Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.
I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today’s show is a special live recording from Washington, D.C. Last month, we were invited to interview Jerry Saltz, the senior art critic at New York magazine, in front of an audience as part of the “Critics in Conversation” talks program organized by the Hirshhorn National Museum of Modern Art.
Jerry Saltz: There’s a couple of things you need to do first of all believe and trust yourself, for God’s sake! For two minutes! Is that so hard? Put down the urge to be smart. Put down the urge to be right.
I wanted to change, for me, the structure of criticism that felt exclusive to me. I couldn’t get in. I didn’t go to the right schools. Most of you didn’t.
Jerry has been on our podcast before, which was one of our most popular episodes ever. Jerry was considerate and thoughtful in the kind of intimate environment that is a podcast. This was a live audience, and Jerry turned on the magic—and I just tried to keep up.
Before we get into the episode, here’s your regular reminder to check out our newsletter at artagencypartners.com.
And now, here’s Jerry.
Melissa Chiu: Good evening and welcome to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. My name is Melissa Chiu and I’m director here at this fantastic institution. So, we’re all here this evening to hear our “Critics in Conversation” talk, and we’re honored to have Jerry Saltz as our featured speaker being interviewed by Charlotte Burns.
We thank them for being here with us this evening. I’m also appreciative of our board chair, Dan Sallick, and board members here at the Hirshhorn who have helped us enormously over the last few years and continue to do so.
Of course, our “Critics in Conversation” is an opportunity for leaders in the field to examine the current state of art criticism in its many different forms. Jerry Saltz has been the senior art critic and columnist for New York magazine since 2006. He previously served as the senior art critic for the Village Voice and has contributed to many art publications such as Art in America, Frieze and Modern Painters. Some of you might’ve noticed that he also graces the cover this month of New York magazine—I don’t think there are many art critics who can say that about their magazine.
He was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his article “My Life as a Failed Artist”, a candid essay about his unsuccessful art career, the disappointment that came with it, and how it ultimately turned him into a critic.
Having published countless articles and essays, Jerry is known for his forthright insights into galleries, museums and artworks—and for his critical stance on institutions and major issues of our time. He has been a pioneer among his peers in the adoption of social media as a platform for criticism in the 21st century.
For tonight’s program, Jerry will be joined by Charlotte Burns. Charlotte is the executive editor of In Other Words, the weekly newsletter and podcast run by Art Agency, Partners. She was previously the US news and market editor for the The Art Newspaper as well as a regular correspondent for publications such as The Guardian and Monocle.
And now, for our program. Please help me to welcome Jerry and Charlotte. Thank you very much.
Charlotte Burns: Hello everybody and thank you very much for being here. Before we get going this evening, Jerry would like to just say a few words.
Jerry Saltz: Hello, Washington, Washington in the house!
It’s really great to be here. Your vibe is already amazing. It was buzzing through the door. We were getting nervous then—which is a good sign.
It’s important to me to be here with you on the Mall of the United States of America. I am an actual anchor baby, a real one. My people came here illegally from Estonia to escape Stalin and then later Hitler. There’s nobody left there. They all disappeared so I’ve never met one of them. I’m the first-born child in the United States to illegal aliens.
Today, I was very lucky to actually be inside the White House. To me that’s extraordinary, regardless of who happens to live there.
I think that that’s amazing. Where we are in America, geographically at the Hirshhorn, is a big deal to me. We’re on the Mall. This is an international museum, a national museum and a local museum. Under Melissa—who I think is one of the extraordinary museum directors in the world today, honestly—the Hirshhorn is hot. The Hirshhorn is alive, and that’s because it has a local constituency. Without you, it can’t go on. You have a great Brutalist building. Love this shit. Honestly.
It’s a huge building but Melissa told me there’s only 60,000 sq. ft. here. That’s not big for museums. So you have both intimacy and insanity and the exhibitions are awake. Okay? You don’t have to like everyone. When we’re critical of art that’s a way of showing art respect. Raise your hand if you’re a loser artist. I mean an artist, please.
