My friends, let us turn our attention to yet another facet of the interaction between you making art in your studio, and your art making its way in the world. Today we'll talk a little bit about criticism.
Perhaps you've heard of Jerry Saltz. If not, have a taste of his career, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Jerry Saltz (b. February 19, 1951) is an American art critic. Since 2006, he has been senior art critic and a columnist for New York magazine. Formerly the senior art critic for The Village Voice, Saltz has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism three times. He was the sole advisor for the 1995 Whitney Biennial. Saltz has also served as a Visiting Critic at The School of Visual Arts, Columbia University, Yale University, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the New York Studio Residency Program. He lives in New York City with his wife Roberta Smith, senior art critic for the New York Times.
Wow - pretty impressive, right? Which is why the English periodical ArtReview rated him as the 73rd most powerful person in the art world in their 2009 Power 100 list. This is what Jerry Saltz looks like:
This is his approximate rank relative to mine in the art world:
Something you would not necessarily guess about Mr. Saltz from this little summary is that he makes himself extraordinarily available for interaction on Facebook. He starts conversations and then, by god, participates in them. He can be hectoring, boisterous, overbearing, even bullying - but if you read a few of these conversations, you get the sense that he is not in it for the sycophancy. He's just honestly excited to trade thoughts on art and other topics with his thousands of Facebook friends.
Another thing to keep in mind about Jerry Saltz, in the context of this post, is that most of my art is really not congruent with his tastes in art, which skew distinctly more contemporary than my sensibility.
Be that as it may, I've been working on a few pieces lately which I thought might be closer to Saltz's sector than my usual work, so I figured I'd message some work to him for evaluation. He wrote back - and he's generously given me permission to share his comments here.
First I sent this message:
This is "Industrial Object #2," 36"x36", oil and silver leaf on panel. It's part of a series I'm working on - I'd be interested in anything you might have to say. I've got a tough ego; please don't feel obliged to say nice things.
All the best,
A little while later he wrote back a single word:
In case you're wondering, this is probably the type of work by Picabia he's talking about:
Picabia wasn't actually on my mind, because I mostly know him from quotations by Tristan Tzara which I've gotten confused with quotations by Picabia. Actually, no one was on my mind when I devised that painting, but to the extent that I've admired machine art by anyone, it's Jim Dine:
Let me remind you of my approximate rank in the art world relative to Jerry Saltz:
I considered that, and then I wrote back:
Thanks - not bad company. Here's the first one from the series. Want me to send more as I complete them?
He wrote back:
Picabia IS great company; your paintings look good (the first more mysterious and therefore better than the 2nd), but I should NEVER be thinking of ANOTHER artist in front of your work MORE than I am thinking of YOUR work.
You HAVE to make this work more your own. I am not an artist. I do not know how you should go about this.
There's a moral to this story, and I'm getting to it. But first, let me explain to you that considerations of relative rank only go so far with me. If somebody is willing to have a conversation, I find that I'll wind up slipping into some kind of comfortability with that conversation relatively quickly, no matter who they are. So I sent a few more paintings to Saltz. Let me share these paintings with you, and Saltz's thoughts on them:
This one is just generic photo-realism with a little more fracture and brushiness. Somewhat sensationalistic. Somewhat sexy. Generic.
This one just looks like 1000 other realist somewhat surrealist nudes.
It seems utterly impersonal and without risk or originality.
You have good craft. Which is something.
The first one you sent me is still the one I like the most. Something to do with the whiteness, the unfinished field, the mystery of the shape or subject, the closeness of the values of gray to black...
None of this means that your work is no good. It only means I don't like your work.
Shortly after, he added:
Make the drawings for the atlas your art.... let them become something, larger, more alive. (I did not look at any of these. I only looked at yr. bio and noticed the words "atlas of anatomy"...)
Atlas into art is a way to your obsession. Obsession is the skeleton key to art - NOT crafty. Craft leads to craft...
Not content with this ego-bruising series of responses, I went ahead and sent him these two:
He had this to say:
These works are not about anything.
They are as impersonal. They look very unoriginal.
This does not mean that your work is no good; it only means that I do not like your work.
If you've been following my work at all systematically, you will notice that at this point I had sent to Jerry Saltz at least one example of each of the major threads of my current exploration - the machine paintings, the sex paintings (have we talked about those here?), the highly-rendered nudes, and the washy color paintings (I don't think we've talked about those either). And he took the time to test them against his own sense of art and aesthetics and let me know how they stood up for him.
How did all this make me feel? I'll level with you. It did not make me feel as good as a back rub from Nastassia Kinski. Here's the moral of the story - that doesn't matter. If you are making art in your studio, but you want your work to one day stand on its own in the world, then you have absolutely got to learn how to take criticism, even scathing criticism, and recognize that it is a net positive - that it is something you can learn from.
I'm not saying that all criticism is valid, fair, or moral. I know a couple artists who have had dealers rip into their work for extended periods just because the dealers were sadistic assholes who felt a need to let off some steam. That's invalid, unfair, and immoral criticism, and nobody should feel a need to put up with it.
But that's not the kind of criticism we're looking at here. This is criticism you can learn from, once you get a solid half nelson on your vanity. What did I learn?
Well, first of all, I definitely learned which future shows not to invite Jerry Saltz to.
But I also learned something important about my work itself. Once I had separated out the stuff that I'm unwilling to apply - the basic dislike for most of the idioms I'm working in, to which I intend to remain committed - there was one key observation which is well worth thinking over:
Your paintings look good... but I should NEVER be thinking of ANOTHER artist in front of your work MORE than I am thinking of YOUR work. You HAVE to make this work more your own.
I am aware of this issue. It goes back to the authenticity problem we discussed near the beginning of this blog. I admitted in that post, and I'll admit again, that many of my arguments against a radical personal style may be self-serving because, essentially, I haven't got a radical personal style. I tend to run with a gang of painters - semi-academic figurative painters - who have a huge doctrinal beef with the centrality of the distinctive personal style in the pantheon of artistic values. That allows me to frequently not think about the issue, but it doesn't make the issue go away.
The mighty artists really are recognizable from their works. I am not, yet. I don't think, without knowing the hell out of my work, you could walk into a room of paintings, point to one, and say, "There hangeth a Maidman."
I've probably said before that you can't force these things. You can, but then you wind up with a synthetic style, which definitionally excludes authenticity of vision, since all vision is sent chugging through a kind of image-processor to make it fit a mechanical picture schema.
There is only one path past the issue, and that's through it. The path through it as a matter simply of going on making art, and seeing what happens. You can guide your hand a little, but you can't think your way out of this particular problem.
What I learned from Saltz's criticism is that this issue is not my personal little secret. Even if he got the terms of reference, by my lights, thoroughly wrong, he grasped the fundamental issue. And this means that the fundamental issue will be clear to anyone with a sufficiently developed sense of taste.
This is not to say, as Saltz comments, that my work is no good. Heck, I think it's great. But it lacks a particular virtue which I will reluctantly concede is worth gaining. So his criticism points me toward something to think about quite seriously.
Back to the moralizing. Imagine for a moment that you're an artist who, like many artists, takes criticism really badly. Let me remind you again of my general art-world rank relative to Jerry Saltz:
Jerry Saltz just kicked my ass up and down the block. And I am very grateful for his generosity in turning his much-in-demand eye on my work long enough to genuinely see something about it. If I can do it, you can do it. Your vanity is your enemy. Your will to become better is your ally. Never be afraid.