Mid-career survey of David Salle; Beaux-Arts student sketches

There are three ways to interpret the paintings of David Salle on view at the Whitney Museum here: As clever ``red herrings'' by a painter of little talent and immense ambition; as important works by a brilliant, profoundly original artist; or as provocative, occasionally successful, but unfortunately still often clumsy attempts by a highly intuitive, intelligent, and creative individual with the serious intent of shaping significant images for our Post-Modernist age. I personally don't doubt that the third interpretation is the correct one, despite all the hype and disparagement that surrounds his name these days. The paintings themselves, whether one likes them or not, speak dramatically in favor of his commitment and intentions and leave little room for argument that he is one of the most vital and intriguing artists to have emerged during the 1980s.

Fortunately the public can decide for itself in this first mid-career survey of Salle's art, which was organized originally by the Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania. As installed at the Whitney by guest curator David Whitney, it comprises 42 paintings executed over the past eight years. All are large, several are multi-paneled, and each consists of two or more disturbingly enigmatic juxtaposed images.

Writing in the exhibition catalog, associate curator Lisa Phillips asserts, ``The words, patterns, materials, styles, objects, and images he uses seem to be carefully selected for their provocative, associative qualities. They pique our interest, even titillate, but their subservience to formal arrangement and compositional devices obstructs any attempt to decipher or attribute specific meaning.'' Exactly true, and yet we sense that there is meaning here, despite the utter banality of his individual images and the irritating ``clumsiness'' of their execution. It is how these images are combined that creates the challenge and that provokes us to want to search within ourselves for what they are about.

After its closing at the Whitney on March 29, the exhibition travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (April 20-June 14); the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (July 17-Sept. 17); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (Nov. 13-Jan. 10, 1988). 'Ecole des Beaux-Arts

A fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of early- to mid-19th-century French art students is afforded by a remarkable exhibition on view at the National Academy of Design here. ``Oil Sketches From the 'Ecole des Beaux-Arts: 1816-1863'' consists of 170 paintings and drawings executed by students of that institution in fulfillment of preliminary requirements for the famed Prix de Rome. They fall into four categories reflecting the various contests: historic compositions, figure studies, historic landscapes, and tree sketches.

The historic composition contest was established in 1816 and held several times a year. Its 20 finalists received medals and were permitted to compete in the figure contest - the winners of which were entitled to continue in a more advanced round of competitions.

The historic landscape contest was begun in 1821 and entailed the production of a landscape to include a tree, an architectural fragment, and a historic episode. Ten finalists from this competition won the right to enter the tree contest, which began with a sketch made the first day and continued for another five days.

The entries for both the historic composition and historic landscape contests, however, had to be completed in one seven-hour session and on small canvases of a set size. The art students - who had to be male French bachelors under the age of 30 - assembled in a large room in the morning to be assigned the competition's subject, and were then expected to complete their oil sketches by the end of the day. Although technically only studies, these works had to conform to the highest standards of composition, color, drawing, perspective, and light/dark organization.

Even though this method tended to favor students with facile talents, it did give the judges a good idea of which young painters best represented the artistic ideals and objectives of the time.

For a late-20th-century viewer, however, the sight of so many small, equal-sized canvases depicting often violently dramatic events and places, and executed in roughly the same style presents a variety of critical and educational questions. How does one judge these youthful feats of conceptualization and technique, for instance, especially since they appear to bear no relevance whatever to how art is taught these days? And is there any value to be gained from studying them, particularly on the part of our own young artists?

The answers, I would suggest, are ``respectfully'' and ``yes.'' Respectfully, because many of these sketches are truly remarkable, and a handful of the oil studies from life are quite good. And, yes, because the entire exhibition is about artistic problem-solving, and few things interest or benefit the young as much as demonstrations of how the age-old issues of what and how to paint were resolved by other art students a century or so before they themselves were born.

After its closing on March 15 at the National Academy here, this altogether fascinating show, which was curated by Phillipe Grunchec, travels to the Elvehjem Museum in Madison, Wis.; the Denver Art Museum; and the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, Fla.

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