Saturday, May 7, 2011

Jerry Saltz Kicks My Ass

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:

left to right: Jerry Saltz, unidentified art enthusiast

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:

Machine Turn Quickly, Francis Picabia, 1916-8

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:

totally bad ass pair of scissors, Jim Dine, probably sometime after 1970

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.

Good luck.


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.


  1. Oof. More like a backrub from KLAUS Kinski.

    I admire you for posting the exchange. I think you're thinking of it the right way. And of course it's clear Saltz is not particularly open to your genre of work.

    Here's what I'd say, and as you know this is coming from someone who is very much oriented to the figurative tradition. I totally believe in the value of studying life drawing and figurative representation. But there are a lot of painters out there who are trying to learn to paint like Bouguereau, and I have to say in general they seem to me kind of like engineers that pride themselves on doing all their calculations with a slide rule. It's cool and all, but you have to accept that anybody wanting to plan a satellite launch is going to go to somebody who uses a computer. The Bouguereau painters often seem to resent modernism and abstraction and wonder why no one cares about what they do. But photography was invented over 150 years ago, and why should anyone care that you can spend 450 hours to get a likeness that isn't quite as accurate as a camera can do in a thousandth of a second? The coming of photography is why art moved on to other concerns. Personally, I don't think this means there's no place for handmade representational art, but I do think it's reason for artists to ask what art can do that photography and Photoshop cannot do. We should see it as a liberation!

    Now your work is already much more interesting than most of what I see from the Bouguereau wannabes. You've got lots of ideas and lots of knowledge about science and math and perception that go into your work, so there are a lot of potential directions to develop. But you know, Jerry Saltz probably still won't like it.

  2. Gram-negative bacteria is lower than Gram-positive? Personally, I think purple is over-rated.

    Agree that criticism very important - and is one of the big lacks for people like me learning on my own. Most of the feedback I get is from facebook/flickr and the gallery owner. Jerry was kind enough to tell you what he thought worked, and what didn't, and why - which was generous of him. Mind you, he is giving you an immediate, not an "I thought about this for a while" response.

    Oh, and individual style is nice and helps you end up in history books, but painting something satisfying enough to hang on a wall and be looked at everyday has its place, too.

  3. Just think of all the art Saltz has seen. It's surely a difficult task to present him with something that doesn't remind him of something else.

  4. I imagine, especially with modern technology, it would be almost impossible to be doing anything that no one else is known to be doing - particularly because even if you come up with a great and successful idea, you'll have a hundred other people doing the exact same thing in a year or two. From that point, it seems, one would either have to be a priori more famous than them, or better than them. Considering your rank in the art world - though I personally would place you above either kind of bacteria - I think your best bet is to be better. But you already knew that, and are working on it. Keep truckin' on.

    Incidentally, my word verification for posting this was "pukin". Sorry, all.

  5. Well, generous as he may be for turning his highly tuned eye to your work long enough to see something, I don't like his tone.

    This does not mean that Jerry Saltz is not a good critic. It only means that I do not like Jerry Saltz.

  6. This is to Ed:

    That is the BEST comment EVER. :lol:

    To Daniel:

    Read every word of your post and appreciate your mature, honest, healthy attitude. However, Saltz still sounds like a pretentious douche.


  7. Claudia you are my new favorite critic of blog post comments.

    Also I really like those sketches by Palevitz(?) on your blog.

  8. Whoa - you step away for a couple days, and the place just gets all cluttered up! OK, so - Fred - thank you. I would not let Klaus within 10 feet of my back. Eeeeee. Thanks for writing up the thoughts on the Bouguereau school. I will confess to similar doubts on the point of the project, but I don't think I'm ready to dismiss it, even if the practitioners can be as obnoxiously doctrinaire as the postmodernists. Anyhow, I'm glad you think my work is interesting. I should make it explicit that I think about hardly any of that science and math stuff when I'm actually painting - it's just a convenient language for describing phenomena, after-the-fact. The process of painting itself is much more intuitive. I think I'm a partisan of the naive school of "if you really feel it, paint it." If there is a point of divergence between me and Saltz, it's that what I feel is opaque to him - and vice versa. But that doesn't preclude a productive conversation, I don't think.

    Jane - While I am fonder of purple than you, the real issue is actually the thickness of the peptidoglycan layer. A thicker layer, obviously, is more artistically legitimate.

    I could do with more criticism myself; I hope you've managed to find some people who are both insightful, and not only positive - a rare combination in my experience. I'm glad some of your critique is coming from the gallery owner though - it means you've got a gallery owner not only out pitching your work, but engaged with it as well.

