Jerry Saltz

Other People and Their Ideas No. 4

By Tom Eccles

Courtesy Jerry Saltz

Jerry Saltz is an art critic and columnist at New York Magazine, and previously art critic at The Village Voice. He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism on three occasions. In 2010 he served as a judge on the Bravo television series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, and is equally well known for his pioneering use of Facebook as a medium for art criticism. His criticism has been collected in two volumes – Seeing Out Loud: The Village Voice Art Columns, 1998–2003 (2003) and Seeing Out Louder (2009). He lives in New York City with his wife, Roberta Smith, who is senior art critic for The New York Times.

Tom Eccles

Recently you asked your readers to produce a convincing ‘Gerhard Richter’ painting for which you would offer $155. The point didn't seem to be the usual ‘anyone could that’ response to contemporary art. After all, obviously not just anyone can paint a ‘Richter’. But why a ‘Richter’ and not, say, a Cady Noland. Was the point really about technical virtuosity? I'm not sure. You made much of the value of a Richter painting today. But then again, a Cady Noland is out of most people's reach.

Jerry Saltz

Hah! I should have known you'd start with that Richter business. There are so many answers to this question. The first is I wanted pretty shit on my walls. Beyond that, I think it's a conflict-of-interest for me as an art-critic to collect then write about art. Famous critics have famously done this. Greenberg. Robert Rosenblum. Others. It's just not for me. Neither are the prices. I want all artists to make money. Yet a lot of art seems obscenely overpriced to me. Much of it the kind art collectors buy in public because other collectors buy it in public. Dick waving. But I like some of this art too. Like Richter. Then there's the business about skill and people thinking a Richter or Fontana or Ryman might be easy to emulate. One of my points is that these artists are way more complex than meets the eye. A John Currin might be much easier to make. More about just skill. 

Why did I offer such a low price? Originally, I offered any artist $1500 to make a copy of any artist. I got scared so I took a zero off. Right now I have two Wade Guytons, a Damien Hirst (it's so cheery and modern-looking what's not to enjoy?), and two Richters. Even if this work has no aura, each work trips off more than enough visual memory to trick me into thinking it's almost real. Which is real enough for me. I'd love a Cady Noland. In the Met's recent horrible Warhol show Noland looked as strong to me as Richter and Polke. Anyway, this started as lark. It then got way more attention than I imagined. And it really pissed scads of scolds off. Which made me feel like there might be something to it all.

As for my own ‘real’ art collection. My wife and I buy lots of five-dollar ceramics and thrift-store paintings. For under $20. No clowns. No dogs. I love the work of the great Ional Talpazan, a visionary whom I see once a year or so on the streets of New York. When he was a child in Romania he was abducted by aliens, taken aboard their spacecraft and ‘probed’. He paints and draws this, as well as advanced alien propulsion systems. Also wandering around New York is another tremendous visionary schizophrenic, Melvin Way. I own one of his cosmic diagrams. MoMA should too. I also own a batch of what I call ‘Details: Félix González-Torres’. Every Félix González-Torres candy piece I've ever seen, I've taken a heaping handful of candies. I have them in piles around my house. My wife's favourite must be the butterscotch one because it seems to be shrinking. One of the prized pieces in my collection is ‘Detail: Spiral Jetty’, a small piece of basalt I collected and labelled when I was there.

You get a lot of attention. But then again, in my time in the artworld anyway, you always did. In the mid-1990s your articles in The Village Voice prompted Black Friday-like rushes to get free copies out of the curbside boxes on Wednesday afternoons. By the next day, I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t read your review and, alongside probably one or two other critics, your writing was not just influential but, rather, definitional. Significantly at that time, I think your writing was taken very seriously among artists – certainly in New York. You now write for New York Magazine, have starred in the reality series Work of Art, but probably more importantly your Facebook has almost 35,000 subscribers and over 5,000 friends. I checked it this morning (on my daughter’s Facebook) and someone calls you ‘Art God’. Doesn’t that worry you?

JS What you say about people always reading me is wonderful but it surprises me. I'm always alone writing so I've no idea what's going on outside my office. I always think no one's really reading and that if anyone else says one-thing in an interview this becomes fodder for panels and junkets and discussions and top-ten lists and stuff. I'd love to meet the person who wrote that I'm a God on your daughter's FB wall.

