Born in Norman, Oklahoma, David Salle grew up in Wichita, Kansas. At the age of eight or nine, he began taking life-drawing classes at the Wichita Art Association. During high school, he attended outside art classes three days a week. In 1970, he began his studies at the newly founded California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he worked with John Baldessari. Creating abstract paintings, installations, and video and conceptual pieces, Salle earned a BFA in 1973 and an MFA in 1975, both from CalArts.
After school, Salle moved to New York, where he supported himself by working for artists, including Vito Acconci; teaching art classes; and cooking in restaurants. He also did paste-up in the art department of a soft-core pornography magazine. When the publisher folded, Salle saved a group of stock photographs depicting nudes, sporting events, airplane crashes, and such, which he later used as source material for his paintings. An exhibition of Salle’s works on large rolls of paper was shown at Artists Space in New York in 1976. Around this time, he began experimenting with relief prints on unprimed canvas. He also made charcoal drawings on canvas of nude women in erotic poses and of objects such as telephones and airplanes.
Salle has mentioned the influence of filmmakers Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Preston Sturges on his thinking beginning in the mid-1970s. Cinematic devices—from close-ups and zooms to panning, montage, and splicing—have indeed been recognized in his work. In the late 1970s, Salle traveled to Europe, where he made an effort to see as much work as possible by his German Neo-Expressionist contemporaries. Fellow painter Ross Bleckner introduced Salle to art dealer Mary Boone, who first exhibited his work in 1981. Salle soon gained prominence as a leader in the return to figurative painting of the 1980s. In 1983, he began working on very large canvases, some of which include art-historical references. His first solo museum exhibition was presented at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1983.
Salle’s work for the stage began in 1981, when he was asked to design the set and costumes for Birth of the Poet, a play by Kathy Acker under the direction of Richard Foreman. He has designed sets and costumes for numerous works by Karole Armitage—an avant-garde choreographer and dancer with whom he lived for seven years—beginning with their 1985 collaboration on The Mollino Room, performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and the American Ballet Theatre.
Salle has continued to paint alongside his work for the stage, creating such series as the Tapestry Paintings (1989–91), Ballet Paintings (1992–93), and Early Product Paintings (1993). In the 1990s, he added sculpture to his oeuvre and began exhibiting his black-and-white photographs, many of which were made in preparation for canvases. He also directed the commercial film Search and Destroy (1995), which was produced by Martin Scorsese and features Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, and Christopher Walken. In his work since 2004, Salle has added the vortex motif as a compositional strategy in his painting, juxtaposing the cartoonish, abstract form with his characteristic representational imagery.
Solo shows of Salle’s art have been organized by the Museum am Ostwall Dortmund (1986–87), Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (1986–88), Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1999), and Waddington Galleries in London (2003), among others. He has participated in major international expositions including Documenta 7 (1982), Venice Biennale (1982 and 1993), Whitney Biennial (1983, 1985, and 1991), Paris Biennale (1985), and Carnegie International (1985). The artist lives and works in New York City and Sagaponack, New York.