Look around. The artists all sit together. They smell each other, right?
You can. You’d rather have some reaction to your work, my guess is, than “everything’s fine”. Too much in the art world right now, everything’s “Well, fine. That’s fine.” And I think we didn’t come here for fine, I didn’t come to the Hirshhorn for fine and it means a real lot to me to be here with you—this audience—in this place in one of the most important moments in our country’s history. Your museum is in great hands.
Just keep supporting each other. We like you. You’re a New York museum, you’re an international museum, you’re a local museum.
And Charlotte is one of the best people I know in New York that does this. I want to apologize to her for any rambling I start to do. Anyway, thank you D.C., and thank you Hirshhorn.
Charlotte Burns: Jerry just introduced—well, asked the artists in the audience to introduce themselves— which is a nice segue for me to mention the fact that Jerry won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. So, a round of applause for Jerry—that’s no small achievement.
The article that gained the attention of the Pulitzer committee was a piece called “My Life as a Failed Artist”. It was a very moving piece. I’m sure a lot of you’ve read where Jerry talked about this process of finding some art that he’d made years ago. We actually have a couple of images that we’re going to show you.
Jerry Saltz: This is like being on the talk shows when they show you when you’re young. Who’s that? Oh, that’s me.
[Image shown on screen]
Charlotte Burns: What year is this, Jerry?
Jerry Saltz: This would be… I’m 68 years old. I’m from Chicago. This would be in my 4,000 sq. ft. studio in Chicago that I paid $50 for. It had no heat—if any of you have lived in Chicago, that is not easy—and no running water, but I was ecstatic. That would have been 1975 and because we’re all in the art world we can’t do the math, so we don’t know how old I was.
I had hair and I smoked cigarettes as you can see. And those are my drawings. And I loved making them. My wife later said, “Uhh, it’s okay.”
Charlotte Burns: But that was the sad punch of that piece. You wrote about your joy and excitement in finding your art again and thinking, “You know, maybe this is pretty good.” And getting kind of excited about that. And then Roberta said, “You know, it’s not.”
Jerry Saltz: She’s Quaker.
My wife is Roberta Smith. She’s the better critic of the two of us. I love my work, really, this is not self-hate. Or I hate my work—you know. Roberta Smith is the critic in The New York Times. And if I were you, that’s who you’re going to meet someday out there, and you should respect that voice.
But so yes, Roberta said, “No, for the period of the mid-to-late ‘70s, they were not brand new.”
Charlotte Burns: Jerry, how did it feel to hear that you’d won the Pulitzer?
Jerry Saltz: Roberta and I rent a year-round house in Connecticut. It was March and we were doing what we always do and what I want all of these people to be doing all the time, you big babies: work. Work, just work.
You know what Proust said? There are absolutely no excuses in art. Okay? This is an all-volunteer army, people. You may be poor. I was as poor and much poorer than you. I have no degrees. Not a one. No schooling. I was a long-distance truck driver until I was 40. So as big a loser as you are right there—I saw you. I saw you looking at me.
I was a bigger loser than you. And I sort of am.
Long story short, I’ll cut the middle part. I was sitting in our office working happily. We work together up in Connecticut. I want to work together down in New York but she says I’m too noisy. I can listen to music when I work. I got an email at about three o’clock that afternoon while I was working. I had no idea they were announcing the Pulitzers. None. I got an email from my editor that went, “Pulitzer.” I wrote back to him and said, “Congratulations. You really deserve it. That was the best climate change article of the year.” And he had written that.
Suddenly my computer started blowing up with email notifications and they were all saying Pulitzer. Then my wife got a phone call across the office from her people at The New York Times and she put down the phone and said, “I think you won.”
