saul unabashedly says yes. For Saul, nothing is above reproach and the system is on trial. He is telling a story, one in which the abnormal psychology of America is exposed. In depicting Martin Luther King Jr as an angelic octopus whose tentacles mete out “clean” syphilis a year after his assassination, Saul is pointing to the abuses of Martin Luther King’s legacy. The figure is held up as a mythically vaunted and unassailable character in American history. This construction is largely due to Reagan’s appropriation of King. A 2017 analysis by the Boston Review of MLK Day uncovered a letter Reagan had written to the Republican Governor of New Hampshire: His new position, Reagan explained in the letter, was based “on an image [of King], not reality.” 14 Reagan’s support for the federal King holiday, in other words, had nothing to do with his personal views of the civil rights leader. Instead the holiday provided Reagan with political pretext to silence the mounting criticism of his positions on civil rights. 15
In “The Government of California” we see Saul’s multilayered treatment of these two figures. Reagan used the idea of King, pushing a false narrative of a Black deity who argued for a “colorblind society”. All the while, intending for this ameliorative and purely symbolic announcement to pave the way for further exploitation of Black communities. Martin Luther King Jr’s more radical speeches are pushed asunder, to make way for toothless reiterations of “I Have a Dream” speeches, which promote a non-radical agenda. A mortal is made saint, and by his sainthood, per Saul’s depiction, Reagan quite literally fucks the Black community.
A recent article by Chris Cutrone in the leftist periodical, The Platypus Review, gives us language and context to parse Saul’s abnormal psychology:
capitalism appears as various kinds of cancer cells running rampant at the expense of the social body; whether of underclass criminals, voracious middle classes, plutocratic capitalists, or wild “populist” [or even “fascist”] masses, all of whom must be tampered down if not eliminated entirely in order to restore the balanced health of the system. But capitalism does not want to be healthy in the sense of return to homeostasis, but wants to overcome itself… 16
It is within the unhealthy cancer cells running rampant that Saul situates his work. He culls from the mentality of public opinion and projects the perspective through his own deft hand. The state in which the human figure is projected onto Saul’s canvas is akin to the “suprapersonal” level Brian Massumi discusses with respect to Deleuze and Guattari