At the beautiful uptown ADAA show a jarring standout is the great hell-raising storm-bird proto-Pop genius Peter Saul and two wildly colored Day-Glo abstract-figurative quasi-portraits — Abstract Expressionist Portrait of Donald Trump and The Little Guy Gets Angry — which the artist says is a portrait of “a Trump voter.”
In spite of claims otherwise, Saul does not make “political art.” That’s too small and specific a term for what he does — and has always done since his emergence in the late 1950s. These aren’t just highly colored screwball jokes. This is strong, serious, formally original work with the ability to entertain, annoy, place you on a stage, cast you in a morbid light, and let you glimpse the farther shores of painting.
The Trump painting is a corkscrewing field of Granny Smith apple green with asparagus-colored swaths and squiggles of paint over aerospace blocks of orange hair (11 heads of it) and radioactive orange skin. There are also four hands with paintbrushes, in the act of action-painting this de Kooning update. Saul has long poked admiring fun at the giganticism of capital-A abstract painting, always smiling as he kills; his subject matter has always been incendiary and his visual style go-for-the-throat. Like a modern-day Max Beckmann or George Grosz, who attacked Nazism in their work, Saul has skewered racism, hate, the American war machine, and much else.* In the past he has painted a black girl performing fellatio on Ronald Reagan, an American soldier performing cunnilingus on an Asian woman, and Martin Luther King as a devouring octopus. He and Benny Andrews — who always did this sort of thing, as well — deserve permanent places in the late-20th-century pantheon.
Saul describes the Trump painting as “sort of a bubbling mess of paint.” It is. But a controlled one. Saul knows the tenets of abstraction in his bones — how to occupy an entire graphic field while also controlling, never overloading it. The hands, he says, “are trying to paint Trump’s likeness but they’re not getting much further than his hair.” Right?! It’s almost like Hitler’s mustache being able sometimes to conjure the guttural consciousness of ominousness and political chaos. No one gets out of Saul’s visual and political world unaccosted. He’s a beast.
But he’s thoughtful, too. About the picture of the Trump voter — a three-eyed, three-eared guy with a cap turned backward, his dukes up for a fight and a fuzzy thought balloon filled with post-Impressionist fog — Saul says the man is “sincere, stupid, hates intelligent people … and won’t be ignored by casual viewers. He’s ugly maybe, but he’s really there.” That says a lot about the waves of embattled refusal and rejection that emanate from the self-protected fortress of the Trumpnik that allows no real facts or news to filter through or to change his impervious world. It’s a picture of fear and fury, an apparition of a hardened mind turned defensive and mean.
*The original version of this article mistakenly identified George Grosz as George Gross.