‘Just Do It’: At 87, Artist Peter Saul Can’t Stop Making His Crazy Surreal Paintings

At 87, Peter Saul is free as a bird. He has the luxury of choosing only the things he likes to do most of the time. His imagination continues to run free, allowing him to translate his sharp observations of the world and his unique sense of humor onto canvas. “I just do what I want,” the painter told Artnet News.

Such freedom, however, comes with discipline. At least, that seems to be the case for the veteran painter. He still keeps a daily routine, albeit a relaxing one. He prepares breakfast by “wasting time” in the morning. His afternoons are usually action-packed, working rigorously in his studio, located above the space where his wife, Sally, makes ceramics. He reads books while waiting for the paint to dry. “Even acrylic takes a few minutes to dry,” he jokes. Sally cooks dinner around 7:30 p.m., and that’s when Saul puts down his brushes for the night. There’s also a calendar that keeps track of the couple’s meetings and activities. His studio may be messy, he says, but his paintings are always tidy.

“I love being an artist and I don’t need any approval. It’s a bit unusual. I don’t seem to need any encouragement,” the bubbly entertainer said. “Just do it.”

Peter Saul in his studio in Germantown, New York, 2022. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

All Saul needs to work is an image that catches his eye. “If I can’t get an interesting sketch of the picture, I don’t paint the picture,” Saul wrote in the exhibit booklet. For more than four decades, the artist has been creating whimsical and colorful paintings in this way, and the creative spark is still alive within him, as evidenced by his latest body of work, currently on display at the Michael Werner Gallery in London. The seven new paintings on canvas and five works on paper might be political, or at times too surreal to make sense, but they definitely command attention.

Teaching a horse to smoke a cigarette (2021), for example, depicts three small men, each with a cigarette in their mouths, attempting to tame a horse that is chewing on a large cigarette. “That’s such a stupid idea, I couldn’t resist it,” Saul laughed. “I was looking for an exquisite corpse idea of ​​surrealist artists. Well, I thought I’d just make an exquisite corpse, but it’s gonna be three people. I’ll paint half the horse brownish, and half the back and add a little leg green.

“And then I said, what can I do with my mouth? Well, I’m going to put a cigarette in it, and once I put it in I realized it made sense,” continued Saul, who quit smoking 37 years ago. The three men pose as instructors, teaching the horse to smoke. “But the horse doesn’t know what it’s doing.”

Peter Saul, <i>Teaching a horse to smoke a cigarette</i> (2021).  Photo: Mark Woods.  Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery.  “width=”1024″ height=”855″  data-srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2021-007-1024×855.jpg 1024w, https://news .artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2021-007-300×251.jpg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2021- 007-1536×1283.jpg 1536w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2021-007-2048×1711.jpg 2048w, https://news.artnet.com/app/ news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2021-007-50×42.jpg 50w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2021-007-1920×1604.jpg 1920w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/></p>
<p id=Peter Saul, Teaching a horse to smoke a cigarette (2021). Photo: Mark Woods. Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery.

Another table, Who brushes their teeth? (2022), features several characters (and a car) trying to clean their teeth, but not everyone does the job properly. Some attack another character’s hair. One appears to be cleaning a tire. Saul said the idea came about when dental work was done after a bridge came loose. He then started doodling, adding seven or eight toothbrushes “in various inappropriate places”.

“And then I had different people brushing different people’s teeth, which is already very debatable. Everyone I know brushes their own teeth,” he said. that would be fun to do.”

Saul’s persistence in living the life – and making the art – he believes in (while having fun doing it) hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Born in 1934 in San Francisco, California, Saul attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and Washington University School of Fine Arts in St. Louis.

He then moved to Europe, and lived there from 1956 to 1964. In Paris, he met the surrealist painter Roberto Matta, who introduced him to the American art dealer Allan Frumkin. Frumkin gave Saul his first exhibition at his Chicago gallery in 1961 and continued to represent the artist for the next three decades.

Over the years, he has developed a unique visual language influenced by pop culture, with brightly colored, figurative, and sometimes grotesque images that satirically comment on American society, politics, and historical events.

Peter Saul, <i>Who brushes their teeth?</i> (2022).  Photo: Kevin Noble.  Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery.  “width=”1024″ height=”871″  data-srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2022-004-1024×871.jpg 1024w, https://news .artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2022-004-300×255.jpg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2022- 004-1536×1306.jpg 1536w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2022-004-2048×1742.jpg 2048w, https://news.artnet.com/app/ news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2022-004-50×43.jpg 50w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAU-2022-004-1920×1633.jpg 1920w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/></p>
<p id=Peter Saul, Who brushes their teeth? (2022). Photo: Kevin Noble. Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery.

“I was at an important time, a long time ago, like 1960-64,” Saul recalls. “I was an important artist, but then I fell off a cliff and I was no longer important.” The American art scene was in transition, as was the general social and political atmosphere, with a brutal and unwinnable war in Vietnam. Saul said that the artistic rhetoric of the time was influenced by an “intellectual attitude driven largely by people with doctorates” and who thought “figurative and political work was very negative”.

“So I really just painted for an audience of two, Allan Frumkin and me. No one else liked it,” he said. This disinterest lasted for about a decade, from 1966 to 1976 , but at the same time no one told him not to paint what he was painting. “I was extremely isolated.”

Saul therefore moved to Texas in 1981 to teach at the University of Texas at Austin and remained there for two decades. His career began to take a turn around 25 years ago and the market for his paintings began to pick up. “It’s been a lot nicer to me since. Sally and I have benefited greatly from the art world. My price has gone up a lot,” he said.

Peter Saul, <i>The tree is angry</i> (2021).  Photo: Mark Woods.  Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery.  ” width=”750″ height=”1024″  data-srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAUZ-2021-003-750×1024.jpg 750w, https://news .artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAUZ-2021-003-220×300.jpg 220w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAUZ-2021- 003-1125×1536.jpg 1125w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAUZ-2021-003-1501×2048.jpg 1501w, https://news.artnet.com/app/ news-upload/2022/08/SAUZ-2021-003-37×50.jpg 37w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAUZ-2021-003-1407×1920.jpg 1407w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/08/SAUZ-2021-003-scaled.jpg 1876w” sizes=”(max-width: 750px) 100vw, 750px”/></p>
<p id=Peter Saul, The tree is angry (2021). Photo: Mark Woods. Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery.

His paintings are now in the hands of private collectors around the world, from New Zealand to Bangkok and Hong Kong. An auction record was set in 2016 with the sale of his 1974 painting Saul’s Guernica at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago for $575,000, nearly double presale estimates, according to Artnet Price Database. Retrospectives of his practice have been presented at institutions such as the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt in 2017 and the New Museum in New York in 2020.

Looking ahead, Saul plans to tackle climate change in his future paintings. Indeed, among the new works exhibited in London are two new drawings on the subject: Global warming (2022) depicts a molten Earth, while an ax-wielding tree attacks a man in The tree is angry (2021).

“Now it doesn’t matter if you are figurative, abstract, cubist, expressionist or anything surreal,” the artist said. “People are more interested in who you are than in the style in which you paint.”

“I’m very happy to be appreciated,” Saul adds of the belated recognition. “I’ve enjoyed my whole life, frankly. I am rather modest. My demands were modest. I just asked to live, you know, and I need to be happily married.

“Peter Saul: New Work” is on view until September 10 at the Michael Werner Gallery in London.

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