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How To See by David Salle review

How To See, David Salle, Stuart Bush Studio notes

‘How To See’ by David Salle book review

Have you ever wondered what you are supposed to think when you look at a painting? In the book ‘How To See,’ David Salle is dissatisfied that art critics focus on: content, artist’s intention, the audience, and the market.  Salle believes artist intention and content might help to explain a small aspect of the work.  The content might have helped to get the work started and quite often the intention is an afterthought.  Considering the audience and the market while focusing on the little plagues takes your attention away from where it should be.  When Salle stands in front of a painting, he tries to put himself in the position of the creator.  Encouraging a different view, Salle states “Art … as a position paper, with the artist as a kind of philosopher manque.”  Using the language artists use between themselves, David Salle effectively articulates ‘How to See’.


David Salle (b. 1952) studied on the West coast of America at Cal Arts.  As an art student, Salle studied with peers such as Eric Fischl and John Baldessari. When he moved to New York in the 1980s Salle didn’t expect to be able to make living as an artist.  So he made work for a small audience of artists and covered his living expenses writing about Art. However, over time people started to pay attention to his paintings and interest in his work grew.  He has spent a lifetime developing a set of refined skills through the regular process of painting and writing.  This has lead to David Salle having exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.  Meanwhile, Salle’s writing has been printed in Artforum, Art in America, Modern Painter, and the Paris Review.

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In the various essays and reviews in this book, it seems as if Salle wants to change the way we see.  He extracts the underlying meaning from the ‘syntax and grammar’ of a painting by focusing on the ‘nuts and bolts.’ As Salle undresses the many layers of an artist’s work searching for the authentic, genuine and ordinary reaction.  He focuses on, ‘what works and what does not, and why.’

How To See, David Salle, Stuart Bush Studio notes

Artist David Salle in his Fort Greene home

‘How To See’ by David Salle book review

David Salle’s website

My exhibition review of David Salle’s show from March 2019

David explains that when we meet a new person the first impression can often be vital to how we respond.  Within a few seconds, we very quickly form an opinion.  However, due to the lack of practice, when looking at art, we often are not confident about our first impression.  Nevertheless, our genuine, ordinary and unvarnished reaction can tell a lot.  With practice, we can then feel more confident going with our gut instinct.  Salle believes that we should take a strong position about what we see, after all, we don’t have like it all.


At times, ‘How To See’ it is not an easy book to read.  Some of the writing and its use of vocabulary isn’t always easily accessible to everyday language.  But that is the point of the book.  It encourages the viewer to see how the artist thinks and uses the language they use.  Here is a selection of my favourite quotes in the book;

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“All major art expresses something true about the society in which it was produced.  If abstract painting expresses the idea, “You are what you do,” and pop art expresses, “You are what you like,” then [Jeff] Koons’s art says, “You are what other people like.”


“Notice as you take it’s measure what it is you actually find yourself thinking about, which may differ from what you imagine you’re supposed to be thinking about.”


“[Alex] Katz will sometime take unpromising or even unlovely subjects and, as if to once again demonstrate the relationship between form and style, distill them through the familiar Katzian stylistic laboratory: an almost completely black night sky; someone’s feet in clunky black shoes; the edge of a building disappearing in the mists.  Everything is form-we recognize it as such when it’s divided into shapes, or planes, of different colours.  Think about the edge of this book you’re reading: the colour of one side is different – lighter or darker – than the top.  It’s the painterly equivalent of a physical law: where the plane changes, so does the colour, and where two planes meet, there is, naturally enough, an edge.  How a painter treats this edge is the real subject of realist painting; how the brush behaves in the vicinity of an edge gives a painting its present-tenseness, the feeling of external present.”

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To any stumbling and humbled artist, this book can help. ‘How To See’ is art education in a book.  Although at times I found the use of language heavy going, it helped me to learn a lot about what I do as a painter and writer, and what I think l see.   It takes an experienced, adept and challenging artist to explain a lifetime of insight.  The in-depth look at what goes on in the mind of this leading American painter and the power of language he uses will have an impact on the way I go forward as an artist and a writer.   I trust that it will help any artist to build their self-esteem and confidence in what they see when standing in front of a painting and trust their authentic response.    I highly recommend ‘How to See.’

David Salle undresses the role of the artist and writer, Stuart Bush Studio Blog

David Salle, Autumn Rhythm, 2018, oil and acrylic on linen
74 x 91 in, © David Salle/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt,

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