John Salt was a British pioneer of photorealist painting, a genre that emerged in late 1960s America
Photo: John Salt Bride, 1969
John Salt, who has died aged 84, was a pioneer of photorealist painting, a genre that emerged in late 1960s America, in part, like its predecessor pop art, as a response to abstract expressionism. The paintings were of photographs of random subjects, enlarged and rendered in such detail that they themselves could be mistaken for photographs.
John was British but, while living in the US, and painting photographs of cars and trailer homes, he became identified with the American photorealist movement.
Like other artists around the same time, John chose the photograph as his subject matter because there was no preconceived idea of how it should be represented.
When looking at one of John’s paintings it is not his picture of a car, but his picture of a photograph of a car, that we see. The more photograph-like the painting, the more essential it is to view the painting itself, rather than a reproduction, in order to assess, for instance, scale, colour and texture.
Within three years of having arrived in the US John joined Ivan Karp at his newly opened OK Harris gallery in New York in 1970, and with Karp’s encouragement John’s career took off.
For the next 25 years, he showed regularly in New York and across the US and Europe. John was among the photorealists included in the 1972 Documenta 5 exhibition in Germany, where the curator Harald Szeemann introduced photorealism to Europe.
John Salt (b. 1937, Birmingham, England; d. 2021 Shrewsbury, England) is a British artist who earned his M.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art. Salt’s focus is on the rural American landscape, often in various stages of decline. These works have a solemn and haunting quality. He employs a painting technique unique among the Photorealists of spraying the paint through stencils onto the canvas. Salt has exhibited widely since the 1960s and after twenty years in New York City, has returned to England where he currently lives and paints.LOUIS K. MEISEL GALLERY
John Salt obituary
British pioneer of photorealist painting in the US in the 1960s and 70s
Photorealism conveyed the everyday and derived from its source material a sense of the chance configuration of captured moments. It was dismissed by US critics as shallow, in that beyond the technical prowess required to produce a painting identical to a photograph, there remained little of interest – and limited imagination and a minimal knowledge of art was needed to appreciate it.
In the UK, photorealism was similarly received by the art establishment. Apart from a 1973 group show at the Serpentine Gallery in London, curated by the critic and writer Lawrence Alloway, there were few exhibitions of photorealist work until 1975, when John had his first major UK solo show in his hometown of Birmingham, at the Ikon Gallery, where I was then the director.
Soon afterwards, John and his family returned to the UK to live in rural Shropshire. Despite the physical distance he continued to paint predominantly American imagery.
John was born in Birmingham, the only child of Amy (nee Evans) and Cyril Salt, who ran a garage. He studied at Birmingham School of Art (1952-57) at the same time as Peter Phillips and John Walker, under Gilbert Mason and Kate Fryer, and when strong drawing and technical skills were prerequisites for a career as an artist. He went on to the Slade School of Art in London (1958-60), under William Coldstream.
His work then was abstract and frequently in collage, with influences from Francis Bacon, Prunella Clough and Alan Davie. He was drawn to work by Jim Dine, James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg and out of this interest arose an ambition to see the US.
Shortly after he married Jean Arnold, a science teacher, in 1967, the couple decided to spend a couple of years in the US. John was offered a scholarship for the master’s programme at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, which also included a paid teaching post. The head of its graduate school was the abstract expressionist painter Grace Hartigan, who became John’s mentor and, together with the figurative artist Alex Katz, she was largely responsible for encouraging him to remain in the US.
It was at this time that John’s new work, using images from car sales brochures and later 35mm colour transparencies, emerged. Using handcut lace-like paper stencils and a spray gun, he produced paintings of wrecked and abandoned cars and trailer homes. John’s work became recognised as among the most sensitively produced of that first wave of this new school.
In 2014 OK Harris closed and John joined the Louis K Meisel gallery in New York. His work was included in Picturing America: Photorealism in the 1970s, at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin in 2009, and Photorealism: 50 years of Hyperrealistic Painting, which travelled to several European cities, including Birmingham, in 2013.
