On Writing and Criticism: An Interview with Jerry Saltz

Multimedia, Poetry, Prose


New York Magazine's Senior Art Critic Jerry Saltz
New York Magazine’s Senior Art Critic Jerry Saltz

-Interview by Donnie Boman and Amy Fusselman

How do you decide what to write? Do you write by assignment or do you generate your own topics? If you generate your own topics, how do you go about deciding what is worth the column space?

I always hear that magazines tell their reviewers to go easy on certain shows and advertisers, or not to review the show at all if they are going to go negative. For fear of losing advertising. Writers at Artforum have told me this is the case. I don’t doubt them but in my entire writing life, no magazine has told me to back off, cut an advertiser a break.

That sounds like you’re alluding to something bigger about criticism.

Bigger only insofar as when we see mainly positive reviews everywhere or so many boring basic descriptive ones or things written in academic Mandarin jargon where you have to search for one fucking word of opinion and then you get to a word like “problematize” in the second to last paragraph and you say “Wait! Is that good or bad!? What does this even mean?” All this adds up to knowing that every review you read is exactly what the writer wants to write. They weren’t warned off or forbidden to voice their opinion. They just bailed. We need to call bullshit on anyone saying: “I didn’t really like this but my editor told me to step down.” Or tell them “Never do anything for money.” I think that being critical of art is a way of showing art respect.

So where does that put us?

I think we lost three generations of critics to academicism, writers made skittish about their own opinions, afraid, only following a party-line of preapproved taste, deluded into believing that there is such a thing as objectivity, and only writing for a tiny audience of employed institutionalists who might dole out a job. Or maybe I’m just trying to rationalize never being offered tenure or even a full time teaching job.

I think this skittishness and insularity is partly why older critics like me have been able to stick around for a while. Some out-writing their use date – whose tastes have ossified or are just on some warpath arguing for their favorite artists from the 1970s or 1980s and telling us that everything new is bad. Then again, you could say this about me loving Matthew Barney’s work.

But art always finds a way. And it’s happening in criticism as we speak with writers on-line, on blogs and many other outlets, all of whom are changing that. Finally. And it’s breathing new life into the art world. Whatever becomes of these sites they all seem to understand that since there’s no money in criticism, critics have nothing to lose; they can write whatever they want to write – and not just neutral or arch gobbly-gook. This is making criticism live again.

What do you feel your role is to the reader? To educate? To persuade? To love? Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write?

I don’t write for the artist or the dealer or museums. I write for the reader. I want my work to be readable, alive with opinion and juice, accessible, able to open new thought-structures. If you put down one of my reviews midway without finishing it (even if you say you’ll finish it later – which you’ll never get around to probably) – I have failed. I never blame the reader. My job is to keep people engaged.

I never ask artists what their work means. I want to write what I think the work might mean; I want to approach the work the way everyone else approaches the work: Without insider information or a tip sheet. I love checklists. I want to know title, dates, dimensions, and most of all materials.

Where do you stand on labels?

I am not against labels at all. I just hate long impenetrable nonsensical ones.

I am a very, very slow reader; I pick one gigantic classic book to read each year – the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Paradise Lost, Leaves of Grass, Dante, Proust (old white guys), and spend the whole year reading it. (I never went to school; have no degrees; so all this is new to me; and amazing; try it!). As a slow reader who doesn’t love reading while standing up and whose eyes seem to dart around a label, I’ve figured out the code of labels: Just read the last two sentences. That’s usually where it tells you what you need to know. How’d we get on this topic?! See! That’s what doing too much reading in an art gallery can lead to. Away from the work.

Anyway, a weekly deadline means I don’t have time to read big, thick catalogs. I try to. I love them. But within a page or two I look at the clock and think, “I gotta start writing.” And then I become terrified! “I can’t do this!” Typical garden-variety art world horror. When I post something on Instagram or Facebook at 3:00 AM there are always hundreds of artists awake at the same time, with the same terror.. It’s comforting. By the way: It never goes away. Hah!

Who are your models, past and / or present? And is there anyone writing now in any field whose work you are particularly excited by?

I am biased. Don’t ask me. I think my wife is one of the greatest art critics of all time. Give her a MacArthur.

I also love the mix I’m reading on line; a lot of the screed-y stuff seems to have fallen away; cattiness and cynicism are still out there; but I really enjoy the ease, breeziness, activism, intensity, and intelligence I’m seeing from young critics. Again, I’m not a good person to ask. I barely have time to read Twitter.

