criticismBooks
Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Seeing Out Louder: Art Criticism 2003-2009 by Jerry Saltz


Several generations ago two followers of Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss, proposed to change the nature of art criticism. Just as Erwin Panofsky and other German art historians of his generation had transformed art history, so Fried and Krauss sought to replace journalistic art writing, including  Greenberg’s informal style of criticism, with philosophically informed, heavily-footnoted academic discourse.  Then art criticism, too, could move into the university. Within the academic world, Krauss and her followers at October triumphed. And some of the artists they championed—Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman and Gerhard Richter, for example—became stars. But beyond the ivory tower, as Jerry Saltz’s new collection of writing demonstrates, the paradigm shift refused to budge.

Saltz is a great art writer who rarely fails to amuse, entertain and instruct. This magnificent book, the sequel to his 2003 collection, Seeing Out Loud, contains discussions of art world sociology; gallery and museum reviews, including many devoted to younger figures; and an interview by Irving Sandler.  Ferociously opinionated but oddly modest, Saltz is consistently concerned about fair presentation of women artists. He is note perfect on sociology, neither cowed by the super rich nor resentful of their power. He has a riotous description of an auction. Saltz, who has marvelous street smarts, is perfectly capable of making independent, unpopular judgments. Of Cindy Sherman he writes: “all the adulatory reviews and academic blather about how she critiques the male gaze are as annoying and blinkered as they are daunting” (p. 196). On Richard Serra: “his sculpture is the apotheosis of a public art . . . it involves lots of money, power, heft, connections, space, and large audiences” (p. 205). Disagreement he calls “a form of respect” (p. 46). As the essay on Jim Nutt shows, he is capable of showing enough respect for his own former opinions to explain why he has come to reject them entirely.

Jim Nutt, Wishful Thinking 1978. Graphite and colored pencil on kraft paper,4-3/8 x 4-3/4 inches. Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York

Jim Nutt, Wishful Thinking 1978. Graphite and colored pencil on kraft paper,4-3/8 x 4-3/4 inches. Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York

A compulsively quotable phrasemaker, Saltz is enviably gifted at summarizing complex objects or institutions in tight, usually short sentences. Of Brice Marden’s abstract paintings he concludes: “Depending on your point of view, Marden is either a keeper of the faith of painting or caught in a formulaic feedback loop” (p. 388). When he calls museums “the delivery mechanisms of art” (p. 397) he pulls together a complex train of thought. Abrasive sometimes in his judgments of other critics, he can be funny, as when he writes: “The art world is like high school with money” (p. 69). In three successive essays, he tracks his changing responses to the new MoMA. That museum, he rightly concludes, is too small, and its commitment to showing only its masterpieces is limiting. In short: “MoMA is becoming a madman who thinks it is king” (p. 99).   John Currin, he writes is “the Arnold Schwarzenegger of painting: charismatic, ballsy, and hyped” (p. 149). At his best, Saltz shows how vacuous and windy almost all academic writing is. Fountain, he says, “is the esthetic equivalent of the Word Made Flesh: it is an incarnation of the invisible essence of art” (p. 139). This four page account of Duchamp and iconoclasm contains more material of substance than many a pedantic PhD thesis on the subject.

Saltz was attracted to art criticism, he explains, by reading Artforum, but thankfully he has shaken off that influence. His writing is driven entirely by immediate experience. Or as he puts it: “My ideology is that I hate ideology” (p. 426). He never hesitates to reject pretentiousness: “Sometimes the art world, presented with a vacuum, overinterprets it or assumes that something that says nothing must say something—why else would all these other important people be saying otherwise?” (p. 259). He doesn’t use many literary allusions. Nor does he offer larger historical perspectives, references to older art. When he calls Velázquez “the Shakespeare of painters” (p. 52), then for once his gift for phrase making fails him. Saltz has a short attention span, and so is the ideal commentator on art that mostly resists contemplation.  When he reviews Arshile Gorky, admiring him while noting that “his hard-won surfaces and meticulous shapes strike people as labored or too idealistic” (p. 371), you see the limits of his sensibility, which is formed on contemporary art.

When Saltz remarks that he usually sees thirty to forty shows a week, and goes to the Met forty times a year, then you feel that his intellectual life revolves entirely around being a critic. As he puts it, without the art world, “not only would I be out of a job . . . I’d be out of my mind as well” (p. 43). In my experience, and I don’t see thirty shows a week, it’s easy to get burnt out after seeing so many bad exhibitions. And it must be very hard, I imagine, to write as much as he does. What I find most admirable, therefore, is Saltz’s ability to retain his enthusiasm. He loves the art world  not just when it succeeds but, equally it seems, when it so often fails him.


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