He continued painting until 2018 when failing health – including dementia and parkinsonism – began to take its toll.
He leaves a body of work that, according to Linda Chase, author of John Salt: The Complete Works 1969-2006 (2007), “transmogrifies the ugly into the beautiful, the discarded into the treasured, and gives us new eyes with which to view and appreciate our world. These paintings impress with their mastery and verisimilitude but continue to engage with their mystery.”
John is survived by Jean and their daughter, Katy, son, Thomas, and four grandchildren.
John Salt, artist, born 2 August 1937; died 13 December 2021
He discovered his calling in the United States, but Birmingham-born artist John Salt is back in town – at the heart of Europe’s first major Photorealism exhibition.
06 December 2013 | Graham Young | Business-LiveUK
He’s a pioneer who has helped to change the way we see the art world, but John Salt has a curiously contradictory confession to make.
The unconfident, uncertain process of getting to where he is now is still more enjoyable than the spellbinding end result.
And so, like every visitor to the Gas Hall since the new Photorealism exhibition opened on Saturday, he’s been fascinated with just how his fellow contemporary artists have painted their interpretations of the world around us so brilliantly.
The exhibition dates back to 1965 and is the first large-scale European retrospective of Photorealism, an art form which used photography as a source for paintings.
Questions about authenticity and objectivity led to photorealistic artists being criticised for their methods.
International works on display illustrate the wide range of subjects the artists have reproduced from vehicles to city scape and from self-portraits to bottles of sauce.
As well as two pieces by John, there are also pieces by artists Raphaella Spence, Peter Maier, David Parrish, Ralph Goings, Chuck Close, Joan Baeder and our cover shot – Don Jacot’s Rush Hour (2009).
Just like John himself, you’ll sometimes swear blind that you are looking at a photograph – until you peer really close and spot the brush marks and other, more micro techniques that only experts like he can spot at first glance.
“I’m not crazy about Photorealism because I’ve got very catholic tastes and like everything I see,” says John.
“It’s something I just discovered.
“There was a distance between leaving college and finding it when I went to the United States, where the landscape was fresh and well known photographers were taking pictures of everything I could see around me.
“I’m just as keen on Pop Art and a lot of people on display here came out of abstract expressionism.
“The imagery here relates to life and the artists have a taste for the world around them.”
Born in 1937 and a still-youthful 76, what is more important to John than any one piece is the journey he’s been on to make each one – from a childhood in war-time Sheldon, Birmingham, to New York and back again.
Now based near Ludlow, Shropshire, John is still pursuing new techniques while forever trying to enjoy the means of getting from A to B.
Crucially, he works alone in his own studio at home.
“I don’t like anybody to see my work and comment on it when it’s half finished,” he says. “Even my wife, Jean, doesn’t come in.”
Despite his 50 year career, John admits he still suffers from a lack of confidence.
If not in his own ability – “I’m just very sensitive” – then in how any one painting might turn out.
Off the top of his head, he recalls 150-200 major pieces in his career, some of which might now take a year to complete.
Bridging the gap between traditional oil painting and today’s easily-manipulated, multi-media digital world, many have been documented by the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA).
There’s a natural reticence to discuss what his paintings might sell for.
But there’s no reason to disbelieve John when he admits that he’s never seen five figures for any single piece of work.
“I’ve always been satisfied with the money I’ve got,” he says.
“You want to make a reputation so that you can carry on in that direction and this exhibition will help that, too.”
We are walking around the Gas Hall now harbouring two of his own works among the 66 on display.
The privately-owned Bride (1969) is from a magazine photograph of lush car seats, with the hint of a bridal dress on the rear seat.
Owned by the BMAG itself, White Chevy – Red Trailer (1975) is a larger, composite picture – airbrushed acrylic on canvas.
John explains how some techniques rely on appropriate brush skills, while other visual effects are achieved with stencils and spray guns.
“My first one cost just a few dollars,” he grins.
