Cindy Sherman and David Salle Brilliantly Subvert the Canon of Western Art

Artwork: David Salle (b.1952) Nadar’s Grey, 1990, acrylic and oil on canvas with two inserted panels 84 x 114 in. (213.4 x 289.6 cm.) 87 3/4 x 118 x 2 3/4 in. (223 x 299.6 x 7.1 cm.) framed Art © David Salle/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt.

Perhaps there is nothing the ego loves so much as history, the writing of the past for the present and future generations. There is a certain thrill in the idea of legacy, of the preservation of personage that creates the semblance of immortality.

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Though many are called and few are chosen even less tell it like it was. As George Orwell rightly observed, “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”

David Salle (b.1952) Tiny in the Air, 1989 acrylic and oil on canvas 94 x 136 in. (238.8 x 345.4 cm.) 96 1/8 x 138 1/4 x 3 1/8 in. (244.1 x 351.2 x 7.7 cm.) framed Art © David Salle/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt.

David Salle (b.1952) Tiny in the Air, 1989, acrylic and oil on canvas 94 x 136 in. (238.8 x 345.4 cm.) 96 1/8 x 138 1/4 x 3 1/8 in. (244.1 x 351.2 x 7.7 cm.) framed Art © David Salle/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt.

Invariably, this is the place where art builds a bridge between truth and illusion in the service of whoever is paying for it. so many of the great works of Western art are vehicles of propaganda in the service of the Church and the State. Utilizing the formal elements of composition, they create a visual myth, one that tows the party line.

We’ve known this for quite some time, but few of us are inclined to do much about it, seeing as how the problems of the world are far larger than aesthetic misrepresentation. But perhaps that’s why we are not all artists, for the creative mind is less inclined to accept the continuation of the status quo if it can subvert the original on its own terms.

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) Untitled #213, 1989 chromogenic colour print in artist's frame 42 1/2 x 33 in. (108 x 83.8 cm.) 49 1/2 x 41 in. (125.7 x 104.1 cm.) framed This work is number six from an edition of six. © Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) Untitled #213, 1989 chromogenic colour print in artist’s frame 42 1/2 x 33 in. (108 x 83.8 cm.) 49 1/2 x 41 in. (125.7 x 104.1 cm.) framed This work is number six from an edition of six. © Cindy Sherman

Enter Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and David Salle (b. 1952), both American artists and members of The Pictures Generation. As Baby Boomers in a post-nuclear world, both artists were inclined to create work by appropriating images from the consumer and media saturated age into which they were born. With a clear and concise insouciance, both have discarded the faux humility to the grandiose that Western art so often requires.

Instead, they’ve placed their tongues firmly in cheek, using the history of Western art as the basis for the unraveling of it. A new exhibition, Cindy Sherman and David Salle: History Paintings and Tapestry Portraits, now on view at Skarstedt, London, through November 26, 2016, is a glorious melee of aesthetic and iconographic deconstruction.

David Salle (b.1952), Young Krainer, 1989, diptych - acrylic and oil on canvas with three inserted panels 84 x 104 1/2 in. (213.4 x 265.4 cm.) 86 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 3 in. (218.7 x 270 x 7.5 cm.) framed Art © David Salle/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt.

David Salle (b.1952), Young Krainer, 1989, diptych – acrylic and oil on canvas with three inserted panels 84 x 104 1/2 in. (213.4 x 265.4 cm.) 86 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 3 in. (218.7 x 270 x 7.5 cm.) framed Art © David Salle/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt.

David Salle’s Tapestry Paintings are a pastiche on sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italian and Dutch genre styles. Salle overlays narrative scenes from historic tapestries with images from other genres including African masks and Giacometti sculptures. The result is a visual remix, a mash-up so to speak, bring creating an explosive mélange of visual imagery. The primacy of the tapestry has been reduced to a backdrop upon which new cultures and ideologies trounce the grandeur it once possessed.

In a similar way, Cindy Sherman transgresses all semblance of pomp and circumstance with her History Paintings, which take their inspiration from noble historical paintings from the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classical periods. Inspired directly by no less than Raphael, Caravaggio, Ingres, and Rubens, among others, Sherman casts herself as a series of characters you are not soon to forget. By performing the role, most often male, she deftly returns the heroicized figures to human scale.

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Untitled #203, 1989, chromogenic colour print in artist's frame 53 x 38 in. (134.6 x 96.5 cm.) 61 x 45 3/4 in. (154.9 x 116.2 cm.) framed This work is number two from an edition of six. © Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Untitled #203, 1989, chromogenic colour print in artist’s frame 53 x 38 in. (134.6 x 96.5 cm.) 61 x 45 3/4 in. (154.9 x 116.2 cm.) framed This work is number two from an edition of six. © Cindy Sherman

History Paintings and Tapestry Portraits is nothing short of sheer delight for anyone who has ever looked at the canon of Western art with a squinty eye.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.