And that’s what it was. It was a great way to find out. We hugged, and late that night she looked at me and I looked at her and we suddenly said, “Does this one come with $100,000, too?” It turns out it was $15,000, but I’m very grateful. Then I wrote on my Instagram that really, as much as I’m grateful, I do think it’s enough men getting these awards. I’m lucky to have gotten it but I actually think Roberta deserves one, or some woman art critic.
Charlotte Burns: Roberta deserves one, absolutely. You deserve yours too, Jerry. We don’t have to take it away—
Jerry Saltz: Thank God! It’s all I’ve got!
Charlotte Burns: I wanted to bring everybody’s attention to Jerry as Dalí, which is the current issue of New York magazine in which Jerry dispenses lots of pearls of wisdom about how to be an artist. The advice is great. It’s advice for art and life. There’s practical advice about things that you can create—like a life totem—and there’s advice that says things like, “Figure out what you hate. It’s probably yourself.”
Jerry, I wanted to talk through some of these pieces of advice. One of them brings us to the question of how you write. You just mentioned that you can listen to music when you’re working. In the article you say that people should listen to the crazy voices in their head and that some of the crazy voices for you are Led Zepplin, Barbara Kruger—who’s on show here at the Hirshhorn, everybody should go and see that—Alexander Pope, D.H. Lawrence, the Sienese painters and that all of these figures are around you in a sort of pantheon cheering you on.
I thought it was so interesting that you think in terms of music, like “I want to begin this with a kind of Bach Bang.” Talk us through that process of those voices.
Jerry Saltz: When you’re in your studio alone or in front of a painting—if you’re a loser like me and you’re not an artist, but you want to speak this language beyond words—there’s a couple of things you need to do first of all believe and trust yourself, for God’s sake! For two minutes! Is that so hard? Put down the urge to be smart. Put down the urge to be right, give up the idea of understanding. Art is not about understanding. No one asks, what does Mozart mean? What does an Indian Raga mean?
You know that dance when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are dancing to the song Cheek to Cheek? That’s beyond meaning. ABBA is beyond meaning. It’s about experience. What I’m saying to you is that pleasure is an important form of knowledge.
In the West we don’t trust it anymore. You trust it in who you love and how you dress and the things you buy because it gives you pleasure. But we get to art and you think, “I should understand this. It should be smart.”
The voices in my head, Charlotte, like when I’m thinking I should begin this like Beethoven means I want to begin this text with a boom. Boom [Sings]. Like that! This is embarrassing.
Just certain qualities of music that I can use to adapt how I want to shape what I’m making. These voices in my head are never mean. If they’re mean, that’s your regular best friend who lives in your head who hates you. That best friend that thinks you’re a piece of crap, she or he is not allowed in your studio. I promise you the second you come out they’ll be there. Like, “Well, you’re a fake. You’re no good.” But in the studio you can develop an audience in your head of your friends, your peers—living and dead—and let them tell you what to do. They will tell you what to do, you big babies.
Charlotte Burns: Jerry, when you left art behind you have spoken in the past about the fact that you were having demons in your head. Those demons were telling you that you couldn’t do things. Because in actuality you’d had a degree of success: you’d been awarded an NEA grant, you had gallery shows, you’d made some sales of your work. By all the apparent metrics of success, you’d had some success, but you ultimately didn’t believe in yourself. Do you regret that, and do you believe in yourself now?
Jerry Saltz: I do have demons every day. I told you my age. They don’t go away. I work very early in the morning. Do you?
Charlotte Burns: Yes. I have a two-year-old, so—
Jerry Saltz: You have a two-year-old! Well, call me. I’m up!
I get up and for a second I feel really good. Then I’m like, “Oh, my God. My piece stinks.” There’s only one way to take the curse of fear; to take the curse of work block away my darlings, my loves. Only one. And do you know what it is? Work.
That’s it. I’ve tried other things. It’s okay for a while, but then by the time you’re in your mid 30s you can’t even do that. You’re done with all that and you have to just get to work.
