Lorne Jackson speaks to Birmingham artist John Salt who found fame in America.
Loyd Grossman would be out of his depth, that’s for sure.
The former Through The Keyhole host would never be able to guess “who lives in a house like this”.
I don’t think I’d have much of a clue either, if I didn’t already know I was entering the home of the artist John Salt.
The reason Grossman would be bamboozled is that the beautiful farmhouse in the countryside near Ludlow is really not a John Saltish sort of location at all.
With the curvacious, Constable-shaped countryside wrapping the house in a loving embrace, it’s all far too English. Salt is English, too, I should point out. A Brummie born-and-bred.
But his art comes from somewhere else. Somewhere vast and vital and very, very not England.
To know John Salt through his work is to know America. He’s the stars and stripes of a bright US morning, not the grumbles and gripes of an overcast UK afternoon.
Salt may have been raised and educated in his home country, but he only really found himself when he crossed the pond and stumbled across a bunch of derelict cars.
From the late 1960s onwards, he based himself in America, where he began a series of automobile paintings. The works are painstakingly rendered, as befits a pioneer and master of the photorealist school.
Sharp lines, crisp colours.
The loving detail Salt sprinkles his work with contrasts dramatically with the subject matter. Discarded hunks of rusting junk are painted with the keen intensity Valazquez brought to the rendering of a Pope.
Disconcerting and dark, the images are a bleak alarm bell – the wake-up call after the excesses of the American dream.
They are unquestionably important paintings. But are they also the paintings of an Englishman? Now that is a question to ponder...
Yet Salt is proud of his Midland background, and is looking forward to a comprehensive survey of his paintings to be exhibited at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery from the start of next month.
He already has a close connection with the Ikon, being the first artist to exhibit at the gallery in its original Bullring venue, back in 1965.
But that was before the State-side sojourn and obsession with cars set in.
So does he still think of himself as a Midland artist, or as a man entirely moulded by America?
“I first went over to the States to study for a scholarship at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore,” he recalls.
“It had an incredible impact on me, and my way of thinking. Up until then I had struggled for confidence. To find a distinct voice of my own.
“But over in America, there was so much confidence. There really was this ‘can do’ attitude. Nothing seemed impossible.
“I suppose it’s very different now, with so many changes in the world. Perhaps the confidence over there isn’t quite what it once was. But I was really struck by it at the time, and I think it must have had a large affect on me and the work that I went on to do.”
He adds, however: “I was also quite shocked by America. You travel to another country and discover that everything is fresh and new. Plus, there was this energy. But there was also violence. My wife and I nearly decided not to stay.
“Though things would have turned out very differently if we had immediately come back to England.”
It seems strange that Salt can talk of a lack of confidence. Or of being unsure about the duration of his stay in the States.
His images of cars on the verge of catastrophe are now iconic and highly sought after, and the Ikon exhibition looks set to be one of the stand-out shows of the year.
Yet it is clearly no false modesty that makes him admit to this insecurity.
He tells me that in the early sixties he was professionally unhappy, working as an art teacher in England. At the time he didn’t feel sure enough about his own work to guide others in what they were doing.
Salt, who was born in 1937, did not come from a traditionally artistic family, though cars were important from an early age. His father was a motor-repair garage owner, and he was brought up in Sheldon. However, there was a slight artistic leaning in the family, as his father’s stepfather had been a sign writer, painting stripes on the bodies of cars. As a youngster, Salt enjoyed drawing and painting. Then, when he was fifteen, he gained admittance to the Birmingham School of Art.
After graduating, he moved on to the Slade School of Art in London, where he was influenced by the work of the English artist Prunella Clough and the American Pop Art practitioner Robert Rauschenberg.
The Slade was a hotbed of hippness, though Salt steered clear of the cooler customers.
“There were a lot of students who came from prominent families,” he says. “The Guinness family, for instance. Or there were some students who had fathers who were famous artists.
“But I didn’t really mix with them. My friends were like me. People who weren’t really part of that metropolitan crowd. I didn’t really become part of any group during that time. Then, afterwards, I came back to the Midlands.”
Salt didn’t fit in with the British toffs and traditionalists, but Baltimore and Big America provided genuine possibilities. Opportunities to be grabbed in the Land Of Opportunity.
“At first I had no idea what kind of art I was going to be producing,” he admits. “I thought it over for a while. Doing something with the local scenery seemed like the obvious thing to be doing, and that led me to the cars.
“This was the late sixties, remember, and at that time the car was a very prominent part of the American landscape.
“These were big cars, powerful looking vehicles.
“There was something about them that seemed to sum up something.”
It was during this time that photo realism was developing as a movement, and Salt became a keen student.
“When I went over there, everybody seemed to be taking photographs,” he says. “At first I would use other people’s photographs as the basis for my own paintings. There was this book, Contemporary Photographers towards a Social Landscape, which was in the college library. I photocopied that, so that I could work on some paintings based on the images.”
In 1967 he produced Untitled, a pivotal work, featuring a close-up image of the inside of a car.
There followed a series of paintings based on photographs taken by Salt himself.
The pictures became increasingly violent, with images of mashed and mangled cars located in far from amiable landscapes.
Salt, meanwhile, had upped sticks and moved to New York City, where he discovered a scrapyard under Brooklyn Bridge.
His camera was soon hard at work, providing photographs to be transposed onto canvas.
The photos were never taken with any slick artistic aesthetic in mind. Quite the opposite. He prefers his snaps to appear random and untutored.
Disinterested glances into an unknowable landscape; not thoughtful studies of a reasonable world.
Reviewing Salt’s work, the artist Alex Katz skipped over his early expressionist work before arriving at one of the car paintings, at which point he said: “Oh this is better. This may not even be art.”
Salt approves of the comment, and repeats it with an appreciative grin.
I suppose this is one aspect of his work that can be described as English. The reticence to get involved; a polite British distance between the artist and his All American subject.
This reticence also makes it difficult for Salt to research his work. He doesn’t enjoy taking photos.
“It puts me into the kind of situations that can be quite uncomfortable,” he says. “Most people would rather ignore the scenes that I seek out. People who catch me taking photos are probably rather embarrassed by what I’m forcing them to notice. It’s bits of garbage to them, yet I’m photographing it. So some of them are annoyed that I’m bringing people’s attention to it, at all.
“Some people ask me what I think I’m up to. Once or twice I’ve tried to explain that I’m an artist, but that doesn’t really do any good, because people don’t understand why I’d be hanging about scrapyards and such places.
“It would be much better if I could make everybody in the world go to sleep, while I walked about taking photographs without any interference.
“But unfortunately, that’s just not possible!”
Though Salt gained his fame and reputation from his State-side studies, his American exile came to an end as long ago as 1978, when he resettled in his pretty home in the lush outskirts of Ludlow.
He occasionally works on English scenes (such as a painting he has completed of an ironmonger’s shop front in Ludlow) but his artistic eye remains focused across the Atlantic, where he still makes occasional forays.
“America has a sort of removed quality that really appeals to me,” he says. “The light is also very different than it is over here. Sharper and clearer. The light in the UK is more soft-focused.
“But I do enjoy living in Britain, and have always been proud of Birmingham. It’s criticised quite a lot, when you travel around, but I’ve always found it interesting, even in the past, when some of it was quite depressing to look at. But it’s changed rather a lot, now. And for the better, I think.”
* The John Salt exhibition is at the Ikon from May 4 until July 17. For more information www.ikon-gallery.co.uk