    I'm definitely gunning for history books. Hanging on the wall is good too, though, and I am the last to turn up my nose at it.

    Jason - I wondered about that, but somebody must be doing it. I've read curator interviews about the pivotal importance at this point in knowing everything everyone is doing, so that you can be assured of eliminating ideas that will be dismissed as derivative. Sounds like a lot of work, to me.

    Synamore - you take up this thread as well. And I think that there's a veeeeery fine line between "original idea" and "good enough pastiche that critics will buy it as an original synthesis." I'm kind of more interested in the first. Fame is great, quality is better - thanks for the encouragement. And for the ranking above both kinds of bacteria, that's definitely progress. I'll consider myself a success when I rank higher than coprophagic New World primates. Pukin *that*.

    Ed - I appreciate the leapery to my defense, but it's all fine. He's a busy guy, even if his activity level supports the hypothesis that there are three of him. He's three busy guys. Without the time to dress up his opinion in happy talk. Nonetheless, you remain one of the funniest people I know.

    Claudia - Ain't Ed great? And come on, give Saltz a break - I still think it was pretty nice of him to engage in this conversation...

    Ed redux/Claudia - I'm glad you guys are having a good time here. You have much in common. I love those Palevitz(?) sketches too, by the way!

  9. & think of the really great quote you now have from Jerry for a solo show opening.
    Jerry Saltz says of this artist: "Your paintings look good... ... I am thinking of YOUR work. You HAVE to make ... more ...."

  10. Damn, Jim, you're like the ellipsis ninja - nice work!

  11. Jim in Alaska, that rocks all the way from here. Awesome.

  12. I think this exchange is really valuable if you look at it as a glimpse into the mind of a critic/curator. Usually when you submit your work somewhere, if it gets rejected you don't know why, and if you get to speak to a curator or critic about your work they feel obligated to be tactful and/or encouraging.

    Anyone who is a curator, a critic, or a collector of art, has to be extremely selective, because it's a given that they will see way more work than they will ever be able to show, buy, or write about. They have to have a way of immediately and reflexively rejecting the vast majority of the work they see - that's the only way to narrow it down to an amount they can deal with.

    Saltz is admirably terse and direct. He immediately reveals that one of his first instincts is to see if the work makes him think of another artist. The way I read what he says is if the painting makes him think of Picabia and he doesn't actually find it MORE interesting than the Picabia, you're done. He dismisses much of the work as "impersonal", "generic", "unoriginal". He tells you he finds obsession far more interesting than craft. He praises risk and mystery.

    Saltz has given you a remarkably clear and concise description of what he looks for, and what he rejects. So much of what is written publicly by critics and curators is full of theory-speak and cultural contextualizing that doesn't actually reveal much about their gut reactions and the taste they apply to their task of selection. Saltz is blunt but frank, and he doesn't waste your time.

    Saltz' criteria are his own personal ones, of course, but I think they're fairly representative of the contemporary art field. They're looking for something that feels fresh and perhaps highly idiosyncratic. They respect craft but it's only a secondary consideration.

    Of course there are curators and critics, and certainly collectors, that have very different criteria. Some place craft above all else. Some are looking for something clear and straightforward, not baffling or mysterious. Some are looking for a particular mood or attitude.

    So the way I would take this is, if you decide you want to make work that Saltz and others like him will like, you need to focus on making your work significantly more idiosyncratic. Or you can forget about the Saltzes of the art world and try to find the collectors and curators that like the kind of work you already do.

    The tricky part, as I see it, is that a lot of artists that consciously decide to try to make their work more "original" end up producing some kind of awkward, artificial weirdness. It's more difficult by far to actually refine one's innate tendencies into something truly unique.

  13. Fred said it all very well, so I will just comment on your courage to make this post possible. The evolutionary chart was an interesting bit of self-denigration.
    Andy Wahol and Phillip Pearlstien were roommates when they both arrived in NYC from Pittsburg. As I was reading your post I was thinking about conversations these two might have had on these same subjects.
    Painting in your solidly realist manner, your skills harmonizes with your mind and we will all be able to pick out a Maidman from across a room quite naturally.

  14. Wow - Fred, that is an amazing interpretation of the comments. I don't have much to add to that, except to thank you for making available to me an entire layer of meaning which I had completely missed. I think you're right, and that the utility of the comments expands in light of what you have to say.

    I am assuredly not going to start painting to appeal to Saltz - I am most familiar with artificial weirdness in the film world, where we have suffered through 15 years of "quirky" independent films which were, I would contend, neither quirky nor independent, but were rather pap released by studio independent divisions that showed a mannered pre-fab "originality" consisting largely of character tics and hipster soundtracks. None for me, thank you. Rather, I will go on pursuing the true originality, the more difficult one - a path on which I would say you are doing pretty damn well yourself.

