Cody Delistraty | Longreads | September 2016 | 16 minutes (4,104 words)
If the contemporary art world seems like a place of pretension, status-seeking, and giant checks being paid through Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, then it’s the critic Jerry Saltz who may be the last hope of bringing us all back down to earth. As Saltz once wrote: although contemporary art may not be of everyone’s taste, it’s still for everyone.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Saltz went to the Chicago Art Institute wanting to be a painter but dropped out; he soon became a long-distance truck driver, but after a decade of driving, he decided life couldn’t get any worse and that he might as well go back to his truest passion. So in the early-1980s, with no formal degree, he moved to New York and entered the art criticism scene, writing mostly for the Village Voice. Fast-forward to today and he’s now the senior art critic at New York magazine and has twice been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.
Howard Halle, the chief art critic at Time Out New York, calls the 65-year-old “America’s art critic.” And yet, Saltz, although perhaps an American icon, has hardly become a universally beloved one.
A few years ago, Saltz was briefly banned from Facebook for posting what Zuckerberg and co. determined, initially, to be pornography (Saltz maintains that posting ancient and medieval artworks depicting fellatio, cunnilingus, and circumcisions hardly constitutes pornography, and he continues to post these images on his re-activated Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, all of which boast, on aggregate, hundreds of thousands of followers). He also recently tried to pull the veil on the economics of the art scene—not everyone is making the big bucks—by posting a photograph showing his Chase checking account balance to be $3,832.16.
Although one wonders how much of his “everyman” appearance is an act (he maintains that it’s not), Saltz’s lack of pretension has been a burst of fresh air in the often-stodgy art criticism scene. Who else but Jerry would compliment Morley Safer’s painting of a hotel room after Safer unconvincingly tried to tear apart the contemporary art scene in two 60 Minutes segments? Or, even more surprisingly, who might say of George W. Bush’s paintings—in which the former president depicted his view of himself in the bathtub and while taking a shower, his back turned, only his face reflected in a small mirror—“I love these two bather paintings. They are ‘simple’ and ‘awkward,’ but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways”?
Not everyone is on board with the Saltz movement. The Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr called Saltz “the class clown” in an interview with Yale Radio, adding, “the idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world… all of these things are about Jerry. And it’s too bad.” Storr even clumped in Saltz’s wife—Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic of The New York Times—saying, “They are punchy writers and again, they draw interest because of the contrariness but there are no principles, and they’re not fighting long term battles for anything and never have.”
But Saltz doesn’t mind it. He’s endlessly quotable and his optimism and energy for art has led to an engagement with the art world from the most surprising of sorts—irritable Twitter users, suburban teenagers, essentially anyone with an opinion. Saltz has, in effect, de-localized art criticism, taking it from students at the Courtauld, writers at Artforum, the galleries and museums in New York and London, and instead placing it online, where anyone with even a modicum of interest in art can share their thoughts with both Saltz and one another.
Saltz and I recently spoke over the telephone, and we discussed, among other topics, where the art world is heading, how it can reorient itself, the current trends (good and bad) in contemporary art, and what the roles of critic, artist, and viewer are and could one day be.
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Where’s the line between “online Jerry Saltz” and “real Jerry Saltz”?
I think it’s all one big ball of wax by now. I think that there is very little difference anymore between how I write online and how I write in the pages of magazines or when I speak. I’m a big believer in what I call “radical vulnerability”: when somebody is hearing, reading, seeing me they have a sense that they’re getting at what I might really be. Even though the pervert that is often out on Instagram might not seem like me, it’s me. And my wife approves of about eighty percent of those pictures. So what are you gonna do? You know what Edgar Allen Poe said? He said we are all splendid but dark. And I think my darkness is pretty garden variety, but that’s just me.
Do you ever worry though that the grandeur of your online persona could compromise your clarity as a critic?
Yes, I do. I sometimes think I have maybe made it too easy for some people, like if I’m saying something bad about a museum or an artist or what not—something negative—that they can go, “oh you know Jerry, he just posts pictures of Medieval porn.” Or, “you know Jerry, he’s posting pictures of Greek statues with their asses with swords in them.” Now, I want to remind you guys if you look at my Instagram feeds and all that, I don’t post porn. It’s not my thing actually. I really like images from art, real masterpieces that the art world gets a little uptight about. Anyway, yes, I do worry that I might have made it easy. I worried when I was on that TV show [“Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” which aired for two seasons on Bravo] some years ago that people would say, “oh Jerry, he’s just that guy that was on a TV show.” Well, that is true and if you use that to dismiss me, I’m sorry; I’m just sorry; I don’t want it to discredit my work. I don’t think that it does at all. I think it’s all part of the whole ball of wax.
