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NEW YORK — David Salle insists he’s not being coy when he claims he knows nothing about the way the art market functions.

“I honestly know very little about the art world,” he says, adding, “It seems to be quite large. There can be so many people involved that I couldn’t possibly keep up with it if I wanted to.”

This story first appeared in the January 3, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

It’s hard to believe that Salle, one of the key art stars of the Eighties, could be so naive. After all, he’s shown considerable business savvy many times during his career. Maybe the fact that it’s the second day of the new year accounts for his momentary lapse.

In any case, Salle, who sounds shy and modest over the telephone, has a knack for stirring controversy. His latest move is bound to generate some waves in the insular art community. Salle recently left the Gagosian Gallery for the Mary Boone Gallery, an event in the art world that’s almost akin to James Carville announcing he’s joined the Republican party.

“I’ve basically shown with both of them since the beginning of my career and I’m basically good friends with both of them,” Salle says.

Salle chocks up his decision to mount his first gallery show in New York in two years with Boone to little more than wanting a change of scene. “Because these are new works, I want to present them in a new context,” he says. “I’ve worked with both Mary and Larry [Gagosian] for so long. Mary is a great dealer. She has a wonderful sense of integrity for representing work in which she believes.”

Another reason for Salle re-joining Boone is that the dealer also represents Eric Fischl and Ross Bleckner. “These are people I went to school with,” says Salle. “It’s a reuniting of old friends. It’s a very intimate, very warm context.”

The artist was quick to add that there’s “nothing negative about the other context. I have with a long and personal relationship with Eric Gagosian,” Salle says. “Those things just don’t come to an end.”

Asked the cynical question of whether he’s switched dealers for the publicity value, Salle replies, “I can’t imagine that anyone thinks an artist does anything for that reason. The artist-dealer relationship is very personal.”

Boone is also downplaying the significance of Salle’s homecoming. “David and I have a great chemistry,” she says. “I love showing his work. David had a lot to do with forming my sense of aesthetics and what’s important in painting.”

She says she will continue to work with Salle as long as “the relationship is healthy and vital and moving forward.”

The relationship wasn’t always so healthy, however. In 2000, Boone filed court papers accusing Salle of refusing to consign his work to her after he agreed to do so and accepted a $500,000 advance. “I don’t really think I have ever sued him,” she says. “If anything, there was one time that there was a problem and it wasn’t anything.”

According to Salle, “That was just a matter for lawyers. It’s nothing between friends.”

Salle, who references popular culture and kitsch, creates multipanel works that often contain a jarring juxtaposition of styles. His new series, which will be on view at the Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea at 541 West 24th Street from Jan. 11 – March 1, consists of paintings composed of three or four panels. According to the artist, the work is a marked departure from the last series he produced.

As it has in the past, Salle’s new paintings play with images, their scale and their perspective. But the new series is more painterly, full of figures and still lifes. For example, a row of panels on one painting contains the rendering of a man or woman, clothed or unclothed in each panel. Across this lower row of figurative panels floats a long, rectangular one in which other images such as flowers, still life objects or landscape references jostle for space. The panels drift across abstract backgrounds such as constellations in the sky, stripes or wave patterns.

“The paintings are a culmination of past work,” says the artist. “I’ve been painting the figure always and painting still lifes for the last four or five years. Basically, I’ve been developing or, hopefully, deepening my relationship to a certain painterly translation. I think these paintings represent what I know to date about that translation process.”

Salle, along with artists Julian Schnabel and Fischl, is closely tied to the Eighties scene, when the art world went into overdrive, fueled by the heady stock market. Boone, who represented Salle, Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, has been criticized for having overhyped the neo-Expressionist artists, and for allegedly pushing them to release inferior works to keep up with the demand. Boone says she doesn’t want to talk about past history, while Salle says he never experienced that.

“That’s one of the unfortunate things people say that doesn’t have any basis in reality,” he explains. “You can always find someone to say something discouraging about an art dealer. That doesn’t have anything to do with the role they play in an artist’s life.”

As for his Eighties legacy, Salle has nothing to regret. “One can’t escape one’s time or the time in which one appears on the scene,” says Salle. “I don’t see any need to escape it, nor do I have any desire to. That’s part of how the art world makes distinctions, in terms of decades. The longer that you work and the more time you have to evolve, the less those distinctions seem to matter. I certainly hope I can transcend that.”

Contributing to the frenzy over Salle’s early work was a midcareer survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986. Salle seems uncomfortable with the term “midcareer.” “I was 34 years old,” he says. “I’ve had subsequent surveys that cover more time. There was one at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, three or four years ago.”

For his part, Salle says he was too busy making art to be aware of all the hoopla.

“On the one hand, when you’re very young and all your energy is going into your work, you don’t notice all this other stuff people seem to notice,” he says. “I definitely think that attention is a complicated, double-edged or multiedged implement. I think it’s safe to say that although too much attention can be a bad thing, it’s much better than neglect.”

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