As we study the works of his contemporaries, looking at everything from tubes of paints to toy cars and finely-defined piles of plates, some results depend on variances between light and shade, others on a mixture of striking colours or the depth of field effects most often associated with camera lenses.
Virtually all of the exhibits seem to use white as a means of conveying hyperreality and silver reflections are another key to capturing motoring modernity.
John’s parents encouraged their only son to study art, even if his interest in creating abstracted collages meant his vision was unfamiliar.
“I don’t know what I thought looking back at it!” he says.
Although his father, also called John, ran a car repair bodyshop, he used to love painting fire surrounds using paint left to him by his own stepfather, a sign writer who would also paint stripes on cars.
His mother Amy was a housewife while John studied at Silvermere Road Secondary Modern School (now Mapledene Primary School).
He then had “four to five years” at Birmingham College of Art in Margaret Street before spending two years at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, which he ‘‘didn’t like very much”.
Securing a graduate fellowship in Baltimore in 1967, he began to explore the American dream and its associated landscapes and manufactured goods.
He was ready to return to Birmingham after a year, when the head of art, Grace Hartigan, advised him to relocate to the Big Apple.
“We came back to Birmingham to sell the house we’d got and then moved to New York,” he says.
“We lived there for eight years over a nine-year period, returning to England in 1978.”
Soon after moving to New York City in 1969, John became fascinated by wrecked cars dumped under the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. His photographs were snapshots of obsolescence.
He took his place amongst American Photorealists, featuring in group shows with others including Chuck Close, Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle and Ralph Goings.
By the mid-70s, he was interested in showing cars left to fend for themselves as elements of a marginalised lifestyle in a world of shacks and trailer homes.
Today, daughter Katy is a scene painter in theatres – currently working on a Welsh panto in Mold, Clwyd – while son Thomas is a photographer based in Germany.
But John hasn’t switched to digital himself.
“When I give talks I use slides and a projector,” he smiles.
“I don’t have any digital images.
“I did enjoy teaching and giving talks to students in the US But it was a long time ago, 1960-67.
“I was teaching them print making… something I didn’t know much about!
“I tried to dissuade my children from painting. I didn’t want them to go into art because it’s so very precarious.
“The way it’s worked out, at least I can talk to them about what they do.”
Because of his passion for the craft, John has never worked specifically for, nor actively sought to make, big money.
Of his Bride painting, he even says: “I have no idea what it sold for… and I don’t want to know.”
John also knows he could have made a small fortune just by staying put.
“We sold our New York address in 1978 for $35,000,” he says. “Had we kept it, I think it would have been worth millions and millions.
“But it’s only money.
“We lived south of Harrison Street in Soho and it was loft living before it became big.
“We owned a floor as a co-op, but that meant living with other artists and not getting on.”
A retrospective like Photorealism inevitably means John has spent this week looking back in anticipation of the official opening on Friday.
Any pride he takes from what he’s achieved will be used as a springboard to move onwards and upwards despite the curse of being too aware of his own limitations.
“When I look at something I did years ago… I think ‘not bad’,” he says after a pause.
“I am not displeased, but I know it’s not great.
“It’s not (Diego) Velázquez.
“As much as anything else, a lot of people (artists) are very good.
“But they’re not the Beethovens, the Shakespeares, the Rembrandts.
“So what you get out of it is a personal thing. Making art is not a competition.
“I’ve never had a long distance plan – and I don’t feel like changing direction now!
“I enjoy what I do. I might not be confident that everything will turn out well, but I know it.
“And I am doing it because I still like the subjects that I choose.”
If he’s still learning, what has he picked up in the 10 years since he would have been expected to retire from any normal job?
Or, to put it another way, what does he know now that might have been handy back in Margaret Street?
“If I’d known it straight away,” he pauses… “I would have gone there straight away.
“So what I’ve enjoyed is the gradual development, the slight change.
“That is what has kept me going on to the next painting.
“Technology has changed, but sometimes I look back and think: ‘How did I do that?’
“That’s not me! It’s someone else’s work…”