In a revealing memoir piece at New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz — the magazine’s art critic — retraces his early years as an artist in 1970s Chicago (spolier alert: it didn’t work out). It’s a gripping read not just for artists and art lovers, but for anyone who’s ever grappled with the tricky interplay of productivity, mediocrity, and coming to terms with one’s own limitations. Despite his failure to build a career as an artist, I loved how absurdly (admirably?) ambitious his plans were for his magnum opus: composing 100 illustrated altarpieces for each of Dante’s Divine Comedy cantos, for a total of 10,000:
I began my “Inferno” project just before dawn on the Thursday before Easter 1975, because Maundy Thursday is when Dante’s story begins in the poem — lost in “the dark wood of error,” having strayed from the “true way.” I planned to finish on Easter, the same day Dante finished his own journey, in 1300. I would finish in 2000, by which time I would have made 100 opening-and-closing altarpieces for each of the 100 cantos of The Divine Comedy. The 10,000 finished altarpieces were supposed to represent an idea of the infinite and a way to set myself free. Why Dante? Especially as I barely read at all and didn’t believe in God? I think because The Divine Comedy, which is a gigantic organized allegorical system where every evil deed is punished in accord with the law of equal retribution and divine love, supplied me with the formulated structure I craved. The highly established internal architectonics, the almost primitive definitiveness, what Beckett called the “neatness of identification,” were psychological shelter and weapons of revenge for me. A way to right my own world, to grasp an order like that in the Bible: “all things by measure and number and weight.” Most of all, it was a vision of justice — the good being rewarded and the bad getting their punishments.