Does that provocation complement your criticism then? Perhaps the authoritative critic role is too constraining?
I really believe in what you’re saying. I don’t like the idea of the authoritarian, the one speaking from the top of the pyramid to the many. I am much more interested in—and the only way I can thrive is when—the many are speaking to one another. I am one of those voices. I’m not the most important, the smartest, the one with the most power. I am actually looking to make this a horizontal conversation and relinquish that power. That’s why on November 11th last year—out of nowhere, I don’t know where it came from—I decided also to post my bank account. Because I noticed that when I came out and said that I was going to be voting for Hillary as a way to stop the psychopathic, xenophobic, climate-denying nativist, I was accused by hundreds of people of being a corporate, Wall Street, sell-out warmonger. And I suddenly thought, “these people don’t get it, they really don’t,” and I published all the money I had in the world in my Chase Manhattan bank account, which is three thousand dollars. For about a month people started to understand that we’re all hurting, we’re all pretty much equally poor—except for eleven white guys that are making all the money—and that we’re all hysterically staring and envious, but that really most people in the art world, no matter what their jobs, they are not making much money. They’re just making ends meet. I want to eliminate that kind of Artforum, October magazine, classic art world structure of the powerful critic.
How does the art world rebalance itself and become a place not just for the one percent?
I think we lost a few generations of art critics to academia. They all learned to write in a similar style, which I find very jargon-filled and impenetrable; and I also feel that their taste flattened and everybody liked the same fifty-five artists, and they would quote the same twenty writers over and over. I thought, “The art world is not this boring; how can this be?” Now, I’m seeing more and more younger writers starting to write online, making sense, speaking in ways that you can understand and, most importantly, putting out opinions. The juice of criticism is opinion. I really admire Artforum; I’ve never written for it for good reason: I’m not smart enough, but I look in the second-to-the-last paragraph and I see a phrase like “this problemetized the show.” Is that positive or negative? There is no judgment in it. Everybody is smart. So I can’t fit in that art world because I never went to school; I have no degrees; I am not schooled in the language of the empire.
Is your mission, then, to make criticism opinion-driven rather than about academic explanation?
I would not call it my “mission,” as I love the academics. I love everybody’s mission. I am just doing the only thing I can. I don’t know how to write in the other way. I have tried and it makes no sense to me. I can’t even read it, let alone write it. So I don’t have a mission. I’m just like everybody else in the art world. We are all dancing naked in public, and I am trying to be myself as much as possible without too much faking it.
Your wife Roberta Smith is the co-chief art critic of The New York Times—does her criticism inform yours and vice versa?
Well I would say certainly she informs me far, far more than I inform her. I think Roberta is the real deal. I am very prejudiced and I think she is among the greatest art critics that have ever lived. She looks at objects; she really can describe and judge. My approach is different. It’s more psychological. I am interested in questions like, “Where does this gallery fit with the other galleries” and other issues like that. But that is not my strength. I love her work, but I cannot write that way. I find it utterly readable, always challenging, rigorous, serious, and I think she brings up the whole art world to that level; but again what do I know? That’s just from my seat of being a big, big fan.
Walk me through the act of your criticism. Do you have an immediate, visceral reaction to art or is it a longer, note-based, pensive pursuit?
That’s a good question. I see about 25 or 35 shows a week. It’s what I do. I have a list of about one hundred galleries that I go to that almost none of your readers go to or should they go to. But I am a very big believer in, “If you build it, I will try to come.” I don’t get to leave New York City that often. Even when I go to the Venice Biennale, I pay my own way and I usually only stay at the most three nights and then I’ve gotta get back to my weekly deadline.
But, okay, I see my shows and I start to have reactions. Other than the very big museum or some very big gallery shows, nothing appears on my horizon before I see it in the flesh. That’s how I do it. And if I start to get a bite on my reactions I will follow it. Often I am very horrified to realize something I thought I would like, I don’t like; but I think, again, a critic has to honor their reactions and be honest and deliver those up full-throated, honestly, and openly.