Early on I realised I wasn't satisfied with lots of things about art criticism. Obviously, critics are paid next-to-nothing. Still. I have no contract. No pension. Nada. But we know going in that this is what waits for us. We're all lucky to be able to do what we do at all. Especially weekly critics published in print. After a few years of writing for monthly magazines I knew I wanted to write weekly. I want my words out at the same time a show is up. Perform live. That way people can agree and disagree with me when I walk around. That was fun. To me, art magazines are sexy but I don't understand a lot of the writing in many of them. I'm not sure who they're written for. Maybe just each other. Which is fine. (Although I hate how magazines have curators review one another's shows, as if critics are too limited or curators have to be handled like special cases.)

The other thing I don't like about criticism is the top-down structure. I don't like the one writing to the many. I want the many to speak to one-another, coherently. I've tried as many ways as I can to see how this can be done. Not all of them work. I actively appeared in the comment sections when my reviews were printed answering every commenter, respectfully. But this didn't seem direct enough. I was still the voice of authority, the critic speaking. On Facebook a filter finally dropped. The landscape got flatter. More equal. Intimate. Vulnerable. Fun. Each voice is identified by name and picture only. And it happens in something like real time. Criticism becomes more fluid, flexible, changeable. I love the idea of a 5000-headed FB beast having a conversation. After that I tried the TV show. That was freaky. People wrote regularly about how I was ‘destroying’ art and criticism. They could be right. The show was awful. But the show was never the thing for me. (Except as a way to get out of my office and eat free food.) The show was a way to see if I could do some of what the artworld is always saying it wants to do: open art up to the wider world, speak to real people outside the insular art bubble. By the end of the show over 100,000 comments were entered after my wrap-ups. By the way, I was paid under $900 per episode before taxes.

Since art critics are paid nothing we have nothing to lose. We should be able to explore as many platforms as possible to get our ideas and voices out there. I just wanted to expand the cultural coordinates of criticism, open up possibilities for myself and others, and do this while writing in colloquial English rather than artsy jargon. I want writing to form communities, create a chorus, be a living text of compulsions. Whatever, the last ten years have been the richest of my critical life. Even if it means being dropped from Power 100 lists. I was on this magazine's lists for a while. After Facebook, Twitter, my Vulture posts, and TV I haven't been on one since. Hah!

Exploring new platforms that open the world of art is one thing; building a broader community and extending access is of course the stated goal of museums and their status as not-for-profit institutions is rooted in this educational purpose, of course. Education does suggest there is something to learn and therefore there is something to teach. This has always come into question in the case of the visual arts – even more so in the field of curatorial schools. The critic, however, plays that role of educator in a very public way (as well as taste-maker, advocate, dare I say ‘theorist’?). Are you proposing another model?

I think you’re suggesting something else, but I can’t quite pinpoint it. It's troubling. And I’m not sure whether you are being deliberately disingenuous with your declared embrace of a ‘flatter’ world. On the other hand, might we distinguish between the ‘world of art’ and the ‘art world’. Or is it me who is being disingenuous?

JS It depresses me that you think I'm being disingenuous when I say that I find the strictures of traditional criticism limiting, authoritarian, and presumptive. And that I'm not serious about wanting a flatter platform where critics and readers can exchange ideas without the same degrees of hierarchy and remoteness.

And I’m not arguing for a return to the Latin Mass!

JS I want the artworld to be as interesting as a great conversation in a bar after openings. Too many magazines and museums just hoe the straight, narrow, and already-known. Are you saying that speaking plainly, without jargon, and wishing for inversions or permutations in power structures, isn't applicable to museums? I don't think I understand you.

To me museums are sacred spaces, places I go to commune with the ancestors, and heroes and heroines of the future. I talk to myself there. And change my world. They're town squares and temples. Ecstasy machines, wormholes, magic transporters. Of course, I think too many curators aren't in the least interested in ‘education’ and lean instead toward indoctrination. And imitation. Too many museum curators seem to select from the same pre-approved cast of artists. I see too many curators still curating artists who they've seen in other curator's shows. Some shows that cost millions could have been done for thousands. Others that took years could have been worked out on the back of an envelope in a bar in a half-hour (the Met's recent atrocious Warhol show – four-years in the making! – is a case of this sort of ridiculous self-importance and no one saying, No.) I'm amazed at how insular the curatorial field can seem. Even with all its talk about ‘education’ and ‘the audience’.

