The infinite spanking of Jerry Saltz
On the evening New York magazine won the National Magazine Award in the columns and commentary category for three pieces by its senior art critic, Jerry Saltz, he unwittingly broke with convention. Saltz, in a pair of faded maroon sneakers, sprinted up the stage of the Marriott Marquis ballroom, outpacing his editor in chief and arriving at the podium only to apologize amid the laughter: “Jesus, I thought I was supposed to come up here.”
Custom—and the evening's host—had called for Adam Moss to accept the award in Saltz’s name.
“What was I thinking about when I sat right back down? A few things. One is I felt embarrassed,” he confessed two weeks later. “And I had a moment of thinking, my job is secure for another year, maybe.”
For the record, Moss holds nothing against Saltz for his gaffe: "He’s just like a puppy dog, so he popped up,” he later told Capital. “I loved it."
Of course, not everyone is as permissive: earlier this month, Saltz’s tendency toward the outré got him suspended from Facebook, a banishment he served for almost a week's time. While a Facebook spokesperson declined to explain the freeze on Saltz’s account to The New York Times, Saltz said he received a message informing him that complaints had been registered with the company, and he suspects that some of his 55,000 “friends” and followers objected to steady stream of posts containing raunchy images from ancient Roman and Greek art and medieval illuminated manuscripts.
They depict demons, defecation, torture, severed genitals, masturbation and kinky sex acts; the captions Saltz had given them range from holiday greetings of “Happy Valentines Day babes!”—attached to an illustration of naked man entwined in a deadly embrace with a dragon—to criticism of bargain-hunting collectors to the running commentary of Saltz’s inner voice, telling himself he’s a fraud.
“Letters to Facebook objected to these images (made by artists) being ‘abusive to women,’ ‘sexist,’ and ‘misogynist,’...accusing me of being all these things too,” Saltz wrote in an online defense of his right to express as provocatively as he chooses the darker, self-loathing side of human nature. "I hope that all of these finger-pointing little Napoleons get a grip and go elsewhere.”
In the hallowed halls of art criticism long dominated by self-serious arbiters of taste, Saltz will sometimes say he prefers to play the role of the hapless naïf. Saltz can look the part when he wants: he's a petite man, with a receding hairline, bookish plastic frames, and a face that resembles a hybrid of J.K. Simmons and Larry David's. But his boundary-pushing antics are serious business, a persona built over 25 years of hard work and self-questioning, and they've put him in a uniquely influential position in the New York art scene.
“I call him America's art critic,” said Howard Halle, chief art critic at Time Out New York. Saltz told this reporter he writes “for the reader—not the artist, not the gallerist, not even for the art world,” and he has created an online forum for the hoi polloi, for which the guiding principle is that commenters may attack him but never one another. Saltz sees his work in print and his presence on the internet as flattening the traditionally hierarchical structure of art criticism wherein the rarefied critic pontificates to the masses from his ivory tower—flattening it to the point at which the public can discuss art amongst itself.
And when you level the playing field like that, you’re bound to look bad sometimes.
JERRY SALTZ ONCE HAD DREAMS OF MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF AS A PAINTER. He enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in the early '70s, harboring grandiose plans to illustrate Dante's Divine Comedy in a series of 100 paintings and drawings for each of the 100 cantos that would take him a quarter century to complete.
In 1980, Saltz moved to New York in pursuit of wealth, fame and women, with a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, but no degree. In the process of showing and selling his work, he succumbed to self-doubt. “You can't draw, you can't make art,” he recalls his demons whispering. “What you’re doing doesn't matter… You can't schmooze, you don't have the money.”
Saltz decided he'd support himself by driving 10-wheel trucks hauling art long distances, his cargo a tenuous connection to the world he’d once inhabited.
“Like you,” Saltz said to this reporter, though I had disclosed nothing about my finances, “I was very, very, very poor and always felt sorry for myself.” (A running theme in Saltz's commentary is money's corrosive effect on the art world.)
Desperate to return to his old haunts, he began to envision himself as a critic rather than an artist, a writer who might contribute his two cents to the contemporary art magazine Artforum.
“Then as now, I didn't understand a syllable of what I was reading [in Artforum,]” said Saltz, who has a habit of belittling his own intelligence. His efforts to mimic the academic jargon he read—the kind of artspeak that some characterize as pompous windbaggery and that David Levine and Alix Rule attempted to pseudo-scientifically codify in their essay “International Art English”—were half-hearted.
But Saltz’s energy for assembling the work of contemporary New York artists in a 1987 anthology he titled Beyond Boundaries: New York's New Art was boundless.
“I was good at staying up late and looking at art and listening to artists and going to studios,” Saltz said of the talents that made the project expedient even as he juggled his trucking job, his gigs teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design and the School of Visual Arts, and his occasional duties chauffering a millionaire around in a Mercedes. While collecting images from emerging artists, Saltz generated art-world buzz and met his future wife, Roberta Smith, who contributed an essay to the anthology and who is today co-chief art critic at The New York Times.
