In 1966, Peter Saul went to a protest in San Francisco. He wore a suit and a tie so he wouldn’t get arrested – and it worked.
“People were getting punched to the ground around me, but nobody would touch me, I looked proper,” he said to the Guardian. “Maybe they thought I was an FBI agent, or something. It was dangerous to protest the Vietnam war, but I didn’t get intomuch trouble.”
Where he did cause trouble, however, was on the canvas. For over 50 years, Saul has focused his art around satire; painting ghoulish politicos, corruption, racism, greed and violence. All this and more is on view at Saul’s new retrospective at the New Museum in New York, where over 60 paintings are on view until 31 May in Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment, a bold testament to political pop art.
“When I do political pictures, I don’t want to end up in a responsible position where my art is backing up some attitude,” he says. “It has to be modern art, trouble causing.”
Saul got into painting in 1960 while living in Paris with cartoonish works of dogs and supermen alongside phrases like “Crime doesn’t pay.” After returning to America in 1964, he squared in on the Vietnam war.
“I just got the idea from reading the newspaper,” said Saul, shrugging. “I don’t think the war was a good idea; there was strong negative feelings about artwork featuring the Vietnam war. Protests were on the streets, not dealing with one’s artwork.”
In one, Vietnam from 1966, soldiers torture a crew of floating communist superheroes, while in another, GI Christ from 1967, a military chief is elevated to god-like status. In Pinkville from 1970, an American soldier destroys everything in his path as he stomps through Saigon.
Being a political painter has its trappings. “The goal is to not fall into this good-intentioned pit of 1930s art,” he says. “The message of that stuff is just dead, I thought I’d dig up a new kind of political statement that would be less excusable, more dreadful.”
One of his most famous works is from 1969, The Government of California, featuring Ronald Reagan, the then governor. “It was a time when there was enormous controversy about drugs,” said Saul. “Then I put the word ‘justice’ in there, I just put this stuff in without knowing what was going to come of it all.”
Saul’s work is cartoonish in nature, like Play-Doh violence with a Day-Glo palette. But his acid-like psychedelic canvases with melted goo figures were misunderstood by critics.
“The art reviews were slim and purely technical, they would say: ‘Peter Saul paints political subjects tightly with an emphasis on bright colors,’” recalls the artist. “That was it. Nothing inflammatory, no psychology.”
Over the past decade, his work has been recognized with retrospective exhibitions and glowing reviews. Why didn’t he go the newspaper editorial route instead? “I have to admit, what I want is a picture on the wall, a whammo picture,” he said. “I’m not interested in sitting down to a workday where you draw little pictures. Not for me.”
The first politicians he chose to scorch were Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. “I just picked them, I made them extreme and totally psychotic,” said Saul.
The artist read psychiatric books for inspiration. “With the real shockers, biographies of people executed, murderers, I became interested in showing symptoms of mental illness in my pictures,” he said. “I thought it would deepen the picture and keep it from being predicable.”
In his 1984 painting, Ronald Reagan in Grenada, the former president invades the Caribbean island with a wad of cash. “Reagan suits my art style perfectly, the way he looks,” said Saul. “I’m just trying to help my art be interesting, can we have a painting that’s interesting to look at?”
One of his strongest pieces is a portrait of George W Bush alongside a mutated prisoner at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, from 2006. “Bush is the worst of the modern presidents, in my opinion, because he killed the most people,” said Saul. “He’s the main one.”
His latest skewering of Donald Trump shows the president as a crocodile – literally, the president’s head on a reptile – in a 2017 painting called Donald Trump in Florida. “By the time I got around to painting Trump, 10,000 artists had already totally insulted him, so what’s the point?” asks Saul. “I felt it would be good to make him into a crocodile. I also did a painting of ducks in his hair.”
“Why not?” he asks. “I don’t always have a reason.”
In other Trump paintings on view, Saul paints the president’s blond locks floating around a canvas. In another, Trump is gussied up as Wonder Woman. “I figured the only fresh approach to Trump is to make a positive picture,” said Saul. “If he gets re-elected, I’ll do him as a woman a few more times. I didn’t think anyone will vote for him, but here he is.”
Saul has also taken a stab at historical landscapes, like Custer’s Last Stand and Washington Crossing the Delaware. “They are so boring to look at, such boring paintings, I thought I could do better without doing any research,” he Saul.
In his Washington version, the politician rides a sinking boat, while riding a pink polka-dotted horse. “Even though I’m a timid person, I like the idea of a crazy kind of art,” said Saul.
Shuffling through the exhibition, Saul stops before his paintings and says things to himself like: “This one is far out, gee whiz,” and “What’s the matter with me? Who knows.”
“The paintings are filled with inexcusable lies,” said Saul. “I’m showing the negativity of the Iraqi war and the Gulf war.” He does so with Donald Duck, Bush and Adolf Hitler all packed into an airplane.
He stops before a painting of Joseph Stalin he painted in 2007. “I do better with the bad guys, the bad guys suit me,” he says.
“Weakness of the art style.”
In another painting, Stalin and Mao Zedong knock the heads off German and Japanese soldiers.
“When I start painting, I forget about myself,” he said. “This artwork is my attempt to make paintings that are hot rather than cool. It’s like reaching for the hot sauce at a restaurant so your dish has more oompf.”