    Dan, that's a good anecdote - thanks for sharing it. I put up those rank scales because, having thought of one joke, I thought of three, and wanted to cram them all in, because I thought they were hilarious. You will note that they are not relative ranks of quality among artists where, of course, I would be compelled to put myself at the top, and everyone else down with the soil smuts and chewing lice. I hope all artists would do the same...

    I'm glad you think that the factors I bring to play in making my work coalesce to form something that is mine. That's really nice to hear.

    Pondering on all these comments, I have the uncomfortable feeling that really, this blog would be better if you guys were writing it. Fred reads art and art criticism better than I do. Claudia is nicer than I am. Fred and Jim are both funnier, while Jim is also ahead of me on coming up with random shit to say. Synamore, unlike me, actually knows math and logic. And Dan has better art history anecdotes. I guess I could write the part about biology and cognitive science, but I'm as rank an amateur at that as I am at the other subjects, it's just none of you, except maybe Jane, knows biology either.

    Who knew having such delightful commenters would be so humbling? Thanks guys!

  15. Daniel, one thing you're very good at is writing things that make your readers compelled to comment. You get lots of interesting comments, and in that sense we commenters ARE writing your blog. But there wouldn't be nothin' if you weren't writing posts that make us think! So thank YOU.

  16. I agree with Fred, again. It is easy to comment here because your thoughts are thought provoking. Often a topic of yours is over my head, but I still find aspects of the conversation that I can relate to, and the welcoming nature of the commenting space - with you interacting with us - just makes me want to join in the discussion. That and, of course, the extraordinarily interesting and creative company you keep.

  17. Keep writing, please - the comments though are partly why I've kept reading (been a lurker for quite a bit) and finally got the courage to post. Biology I'm not too brilliant at, but I will have had more teaching in anatomy/physiology/psychology/microbiology than the average Jane. At one point even gram-stained stuff myself. . .

  18. Fred 'n' Ed, you are too kind. I'm lucky to get all these awesome comments - it was pretty lonesome when I first started this blog and I'd post something and think, "Well, I guess at least *I* read it." I'm glad you find the topics I cook up rewarding and worth a response - I always learn from what you have to say. Except for when Ed pretends that he doesn't get something, which, Ed, who are you fooling? Nobody.

    And Jane! Hi! I can't believe I've got a lurker! You know what that means, don't you? That means this is a real blog! It's very exciting. Although I am awfully glad you decided to pipe up. I have never done a gram stain myself - what a nifty thing to have done. Since you're an accomplished painter as well, I guess that makes you another art/science head. I heartily approve...

  19. Heh - the nice man said "accomplished"! that'll be me happy for a while . . .

  20. I like to be thought of as a nice man! :) If the rest of you don't know her work, check out:

    Isn't that a lovely watercolor?

  21. EYE studied with the "Schmaltzer" for two years in those Babylonian Halls...he's the lion, you're the meat. Everyone wants to be an artist now so that they can fill the empty bucket of their lives with more crafty emptiness...forget about Jerry, NYC, the art world, BRAVO, Deitch Crapjects, the whole lot of gits as they fly from the nigh. So, dont you realize he has to say he likes Joe Bradley, bc thats where the buzz is and dont you think Bradley just looks like re-HASHED Basquiat??? EYE DOO.

    My humble suggestion, just make art and dont care about what others think. Otherwise, youre just like them, a walking, phony "career".

    Blessy B

  22. Well, look, I appreciate the support, but two things:

    1. I've been noisy about my lack of vanity in who I'll learn from. I'll learn from art lessons on the back of a matchbook if they have something to teach me. Saltz definitely had something to teach me, whatever other disputes I or anyone might have with his criticism, and I appreciate having had the chance to learn it.

    2. Of course I care what other people think. Art is a damnably expensive hobby. I want it to pay for itself, and after that, I want it to pay for me. That way I get to do more of it. Also, revenue is proportional with reputation. They go up together. Reputation, in turn, is proportional with probability that when I'm moldering in the ground, my work will be nestled cozily in a museum and not getting pissed on by cats in a thrift store. I rank this as a fairly high priority, ahead of monetary reward. But I can't get one without both.

    So it behooves me to cast at least a glance on who's moving product and why.

    This, of course, has led to a split personality. Inside the studio, I do precisely as I please. Outside the studio, I hustle unapologetically.

    Anyways, thanks, Blessy, and I hope your work is going well. Where were you studying with Saltz, and why?