Ultimately, it was a monthly column Saltz wrote for the now-defunct Arts Magazine—a series of pieces each focused on a single work of art—that catapulted him out of art media and into general-interest publications.
“He could really expound for 2,000 words on one particular thing,” said former Village Voice senior editor Vince Aletti, who hired Saltz to replace Peter Schjeldahl in 1998. “You're almost seeing his process of looking and thinking and absorbing the work, and that, I think, makes for very interesting and engaging writing.”
Art critic and founding editor of Art F City Paddy Johnson says Saltz may not be “a real wizard with the pen (Roberta just runs circles around us all),” but she praises him for knowing how to look at art, unpacking his sequential impressions for the readers with bold analogies. Just read his description of a set of Matisse cut-outs:
Two giant, mural-like works in the show's third gallery from 1946, Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea (both on loan from Paris for the first time ever), are just white paper on a wide expanse of raw canvas. Huge, minimal, monochromatic, and reduced to essentials, the works are so sensual, it's like we're looking at them with our kundalini. Flying fish fill empty skies, birds dive under invisible waters, surf splashes, seaweed and shells float along some primordial tide. Vantage points toggle from above the waters to below to inside this mystic sea. Continual perceptual shifts between micro and macro scales occur; pinholes and minute surface changes loom large; a pucker on paper takes on the presence of a sun spot; immense forms like the ocean feel intimate.
Saltz, whose energy hasn't flagged over the years, looks at heaps upon heaps of art. When he isn’t writing, he’s spending his days with Smith visiting galleries and shows throughout the five boroughs. If he decides to write a review of a solo exhibition, he’s already seen that artist’s student show and everything in between.
In Aletti’s opinion, “the education that he has given himself in seeing is extraordinary …. I do think he sees more than most critics and is the better for it.”
Under the senior editor’s oversight, Saltz concentrated the “essential Jerry-ness” tinting reviews he had earlier written for Time Out New York, Halle said; he shed his elite pretentions to recreate himself as a writer whose work a broader readership could understand and appreciate for its humor and its fearless commitment to strong opinions. (For example, Saltz's pithy take on the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic: "I feel about Abramovic's art the way I do about the High Line. It's a high-production distraction for tourists that simultaneously keeps them from over-crowding the already over-crowded real art world going on all around them.")
Saltz became what he calls a “folk critic,” “self-taught, and hopefully writing in the vernacular, meaning a voice you could (a) understand and (b) disagree with if you wanted to.” Year after year, in his annual “Babylon” column in the Voice examining the New York art world, Saltz interpreted broad trends in a tone at once, as he told Interview magazine, “performative, extroverted and asshole-ish, like the ‘80s could be.”
And then 2007 came, followed by 2008, the years that New York magazine and Facebook would change everything.
ON A THURSDAY AFTERNOON AT THE NEW YORK MAGAZINE OFFICES, Saltz was flying from desk to desk, bearing a white plastic platter of chocolate-chip cookies he had flipped out of a Gristedes clamshell.
Why not leave them in a central location for the taking?
“[The staff] would never get there,” Saltz said. “You can see there's not a lot of movement.”
Saltz performs his ritual of distributing cookies or doughnuts on those afternoons he takes a break from writing at his Greenwich Village apartment—”I come in here because it changes my head space,” he said—and no one except me was surprised to hear the kissy noises he makes as if he were calling dogs to their chow.
He encouraged his coworkers to indulge themselves, to take two cookies. He asked them to compare the Gristedes variety to the chichi Jacques Torres cookies he had brought in a few weeks ago, and most said they preferred the cheaper supermarket kind.
When Saltz approached Carl Rosen, the senior editor and copy chief suggested he put a candle in a cookie.
“Is it a holiday?” Saltz asked, puzzled. “Oh, it’s my holiday! Boom!”
This was the day Saltz turned 64, and he said he planned to celebrate the evening by writing at home. He'd worn a festive navy blue scarf, embroided with flowers, to the office, a complement to his black zip-up sweatshirt. On Facebook, he had posted an image of a cherub imbibing wine (his preferred beverage is light beer) from a glass jug.
“It's Saint Jerry's day!” Rosen exclaimed.
Saint Jerry is the patron saint of any writer tormented by isolation and insecurity. He classifies himself a homebody who acts “a little awkward around humans,” and he calls himself a “late bloomer” when it comes to the course of his career. Periodically, he offers to resign from New York magazine over concerns that his ideas aren't fresh enough.
“I'm an early riser because of writing anxiety,” he said. “The second I come to consciousness, I think I better get to work, otherwise I'm just going to fail. That's my demon, because I wasted more than 10 years.”
When New York approached Saltz to replace the departing Mark Stevens, he assumed his allegiance to the downtown art scene and the gallery world—rather than museum shows—would make him a bad fit for the magazine.
Moss reassured Saltz the publication would embrace that kind of coverage and friends warned him the Village Voice was facing its demise. The decision to take the senior art critic position multiplied his readership overnight.