Are there any unfortunate trends you’ve seen in contemporary art as of late? Your review of Alex Israel’s latest was quite scathing…
I think when people know the system too well they can only make the system. You think you’re playing the system but the system is playing you. And what they end up making has been something called “zombie formalism.” That’s empire art. It’s real easy. Everybody in art, every art history and art criticism department, every curator can understand it even before they see the show. It has what’s called “all-over composition,” which means that every part of the surface is more or less equal to every other part. It’s often restricted in color or subjected to certain processes that had quote, unquote “political purposes,” like, “I put this canvas in the Dead Sea” or “this canvas was allowed to dry in Ferguson, Missouri.”
What I say to that is bullshit. One hundred percent bullshit. Your canvas dried, period. You have to be able to embed your thought in material. That’s my wife’s expression: “embed thought in material.” I think that we are going to be getting out of it. The market loved it, and I think that’s great for those kids that made a lot of money. I love when every artist, even mediocre artists, make money.
That trend is a really unfortunate one, but I have a lot of hope. I see a lot of hope with writers and artists breaking this thing completely open. Now that everybody is starting to realize that while people with money are obsessing about Alex Israel or whomever those artists are, it’s allowing a lot of time and space for a lot of other artists to take root before money rushes in and fucks it all up.
How does money fuck art up?
It makes us see art and the beautiful art world through the cynical lens of money. The real truth is money has very, very little to do with art. I think it’s fine that Jeff Koons gets a trillion dollars for his sculptures. I’ve liked a lot of Koons’ work, but the money he gets has very little to do with his work. Just because Vito Acconci makes no money off of his work doesn’t make him a bad artist. Just because women make less money than men or non-white artists make less money than white artists—see how crazy this is? It’s just mad. But it is fun; it’s sexy; it allows everybody to envy the rich, which is a national pastime; and without this money in the art world people like me would not have jobs. Even though I only have three thousand dollars to my name, somehow that money came from those rich people, and I wouldn’t have it without them. So more power to anybody making money, but looking at the art world through the lens of money is a waste of your time. It’s a complete waste to me, unless you’re into that, and then it’s super sexy.
What’s the lens we should look at art through? If not an academic lens or a fiscal lens…
I’m not against the academic lens. Without theory there would’ve been no women’s liberation, no multiculturalism, no black liberation, no feminism. I would never say that’s a bad lens. I’m just saying stay open. See everything; stay up late with your friends; test your ideas against others. But I don’t have a prescription. Make your own blog, start your own online magazine, curate your own shows. If you build it, they will come.
It’s engagement that you’re interested in.
Totally. Engagement, intensity, energy. That’s what I’m interested in.
Is that interest in engagement behind your realization that social media could be useful to you as an art critic?
What I think, Cody, is all of us in the art world spend ungodly amounts of time alone. It’s extraordinary. It’s soul killing. I’m not really part of society. I never go out. This is my life. For me, social media was just a way to be in contact with everybody else and feel like I was in a digital bar hanging out. It only takes me a minute or two to think of an image, put it online, then I go back to work, and then fifteen, twenty minutes later I might check it, and I go, “Oh wow, everybody’s ripping me a new asshole because I wrote this thing.” You know? “Oh you didn’t like this Marlene Dumas painting that I just posted,” or “I’m an asshole because I liked this Richard Prince Instagram photo.”
And it generates energy. Am I looking just for the “land of like”? No. No. It doesn’t work. If that’s what we wanted—just to live in the “land of like”—then I suppose you could just post porn because we’re all told that that’s half of what’s up there right now on the Internet. I guess I could just post porn, have a private account, and I’d get “likes” all the time. I am not. I like that people click on it, but I want to engage. I answer everybody back. Everybody. If you yell at me, I will come back to you and never yell back. I just want to hear what’s going on. Does it take a lot of time? No. It takes like a second.
How much of your day is spent responding to emails, Instagram comments, et cetera? What’s the pie chart of how you spend your day?
I am a lucky person that I get about five hundred personal emails a day. And my sad life really is I love them all and at the end of every day I seem to hit the delete button and delete them all. I have never had an assistant; I never will. The only thing I would ask an assistant to do—the only thing—is to please write my work. Get me out of this hell. You can have half my money; get me out of here. But I can’t get out. I will never be able to get out, and I’m lucky.
I spend usually all day at my desk. I have right wing radio going in the background, the further right wing the better. I love listening in on the other side. I am immensely curious. How do they work this? How do you talk about emails or Benghazi? How do you ignore global warming and racism? How does that work? I’d love to know. So I have that on and it is an adrenaline producer. And on my TV I have two news channels going at all times. And usually a Spotify channel.
