Peter Saul is considered by many to be one of the most singular artists of his generation, whose paintings have continued to challenge audiences over the course of a career spanning more than six decades. Born in San Francisco, California in 1934, he briefly attended Stanford University and the California School of Fine Arts before going on to receive his BFA from Washington University, St Louis in 1956. After graduating, Saul moved to Europe where he lived first in Amsterdam, later in Paris and Rome. The relative isolation that his moved afforded him in part lead Saul to derive inspiration from popular culture, particularly American magazines and comic books. His drawings from that time in particular are a hybrid of abstract expressionistic marks and cartoon-inspired imagery. His bold and brushy paintings juxtaposed the loosest of domestic settings - bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens - with what he referred to at the time as “folklore, contemporary version, which seems to be mainly the commercial and the smutty.” While living in Paris, Saul’s work drew the attention of Chicago dealer Allan Frumkin, who gave him his first solo exhibition in 1961. The critical acclaim was almost immediate, with Saul quickly added to the growing list of artists making what was soon dubbed ‘Pop Art.’
Following his return to the United States in 1964, he settled in the San Francisco suburb of Mill Valley. While he continued to use tropes such as Superman and Donald Duck, toilets, knives, guns and food items as compositional and satirical elements, the context of California in the 1960s, the Cold War, Vietnam and Civil Rights protests, was transformative. Never one to shy away from difficult subjects, Saul addressed the most divisive issues of the time with characteristic bluntness, none more so than the Vietnam War. He commented in 1967, “now I think I have… paintings that could prohibit a sophisticated response. Not just because of ‘obscenity,’ which is prevalent, but because it is coupled with politics. I am polarizing things, want to see good and bad.” Those paintings, equally critical of all parties involved, feature over-sexed G.I.s and female caricatures of Asian ‘types’ as un-subtle representations of the atrocities of war. Besides the rampant “obscenity,” Saul’s adoption of acrylic paints and the day-glo palette they offered is a send-up not just of perceived ‘good taste’ but also the moral corruption he was satirizing.
If any single theme defines Saul’s work as a whole, it is his willingness or more accurately, his eagerness to shock audiences. The gleeful irreverence in his treatment of ‘serious’ subject matter is the mark of an artist well aware of the power of humor. Through the 1970s and beyond, Saul continued to turn a critical eye on institutions such as the art world, government, big business, the feminist movement and public figures ranging from presidents to serial killers. In 1975, he left California for upstate New York. The move coincided with the development of a major new series of paintings on a grand scale, revisiting classics of art history including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, Picasso’s Guernica and Leutze’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware. True to the genre, Saul’s version of ‘history’ painting is both parody of the past and commentary on present. In 1981, Saul was offered a teaching position at the University of Texas, Austin, where he lived and worked until returning to New York in 2001. While he continued to engage with the various subjects of his earlier work, beginning in the late 1980s a number of self-portraits signaled a more introspective approach in his painting. Though hardly a departure from his established style - described by one critic as “Thomas Hart Benton meets R Crumb” - Saul himself often appears as the comic-tragic subject of his more recent paintings.
Saul has been the subject of numerous museum retrospectives, most notably in 1980-1981, organized by the University of Illinois, DeKalb; in 1989-1990, organized by the Aspen Museum of Art, CO; in 1999-2000, organized by the Musée de l’Abaye Saint-Croix, Les Sables d’Olonne, France; in 2008 organized by the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA; and in 2020, at the New Museum, New York. He has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including multiple National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1993 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 2002. Saul’s work is included in major public collections internationally such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France and the Stedlijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, among others.