Jerry doesn’t truck with fundamentalists

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The art critic of the Village Voice, Jerry Saltz, came to town to do crits for Penn’s art students, and also to give a talk at the ICA, which turned out to be about Jerry Saltz (shown schmoozing with Parkett Editors Cay Sophie Rabinowitz and Ali Subotnick at some opening event) and about writing art criticism and being an artist–three things he knows about because he’s done them all.

Now, his talking about himself is a good thing, because he’s a charming guy, with a touch of Woody Allen self-deprecating humor–as in pointing out his baldness (hard to miss) and his short stature (also quite visible to all present). Plus he’s got the New York cabbie directness. Well, he didn’t talk about being a cabbie, but he did mention that he was a long-distance trucker for a while–far too long a while, since he hated it after only 10 miles into his first long run. (All right, he didn’t specify 10 miles; I made that up because a few miles sounded less interesting.)

Art by the truckload

But he had plenty to say that was worth chewing on. Like, I was stunned to hear he sees 30 to 40 art shows a week. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. How does he do it?

Of course, in New York, if you walk around Chelsea or 57th Street, and go up and down in those buildings filled with art galleries, it’s a lot easier to see a lot of stuff than if you have to hike from Broad and Spruce to Broad and Cherry to Old City and then out to Chestnut Hill, etc.

But even with the benefit of New York’s compressed art districts, I don’t know how he does it. Looking at art is hard work. I’m in awe. Maybe he dismisses more shows out of hand than he suggested.

On first takes at an art show, he said, “Sometimes I walk in …and say oy, oy, oy, this is crap. …Sometimes you hear something in yourself you didn’t expect to hear. Sometimes, you come all the way around.” Now how he has time to do that and see 30 or 40 shows, I do not know. It takes time to hear something in yourself that you didn’t expect to hear.

Theory for fundamentalists



But my favorite point he made was that theory was crap. “I think it’s all a question of subjectivity,” he said. So he likes what he likes, and you like what you like, and they’re not necessarily the same, or more valid or less valid. They’re just different. “Theoreticians of art to me are frankly the fundamentalists of art,” he said.

This is where Piet Mondrian (shown left) comes in. He said looking at a Mondrian is its own experience. Now I’m a little unclear, here, except that I think he’s saying the theory is the painting and vice versa, and therefore theory is part of the experience, so in that case, theory is ok. But I’m not sure if that means he thinks Mondrian is ok or not.

The pleasure principle

Saltz went on to say that art is not about understanding. It’s about experience–and pleasure. “Pleasure is an important form of knowledge. We just went through a period whan that was put …off limits,” he said. And he added, you can’t separate what you like and what is good.

Around this time he also mentioned that 9/11 made post-modernism obsolete. (Isn’t this theory?) But after 9/11, standing outside the art work, the hallmark of post-modernism, was no longer possible. “Now history is something we live,” he said.

A bit later he implied a negative comment about Robert Ryman’s white paintings (shown right, “Surface Veil III”) without exactly specifying why, but I took it to be, where’s the pleasure? At least that’s why I complain about Ryman’s deprivation of color.

Disingenuous reviewers

Shortly before I left (I had to leave a little early), he started complaining about all the boffo reviews that get written. (I believe my ears turned pink. After all, I’m such an enthusiast, and I tend to save my energy only for work I like.)

“If not all Goya is great, not everything in Chelsea is great. …I don’t like criticism when you don’t know what the critic is thinking,” he said, and complained about happy reviews with the only touch of opinion in the last sentence. “Really, what this is about is the credibility,” he said.

His advice? “You have to listen carefully to yourself.” You have to hear the things you may not want to hear. And then you have to “deliver up those voices, positive and negative.”

Because Saltz was talking to art students, he explained why he drove the truck of his life straight into a less-than-lucrative career in art criticism. He himself had been an art student once (but never finished art school or any other higher education, he said), after which he garnered what others would take as hallmarks of artistic success–an NEA grant, a show at Barbara Gladstone, a review in Art Forum magazine. But he said he still felt like he wasn’t measuring up, and eventually he stopped creating art and became a trucker.

He said artists wanted fame (which he defined as being loved by strangers and immortality), sex, and money, and the arc of his career confirmed that these were not his motivating factors.

(He wasn’t saying he didn’t want sex; he was saying he was content with monogamy; he’s married to New York Times Art Critic Roberta Smith.) His point about money was he doesn’t make much as a freelancer. And art critics don’t achieve immortality (perhaps he forgot about John Ruskin, whose immortality is known to a select seven or eight old English majors like me; hell, maybe he never heard of Ruskin either; Saltz’s point is hereby made).

Saltz also said he doesn’t talk to artists about their work and he doesn’t like when art dealers talk to him. (Roberta F., my artblog partner in crime feels differently about this. I am on the fence.) Even when Saltz looks straight at the dealers, and is therefore not looking at the art work, they don’t get the hint that it’s about the art work, stupid. (Ok, he didn’t say “stupid.” That was me, again.)

Write for artblog

As I left, Saltz was calling for more artists to write art criticism. If you’re an artist and think this is something you might want to do, keep this publication in mind, dear readers. As Saltz said, there’s no money in art criticism. But for some of us, the pleasure principle takes right over.

By the way, the previous post is about Ingrid Schaffner’s talk on Dali’s “Dream of Venus,” about which she wrote a book. Schaffner’s talk, simultaneous with Saltz’s, is posted by an artist who’s willing to be a critic now and then, as well as be our friend, Ann Northrup.

Saltz, too, was peddling a book, “Seeing Out Loud.” He hopes you go buy it.

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