So I’m writing all day and then I’ll check in on this or that platform just to spend a minute or two, going “Oh, Dear MisterJewJew69, you said I was an asshole but what I was really trying to say about Marlene Dumas is that I found that this work was too photographic.” And then Mr.—or Mrs.—JewJew69 will come back—nine times out of ten, Cody—they will calm down. They’ll say, “I’m sorry I called you an asshole. I thought you were saying such and such.” And usually, in a sentence or two, we can work it out, agree to disagree, ya know? This isn’t nuclear codes here. It’s been bad around the election in America. It’s been really bad because the art world went so heavy for Bernie that I was really shit on. And maybe they’re all right. I’m not a big Hillary fan; I just want to win. That’s the only thing I want: vengeance.
What’s the role of art in the current political climate? Do artists have a moral obligation to address certain political issues?
No, I don’t think so. Artists have only one obligation in my mind and that is to make what they must make. A lot of them paint stripes, a lot of them cut up cardboard all day. If an artist tells me those stripes are about stopping Trump, I accept that. I am not a cynic. I’m really not. That’s why I believe in outsider art as much as insider art. The outsider artist who is collecting little chips of crystals and organizing them into hexogrammatical charts—that same artist talks the exact same way that Brice Marden speaks about his monochromatic fields. There is no difference; it’s all one ball of wax. In other words, Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning are both called “abstract expressionists,” but to me they have nothing to do with each other and it limits both. This is played out daily in the art world. I am for artists going to school. I wish I went, but I think it’s partly the result of a nineteenth-century education system based in colonialism to make everybody on the same page.
You’ve said in the past that you’re a “failed artist.” How does that inform your criticism? Does it help you be sympathetic with certain artists? To see or not see certain things a better-educated critic might not?
I don’t know its effect, but I feel it all the time. I feel it in that if you do one thing that I like one time I really, really will follow you for a long time even if I think you’re not making it to where I hoped that you would go—I actually believe that’s what was going on with me, that maybe I did something like that one time. I want people to keep reading me to know that I’m trying really hard here to keep pushing myself to not fall into formulaic predictability, that I really mean this stuff and that this is my time here and when I’m gone it will all be forgotten. I accept that. I’m not writing for the future, I’m only writing for now. The conversation: that’s what I’m interested in. I want that conversation to include anybody. If I can be in the conversation I would say to people you can too. I am an idiot. I know nothing. I just am driven, just like you.
If you’re an average person—you don’t have a criticism background, you don’t have an art background—and you’re walking into a gallery or a museum, what should you be doing, thinking, preparing yourself for?
First things first: leave your cynicism at the door, motherfucker. Everything in a room, you just have to take at face value. Don’t look at it through the lens of money. Don’t look at it through the lens of fame. Don’t look at it through the lens of power. I am not saying ignore that—“oh it’s just another white male artist”—of course you should factor that in; it’s a given; it goes without saying. But I want you to engage. Get very quiet inside. Listen to your reactions; follow them; compare one thing to another; it’s through comparison that we learn. You can’t tell how high a mountain is if you only look at one tall mountain. You have to see the whole landscape to get its diversity and how amazing or horrible it is. I would say see everything. Speak to artists. Stay up late with artists, if possible, every night, every single night, just listen to artists. If you are younger, stick with your generation. Do that for a while. You will take over the world together. You must make an enemy of envy. You’ve gotta grow a pair of whatever. Understand that you are going to be poor your whole life; stop feeling fucking sorry for yourself; the art world is an all-volunteer army—if you don’t like it, you can leave. But stop being envious of everybody else for having better than you. They do and that’s just the way it is. Take it from a 65-year-old man. You’re reading this and you think I have a lot more than you? I don’t, and I certainly don’t have that much time. Time is what you’re working for. You want time to make your work. That’s really what this is about. That is all that’s going on and you’ve got to work for credibility. You must have credibility. I want you to have love and money and have sex with anybody you want, but without credibility you’re just another flim-flam woman, another flim-flam man.
How does an artist gain that credibility?
I think that it’s the combination of everything of who you are. Did my asshole-ness eclipse my work or does my work eclipse my asshole-ness? It’s a very delicate balance. Do you believe what you are doing? Is the real me a credible thing or is it a hologram you can’t use? If you can’t use it, I’m sorry, but you’ll find a lot more. We contain multitudes and the art world contains multitudes.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris. Follow him on Twitter: @delistraty.