I love Artforum. When it comes every month I get sort of scared of it. I sit down and start looking at a new issue. I have no problems with there being a zillion ads in every issue. The art world loves these ads. It’s a great place to get depressed about who is and isn’t having shows, notice how powerful the powerful are, curse about Larry and Hauser & Wirth and those Death Stars. Those ads are our porn. When I finally get to the stories I’m sure I’m supposed to read these. But I try and not much happens or can’t make heads or tails of what’s being said. Or sometimes even what’s being written about as a lot of them take a page or two just to get to the artist’s name! I admire these writers immensely, am intimidated and impressed by them. I would not want an art world without this contingency. But I’m like a glockenspiel next to these finely tuned instruments. No wonder Artforum has ever asked me to write for them!

What do you think is the most important trend in contemporary art right now?

For me all art is contemporary art. From Cave Painting to now; it’s all in play everywhere at the same time. I think that our current teleological system of art history based on progress and art is mainly measured by formal moves “forward” via techniques, tools, etc. This system is already dead; it just doesn’t know it. I sort of hate that the best encyclopedic museum on earth, the MET, like all the rest of our museums has felt it has to go whole-hog on contemporary art. So far it’s been pretty iffy. Why why why does this have to happen!? The MET has more money than anyone. It could assemble a tremendous collection of new art just by asking trustees for a few works each. It didn’t have to get a whole building for this! That’s all time and effort and money that might have been used for the first 50-centuries of art.

Regardless, art history has to let more in. Now. Not just people who called themselves artists and make what they called art that’s usually based on pre-established art and art history. There are a lot of people who are artists and don’t know it; and a lot people who think they’re artists and aren’t.

The Whitney is starting to get at this without seeming to be good little humanists filling quotas and just checking boxes. There was a lot more going on in the 1940s and 1950s than just the struggle in America and Western Europe toward “flatness” and abstraction for fuck’s sake. Outsiders, weirdos, artists from around the world, women! The Whitney’s America is Hard to See proved down that all the different provincialisms and bad abstractionists had tons to tell us. Needless to say, we pronounced painting dead at the exact moment when artists of color and women became more prominent in art! It’s like all these academics are undertakers pronouncing things dead.

It’s a rigged system. It is time to work against this system.

Ohio Edit's Donnie Boman (left) with  Jerry Saltz in front of Maria Lassnig's painting, "You or Me" (2005) at the Met
Ohio Edit’s Donnie Boman (left) with Jerry Saltz in front of Maria Lassnig’s painting, “You or Me” (2005) at the Met Breuer

What about the art market? Is there any pay to play?

I posted my one-and-only bank account in November 2015.

The art world has become obsessed with money. I don’t mean artists are selling out – although most of that Zombie Formalism exists only for the market and when that market goes away so will those artists; they will all get jobs teaching. I mean the art world is distracted by money; pays attention to eleven rich white artists. Who cares! I love Jeff Koons and Richard Prince! Conversations always get boring when they bog down into “the market.” We have no theory of the market so we have no way of talking about it.

Truth? Most of the art world is of the five-percent.

Anyway, I posted my bank statement after years of being dismissed and told “That’s easy for you to say Mr. Corporate Sell-out Shill for the One-percent.”

I posted my bank-account of $3,300.00 to show that we’re all poor; we’re all living on the edge. Only about 1% of 1% of 1% of 1% of everyone in the art world makes money.

Yeah, I’ve got one of nine or so full-time art-critic jobs in the country. I am lucky. These jobs will all probably be gone soon-enough. I have one of these jobs. I also teach regularly at three schools and lecture all the time. All to make ends meet. Just like everyone else.

It sounds like it’s hard out there for a critic.

No! It’s great! We need more. Lots more. Now. Your life is never boring. You’re around some of the most driven people on earth. All pretty much like you! Mainly I know how lucky I am. I was a long-distance truck driver into my 40s. I didn’t start writing till I was in my 40s. I was lost, desperate, alone, living in an East Village shit-hole where German Shepherd drug-dealer dogs patrolled the halls; wanting to be in the art world without knowing how. Like everyone.

I spend about a third of everyday thinking about how lucky I am.

The art world is an all-volunteer army… If someone hates it here they can leave or get on with it and make it work for them somehow, to save themselves from the hell of not having a life lived in art.