19 Questions for Art Critic and "Work of Art" Judge Jerry Saltz

19 Questions for Art Critic and "Work of Art" Judge Jerry Saltz

Name: Jerry Saltz

Age: The year Vermeer joined the Delft painting guild, minus the number of times Cézanne was rejected from the salon, multiplied by the algorithmic pattern of the opening notes of "Gimme Shelter," divided by how many hours I've wondered if Maurizio Cattelan's two praying hands buried in the sand in the 1999 Venice Biennale were really real like Francesco Bonami keeps telling me. Okay... 60.
Occupation: Learning on the job
City: Panama Canal Zone

What project are you working on now? Same as ever: a weekly deadline sent from hell via heaven.


How has your life changed since you started "Work of Art"? I get out of the house now at least 10 times a year (once for taping each episode) to do things that don't have to do with writing. Lots of strangers stop me on the street and in airports to talk about art. Which is fun.

Has the experience of the TV show changed your ideas of criticism? Totally and thrillingly. Keep in mind I don't write for art-specialty or art-only publications, and have never been especially interested in writing for them. I love looking at art magazines but they're not what I'm after in my work. I find many of the strictures of traditional criticism limiting, authoritarian, too clean. I'm already so isolated when I write that I'm eager to see if there are ways to destabilize my boundaries of thought and writing, let in more chaos, unpredictability, and the unconsciousness. The TV show is a small but important tool in this effort that presently includes Facebook, Twitter, my "Ask an Art Critic" columns, my weekly recaps and the commenting that follows, and my regular weekly criticism. I want to use all of these things to be as open, available, and out-there as possible. It's my idea of some kind of political activism.

I want to speak about art more directly and more often to anyone willing to listen; anyone who loves, is interested in, or skeptical of art; even if they didn't go to art-school or don't know the secret handshakes and lingo of the art world. I want an inversion to take place. Instead of the one writing to the many in a hierarchical critic-on-top structure, I want to be involved with the many speaking to one-another, coherently, with pleasure, provocation, vulnerability, humor, passion. I'm not interested in being the main-speaker. I want to hear, listen, heed. I want writing to form moving communities and temporary bonds, be a vow, create a chorus, be a crucible of doubt and agency, be a living text of different compulsions. I want to enter what Cézanne called "a shimmering chaos." Many have criticized me and this as "dumbing-down" the conversation. They could be right. From my experience these conversations have never been dumbed-down or anti-intellectual. Anyway, these last five or six years have been the richest of my critical life.

What's the single most embarrassing thing that has happened to you on TV? Have you ever heard the expression "hanging brains"?

What's the last show that surprised you? Why? Not to sound slaphappy but in some way every show I see surprises me. Even bad ones. There's always this electrifying moment when you see any show when you haven't ever seen anything exactly like this before in your whole life. This always knocks me off my feet. My first art commandment is: Never Count Anyone Out.

What's your favorite place to see art? Authorities asked famed bank-robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. He said, "Because that's where the money is." My favorite place to see art is in art galleries and museums because that's where much of the art is. For free. 

What's the most indispensable item in your office? My doctor said, "You have almost no vitamin D in your system." I said, "Probably because over the last 12 years or so I barely go out of my house other than to see shows and buy deli coffee each evening to refrigerate for the following day." So, until my number comes in, the most important thing in my office is the picture window I sit next to all day, every day, and look at the world going by. 

Where are you finding ideas for your work these days? I believe in a sort of clusterfuck synchronicity. I believe anything and everything I'm reading, seeing, thinking, or talking about has something to do with whatever I'm working on at that exact moment. I pay very careful attention to all of these things and use as much of it as possible. It is no longer possible for me to look at something and not think, "This has something to do with my work."

Do you collect anything? My wife and I buy lots of five-dollar ceramics and thrift-store paintings for under $20.00 (no clowns; no dogs). I love the work of the great Ional Talpazan, 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. I also own what I call "Details: Félix González-Torres." Every Félix González-Torres candy pile piece I've ever seen I've made sure to take a handful of candies. I have them in piles around my house. I think my wife's favorite must be the butterscotch one because it seems to be getting smaller. I also "collected" a "Detail: Spiral Jetty."

