John Salt


John Salt (b.1937, Birmingham, UK; d.2021, Shrewsbury, UK) is the only non-Amerian artist associated with the first-wave Photorealism movement that flourished in the United States between 1960 and 1985. Nevertheless, his nostalgic paintings of often dilapidated classic American vehicles in semi-rural and suburban locations made him one of the movement’s pioneers. Brought up in Birmingham, England, Salt was encouraged to paint as a child and, at 15, he joined the Birmingham School of Art, later studying at the Slade School of Art in London (1958–1960). In 1966, Salt moved to the United States to study an MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where automobiles became his primary artistic focus. Salt moved to New York in 1969, and in 1970 he had his first solo exhibition at the newly opened OK Harris Gallery in SoHo. He eventually returned to England in 1978.  

Salt’s dedicated portrayal of cars is rooted in his upbringing in Birmingham, a city of car manufacturing, and has personal relevance; his father owned an auto repair garage where the young artist would spend afternoons after school. Once in Baltimore, Salt initially used the slick images from Buick sales brochures as source imagery until his discovery of dumped cars in a scrapyard under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York inspired a fascination with decrepit motors. The jolting violence of wrecked, destroyed and ‘arrested’ vehicles, with traumatised bodywork, broken windows and deflated tyres, jar with the meticulous style of his painting. The redundant cars are symptomatic of a marginalised lifestyle, a world of shacks and trailer homes, locations far from the affluent American metropolis, which is prone to idealisation in the popular imagination.

Salt’s work was selected for seminal early presentations, including Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5: Questioning Reality – Pictorial Worlds Today, Kassel (1972) and Photo-Realism, at the Serpentine Gallery, London (1973). Recent institutional exhibitions include Picturing America: Photorealism in the 1970s, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2009); Photorealism: 50 Years of Hyperrealistic Painting (2013-2017) which opened in Kunsthalle Tübingen, Germany, before touring 10 locations, including Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Hyperrealismo 1967-2013, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, Spain (2015) and HyperAmerica: Landscape - Image - Reality, Kunsthaus Graz, Austria (2015). In 2011, Salt had a major retrospective at the IKON gallery in Birmingham. This homecoming is notable: Salt was the first artist to exhibit at the gallery in its original Bullring venue in 1965.
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