Satori Three Inches within Your Heart is a large painting depicting an assortment of images that are juxtaposed to produce an eclectic and disjunctive montage. It is painted on six canvases arranged in two rows of three, with the bottom three canvases being significantly taller than those in the top row. The upper panels collectively depict a densely packed scene in which many people sit and stand around tables. The figures are clothed in old-fashioned, shabby-looking garments and in the right hand panel four women are shown dressing themselves. This upper scene is dominated by bright yellow and deep black tones, and at the two points at which the canvases join it features two images that seem to hover in front of the main scene: a cantaloupe melon with a large chunk carved out of it on the left and a blue sculptural bust presented against a dark, oval-shaped background on the right. Each of the three canvases along the bottom row depicts a nude figure painted in grey, black and beige tones. The figures in the central and right-hand panels are clearly female, but the one on the leftmost canvas is partially obscured by an area of black over which is painted a white outline of a windmill, making this figure’s sex harder to identify. The bottom row also features two incongruous images that sit on the lines that divide the canvases: on the left is a small portrait and on the right is a still life showing several dead fish laid on a wooden table.
This work was made by the American artist David Salle in 1988, when he was living and working in New York. The Japanese word ‘Satori’ is a Buddhist term referring to a form of enlightenment. As is often the case with Salle’s work, however, the meaning of the title is ambiguous and seems to bear no clear relationship with the depicted scenes or objects.
Since the late 1970s the juxtaposition of disparate images has been a regular feature of Salle’s work, often including sources from art history (see, for instance, Gericault’s Arm 1987, Museum of Modern Art, New York). The bust in this painting is based on a sculpture by the Italian artist Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), while the portrait and still life across the centre of the bottom row resemble the style of early modern Flemish painting. Salle has also very frequently depicted nude women, often based on pornographic sources. However, in 2011 he insisted that: ‘I’m not that interested in references as such, iconographical identification and all that. My work is not a scavenger hunt … People often want to know where something in my work came from – but it doesn’t really matter. In a painting, every element’s meaning is specific to my particular use of it’ (Salle in Emily Nathan, ‘David Salle: Don’t Understand Me Too Quickly’, Artnet Magazine, 29 April 2011, http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/nathan/david-salle4-29-11.asp, accessed 18 August 2015). Indeed, the art writer Kevin Power has argued that due to their fragmentary quality Salle’s images ‘lead inevitably to false readings as the spectator hurries to tie up a disturbing sensation into a significant whole. Yet there is no hidden puzzle to unravel, nothing but glimpses of content, emotional currents, shared intuitions … He is not interested in narrative as such, or, at most, in a simultaneous plural narrativity that permeates and circulates our lives as telling. He is not concerned with linear direction but with digression’ (Kevin Power, ‘David Salle: Seeing it My Way’, Fundación Caja des Pensiones 1988, p.18).
In 2011 Salle discussed the eclectic and contrasting nature of his compositions, stating that ‘I’ve never been able to see one thing alone – I’m always looking at one thing and seeing what’s behind it, or what’s next to it. That is a condition of our existence that I felt very comfortable with, and that I thought I could express. I think that is what has been guiding and shaping my work all these years’ (Salle in Nathan 2011, accessed 18 August 2015).
Regarding the use of female nudes in Salle’s work in particular, Power has argued that although these images often have an erotic aspect, the artist ‘is constantly engaged in modifying their impact and refocusing their charge’ (Power 1988, p.28). As an example of this he cites a particular element of Salle’s painting Epaulettes for Walt Kuhn 1987, writing that ‘little could survive as healthily erotic after the image of the dead fish ... that straddles the upper section of the picture’ (Power 1988, p.30). An image of dead fish also appears in Satori Three Inches within Your Heart, perhaps contrasting with or dampening the eroticism of the nude female figures. However, the open melon depicted towards the top left of the painting could also be seen as sexually suggestive – with its interior loosely evoking the shape of the vulva and its seeds implying a reproductive metaphor – thus adding further complexity to Salle’s reflection on erotic imagery.
David Salle, exhibition catalogue, Fundación Caja des Pensiones, Madrid 1988.
David Whitney and Lisa Liebmann, David Salle, New York 1994, reproduced p.131.
David Salle, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1999, reproduced p.54.
Supported by Christie’s.