David Slater's 'Autobiography' Is There for the Taking in Southampton
Springs artist David Slater is back with yet another unforgettable exhibition at MM Fine Art in Southampton. And once again, it remains wildly apparent that this man is among the greatest living artists on the East End, yet we somehow continue to see too many of his mixed-media masterpieces back on view, dodging red “sold” stickers year after year, after year.
Now 83 years old, Slater recently survived a bout with prostate cancer, and though he is currently in good health, the illness inspired him to ruminate more deeply on the inevitable, adding another layer to the paintings that chronicle so much of his storied life.
It was just over a year ago that his longtime exclusive dealer and MM Fine Art owner Peter Marcelle died at the young age of 65. Now, Marcelle’s fiancée, Catherine McCormick runs the show at the gallery, and continues to believe in Slater and his work.
Appropriately titled Autobiography, the new show is the broadest retrospective of Slater’s art to date and it fills two rooms at the MM gallery, with even more standing by in storage on the premises.
“This covers 70 years,” Slater says of the exhibition, which is an intimate look at his life, with pieces from the 1950s all the way up through 2022. “Catherine curated this whole show. She picked out the work for this show. She picked out a lot more but hung less, and I’m glad she did,” he continues, adding, “The hanging gives stuff room to breathe.”
In the past, Slater would choose which paintings to show at the gallery and Marcelle would simply approve or disapprove, so it was a revelatory moment when McCormick actually visited the artist’s studio to get a true look at the breadth of his creative output. Her selections include some of Slater’s greatest masterpieces, several of which we’ve seen before, along with a range of paintings on canvas and paper, and various sculptures made mostly using found objects collected over the past seven or eight decades.
All of his paintings feature dozens or even hundreds of collaged paper scraps and objects that help tell the stories he wishes to convey on canvas. In Autobiography, like most of Slater’s shows, the paintings offer a glimpse into the artist’s rich life story, along with his interests, obsessions and dreams. And the label for each piece includes a paragraph delving into the artist’s thoughts and motivations around it.
“Sacred Hoop” (2020) is among the most striking works produced since Slater’s last exhibition in 2019. Using mostly primary colors, — yellow, red and blue — the painting connects General George Custer and the battle of Little Bighorn in 1890 with 1973 when Slater joined the protests at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. “We were preparing for battle,” he says, noting that he smoked a sacred peace pipe as he readied himself alongside members of the Weather Underground and the IRA as the Feds threatened them all with terrible violence.
One of the newer canvases, “Lee and Igor,” from 2021, celebrates famous Springs Abstract Expressionist painter (and wife of Jackson Pollock) Lee Krasner’s physical beauty as she lies sunbathing on a Provincetown, MA beach with her lover Igor. “I was offended by this idea that Lee Krasner was ugly, because she looked like my ex-girlfriend,” Slater says, recalling a day where he had a disagreement with a woman over it at the Pollock-Krasner House in Springs where he works part-time.
“The Spirit World,” another painting from 2021, took shape after Slater’s cancer diagnosis. “When I first was diagnosed with the cancer, I thought, OK, I’m going to die. What do I think happens after death?” he says. “So I started to think about the idea of heaven, but then I also switched it into the concept Native Americans and also Theosophists have of the spirit world — that after death we are in the spirit world until such time as we either reincarnate or stay on and go beyond that,” Slater continues. “So I started to make this painting of the spirit world.”
The composition is loaded with mystical symbols, but it also depicts a peaceful, mountainous landscape from a photo taken in Colorado. “I’m ready to go at any time. I’m not worried about dying, because I don’t think it’s the end of your time. Your car that’s been driving you around, this body — finally the brakes go, the transmission goes, you get a new car. To me, that’s what death is. I believe we will cross over.”
No matter what happens to us beyond this life, we definitely cannot take our things with us, and Slater now holds a lifetime of work worthy of any museum in the world. A smart person might take this opportunity to go out and get some of it for themselves.
David Slater’s Autobiography is on view at MM Fine Art, 4 North Main Street in Southampton Village, through Sunday, November 26. Call 631-259-2274 or visit mmfineart.com.