What's your favorite post-gallery watering hole or restaurant? I've been wanting to answer this question the same way Marianne Vitale answered it here: "I rarely water my hole these days."

What's the weirdest thing you ever saw happen in a museum or gallery? I haven't actually seen it but after writing in New York Magazine about wanting to have sex in museum (and never having had it), I got scads of e-mail from those who have had sex in museums, including a whole lot of masturbating going on. (A number of people wrote about steamy things happening in the Guggenheim ramp bathrooms.)

Do you have a gallery/museum-going routine? No. I see around 20-30 shows a week, so there's no routine. It's all seeing and all writing all the time.

What's the last great book you read? As someone on a weekly deadline I don't have much reading time. I almost never read the catalogs for shows I review. No time. And, I'm a very slow reader. I start many books; I finish few. I haven't read a lot of what most people have already read. Over the last few years I've chosen one big impossible book a year and then read it all year. In the last several years I did this with Milton's "Paradise Lost" (Whoa! That was hard. But staggering, once I started to get it one night when my wife read the same passage to me over and over and over again); "Anna Karenina" (which I think may be the best book I've ever read); "War and Peace" (which I thought could never be better than A.K.; then around the middle of it, it became gigantic, like some ocean); then the first three books of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." In my top ten short things is Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" (written entirely in rhyming couplets), Wallace Stevens's extended poem "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," and D.H. Lawrence's "Studies in Classic American Literature." I do not think that anyone has ever written better on my favorite American author of all time, Walt Whitman.

What work(s) of art do you wish you owned? Off the top of my head: Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, Hiroshige's "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo," Courbet's "Origin of the World," Alice Neel's "Joe Gould," any Cézanne painting, any Seurat drawing.

What would you do to get it? Blow job or equivalent.

What international art destination do you most want to visit? I am sad as I get older to be coming to terms with the fact that I am too poor and too busy with my beloved-infernal deadlines. I will probably die never having been to India. If I won the lottery and didn't have to work, after I bought a big aquarium with jellyfish in it, I often imagine spending the next 12 years continually traveling to see art and then getting paid to write short things about whatever I'm seeing. If you hear of a job like this, please call me. (I've never missed a deadline and am a really cheep traveler.) In the meantime, I buy lottery tickets each week.

What underappreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about? I think that the many who continually pooh-pooh art-galleries for being boring, or "about money," underappreciate one of the greatest machines for seeing contemporary art that has ever existed in the history of the world. For these complainers the art world is not good enough. Contemporary art is not up to their standards. They're always disappointed. I always want to say to these people, "Go away. We can't help you."

What's your art-world pet peeve? Other than all the people who spend their energies attacking other people, I am peeved at idiot billionaires flying mindless millionaire artists to bloated biennials to party down on private yachts; at seven-figure prices paid for derivative dreck that supposedly "critiques the system"; at cuckoo collectors (like Adam Lindemann) opining in the New York Observer that MoMA's de Kooning show is "dated," "quaint," "bland," and "predictable" and sniffs that he didn't read the great de Kooning bio because "I'm a student of the postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida..."; at gilded auctions attended by those who get their kicks from being profligate in public; at the absolute equation of art with capital; at curators flying from city to city to speak on one other's panels about "The Role of the Curator"; at tenured academics who can't turn the page from 1968; at an endless stream of art-school-trained artists trying to crawl up the asses of Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, and Gerhard Richter in order to stake out a microscopic piece of insular, already-approved territory; ninny critics on reality TV game-shows about art. Also, I wish lots more young art-critics would start online blogs, art-magazines, screed-sheets, Facebook pages, whatever. Art critics aren't paid anything anyway so there's nothing to lose. Other than all that, I'm good.

What are your hobbies? I love opera (although it is too expensive to go to regularly). Ditto football (Jets and Giants) and baseball (Yankees only). But really, I have no hobbies outside art. No life outside art. I'll answer about art the way the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis answered about football (a quote my wife read aloud to me the other night in recognition about both of us): "It's tunnel vision, a tunnel life. I'm not really part of society."