The audience? You tell me why MoMA is still telling its audience the exact same story of Modernism when everyone knows Modernism happened not in a neat linear way but was more like a blend of everything coming from everywhere. For God's sake, in MoMA's permanent collection you don't see some of the most visionary artists of the twentieth century: Martin Ramírez, Bill Traylor, Henry Darger, Adolph Wölfli, George Ohr. If museums don't let more of the world in soon, soon the world will let fewer museums in.

To me, education has do with being open, flexible, alive to ideas from everywhere. Unafraid of getting things wrong. No one knows anything in art anyway. Not really. Education is making sure that you're not always showing the right artists who show in the right spaces and are written about by the right critics and curators and collected by the right collectors. The only thing you can be when you do this is... right. The more you think you're right the more you define it to disallow things into the definition. And you'll kill it. I think Wilde said something like, ‘The minute you think you know a work of art, it is dead to you’. I just think that a lot of curators need to turn the page and stop trying to relive the 1960s. And for fuck's sake stop selecting would-be Richard Prince, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter wanna-be male artists in order to stake out the tiniest piece of curatorial territory in the known universe! How far up these artist's asses do you want to crawl?

I'm not kissing up here Tom, but I love how open, adventurous, polemical, and weird your shows often are. Although some of your choices and choosers strike me as a bit insular. I'm not naming names here. I do that every day in my criticism. I'll just say that the next time you do this, I'll tell you in print. By the way, I don't consider myself a ‘taste-maker’. That's what I fucking mean! Greenberg was a ‘taste-maker!’ The guy was a bully. And his eye was pretty weak from about 1959 on. Taste-making is often delusional.

I applaud your call for an open artworld in fact. And guilty as charged on the ‘insular’ jab! As someone who has witnessed, and participated in, this enormous expansion of the interest in contemporary art over the past decade, are there any trends that do concern you? I’m not talking about the art market. Museums do seem to have adapted rather well to this changed condition, driving ever-larger numbers of visitors through their expanded galleries. If you go there today, as you say, “to commune with the ancestors, and heroes and heroines of the future”, the experience can be more like a railway station than a cathedral.

JS I'm sorry for being an asshole, Tom. I got defensive. You're sure right about the "enormous expansion of the interest in contemporary art”. You ask about museums but I feel the “expansion” most in galleries. But not in the ways you might think. (Not counting there now being over 500 Larry Gagosian galleries worldwide.) Starting in around 1999 I spent a decade writing geezer rants about the feeding frenzy of art fairs and buyers buying in public. I still can't go to art fairs that aren't in my own city. Now, however, it's clear that regular art fairs all over the globe are the way of the artworld today. Art fairs are fast ways for gallerists and artists to make money. In many cases enough money to fund operations for an entire year. Moreover, deals are done, connections are established, exhibitions get scheduled, fun happens, maybe even sex.

This has brought change. In New York, well before the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy, Chelsea and the Lower East Side were and are much quieter day-to-day. Now that the hoards go to Miami, London, Hong Kong, or wherever to do their shopping fast and in public, galleries are much emptier. I don't see many lookie-loos, tourists, art advisors, mega-collectors, stretch limos, and overall gloss.

I'm not sure what this means to galleries. On the one hand it’s weird to see galleries so desolate. The silver lining may be that without the hoards, glitz, and glam, the audience for gallery shows has shrunken to something like it was the time before the ‘enormous expansion’. In galleries these days I see artists, critics, curators, you. In this way it may be possible to take back the conversation. Especially without holier-than-thou types pooh-poohing galleries for only being about money. I'm sick of people not appreciating New York's galleries as one of the greatest machines for seeing contemporary art that has ever existed in the history of the world. For free. Maybe if they don't pay a lot of money for something they can't see things at all. Whatever, for complainers the artworld is not good enough; contemporary art isn't up to their standards. To them we should all say, "Go away. We can't help you anymore. Leave your money at the door." Either way things are in spin. The crystal is liquid.