The next year, an art student of Saltz's, on the critic's behalf, set up a Facebook account that became a salon for art lovers, neophytes and experts alike; the conversation started when Saltz posted a critique of a contemporary artist that drew roughly 100 comments and Saltz defended his opinion—comment by comment.
Saltz, a man who Googles his name every day to find anything written about him, has become addicted to the virtual interactions. He escapes to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram when he's finished typing up a paragraph of his latest column and the anxiety of completing the next one consumes him. Praising Saltz's use of social media, Moss characterizes Saltz as a "trailblazer for our company."
But Saltz's online persona has taken on a life detached from the man whose hands fidget when they aren't gesturing. It made its television debut in 2010 as one of four regular judges on the Bravo reality competition show “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” which pit emerging artists against one another in weekly challenges.
“The art world is always saying, 'Oh we want everybody to see art and talk about art,' and I thought, I'm offered this chance, I'm going to do it, knowing it [will] probably make an ass of me and art,” Saltz said of the experience that's best encapsulated by an artifact pinned to the wall of his office cubicle: a kitschy action figure of the art critic constructed by The Sucklord, one of the show's contestants.
Embracing the show's mix of low and high culture, Saltz channeled the era in which his criticism matured, “this '80s, '90s New York that was trying to make art into a very mainstream, almost pop culture moment,” said Hrag Vartanian, co-founding editor in chief of the online art magazine Hyperallergic. In essence, Saltz made performance art of his art criticism.
“The funny thing was that everybody in the art world was going, 'Oh, he's finished [after] that he did that,” Halle said. “It didn't make a dent.”
ArtNews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth admires what he calls the “gutsiness” of Saltz's act. “Everything would say that as an art critic, you should be serious, you should be really considered, extremely deliberate …. He was willing to experiment and make himself a character in the public sphere.”
BUT SALTZ NEVER STOPS PUSHING BUTTONS, and sometimes it seems as if his ever-inflating character is destined to eclipse his contributions to the body of art criticism, like some kind of social-media singularity.
In a 2010 essay titled, “My Jerry Saltz Problem,” The New Criterion executive editor James Panero argued that the critic's internet presence has compromised his print brand, which Saltz describes as seeing art without the artist's or dealer's input.
“On Facebook and now elsewhere online, Saltz regularly mixes portentous metaphysical questions with internet messianism, unctuous flattery of his followers, treacly self-doubt, and gaseous emissions of political cant. The ultimate topic of discussion is not art or even his devoted followers but Jerry Saltz himself,” Panero wrote. Rather than eliminating the vertical model of traditional print criticism, Saltz “has instead flipped the traditional critic’s role from peripheral character to central actor.”
That was indeed the case in October, when Saltz posted a photograph to Facebook depicting a naked woman whose backside is covered in what look like wounds from a lash, an image he captioned with the statement, “This is what your critic does to artists who have been very very bad.” The post offended scads of his Facebook followers, some of whom wrote to the magazine demanding he step down, and he soon deleted the picture and apologized.
But Saltz later published a diatribe on Vulture.com defending bad taste and lamenting how conservative the art world has become, to the point at which “unwritten rules and rigid moralities — about whom to like and dislike, what is permissible to say and what must remain unsaid — are strictly enforced via social media and online disapproval.”
Reflecting back on the episode, Saltz—the critic who claims he has elephant skin when it comes to critiques of his own work—said, “I was hurt and pissed. I thought I was championing women all this time. And then I posted it without even thinking. (I was posting men having their balls cut off, castrated, having their heads split open) .... And they said I was a misogynist and a sexist, and at first I thought, this can't be.”
“I'm sorry if they now think I'm a misogynist and objectif[ier of] women. I have an id. I'm turned on by the pictures I post, including the ones of the men being smashed open. I think Edgar Allen Poe said we are all splendid, but dark. I don't think I'm especially perverted, but I wouldn't know. I think I'm so normal.”
Johnson believes that Saltz cares deeply about the art world community, not just his popularity, but that he views it “through the lens of himself,” she said.
Rather than use his faux pas as an opportunity to argue for the increased representation of women and other minorities in the art world, a subject he has staunchly advocated for in his columns over the years, Saltz chose to complain about the censorship of his own white male voice.
Defending Saltz's freedom of speech on the internet, Moss hinted at something weightier: "We try very hard not to police people’s presence on social media … and I’m not saying there would never be a situation where we would feel the need to intervene, but basically, Jerry’s an adult and his own person," he said. “I don’t want to say that people who object to [Saltz's posts] are oversensitive or wrong … but I think he has this sort of established record. I mean, he’s not a sexist asshole."
In the long-term, Russeth said, "I guess the question with Jerry is, does the public persona, does the fame last? I think what always survives of critics is the writing."
So what view of Jerry Saltz—the critic, the community organizer, the artist and the provocateur—will ultimately endure? Maybe when his outwardly inexhaustible wellspring of baked goods and energy dries up, we'll find out.