So, I go to work early, in spite of the demons that tell me: “You don’t really know what’s going on in art anymore.” To which I always say, “That’s true.” I don’t until I see it and I have to start to trust myself. I don’t have the time as a weekly critic, you see, to read all the texts and what else has been written in the big catalogs. I see the show and about an hour later I go, “It’s time to write.” That’s it. I’ve got to go on pure instinct and try to make a case that isn’t stupid. So, the demons in my head don’t go away.
I do miss being an artist. As to the first part of your question, there was something quite beautiful about it. I do get in the same flow—the loss of time that you get as an artist—but it was beautifully physical, and there was a lot of physical feedback of smells and the weight of the brush and the process.
There is a way to talk shop as artists. And you guys have each other. We’re much, much, much more isolated, right? Don’t be a writer. How many writers are in this room? God love you. I love you kids.
Charlotte Burns: Quite a few writers.
Jerry Saltz: Thank God there’s a lot. You’ll be fine, I want to promise you. Just write how you talk. This goes for artists too. I don’t mean to be mean to you. Don’t try to write smart. Don’t try to write “the comparative late capitalist object of simulacra finds this late Marxist as opposed to a Diridion…” Bullshit!
Write how you talk. Keep it simple, stupid! Is it that hard? If you liked magic when you’re growing up as a kid and that has something to do with maybe what you make, say that. Do not be embarrassed. All art should expose you a little bit. All art comes from love. All. Even the sad songs, because you love doing it. Even when you hate it.
Think of Bosch. Bosch portrayed Hell—probably better than anybody of our species has ever done— but take away the subject matter and see through the subject matter to how he painted. Is his hand like this? Show me how his hand was probably moving when he made those paintings. Yes, like this. Dip it. It’s grace. It’s love. It’s care. It’s attention. It’s trying to perfect things. That’s pleasure. Even when you’re painting pain like Goya’s Saturn Devouring His [Son] (c. 1819-1823). That’s a beautiful painting. It is. But it’s another definition of beauty and that’s what I want them to do. Be willing—be willing—to do that.
I’m making no sense at all. I’m always alone. This is why I talk too much.
Charlotte Burns: One thing you wrote about in your advice in this issue was the idea that nowadays we often really see art in a pretty singular fashion, and we used to see art as a multifaceted thing. It was carried into war. It was used as a pregnancy aid. It was used to put curses on people. To kill people. To do all kinds of different things. To essentially act as a barrier between man and God, or a gateway, at least. I thought that was really interesting. This idea of what art can be and what it can be used for. Can you talk a little bit more about that, Jerry?
Jerry Saltz: Yes. I think that’s so smart, Charlotte, and we’ve talked about this before. We have really limited what art is. Art is not a noun. It’s not just this thing. It’s a thing and it’s a verb. Art is something that does something. It used to do all these things.
You know the eyes painted on the sarcophagus of Egyptian tombs? That’s not decoration. That’s so you on the inside can see outside. That’s what they’re for. Mummies are wrapped in a material that every painter in this room should know well: a little thing that we like to call canvas. It’s a very magical material covered with very sticky colored wax-based pigments.
Inside Egyptian tombs, those are works of art. Great works of art. They were never meant to be seen by living human beings. They were painted for the gods of the underworld.
You must redefine skill. It’s not proficiency that you’re going for. Otherwise, really, painting would never have had to change after say a Raphael Madonna, right? That’s kind of a high point. Or think about the painting machines of the 19th century, the realism that David reached. Why did they get rid of that?
Because it wasn’t working for them anymore. All art was once contemporary art. You have to understand this. It’s in reaction to its own time, speaking to its own time. So when you see this incredible Francis Bacon… Am I going on too long?
Charlotte Burns: No, this is good. You’re also telling people about the art that they can see here, which I think is very good, because they should—
Jerry Saltz: —okay. There’s a Francis Bacon (Study for Portrait V). It’s from 1953. He was born in 1909. He’s a British guy from Ireland so they would have big arguments about this. I don’t care. He paints a portrait. It looks like a pope; it’s not a pope. It happens to be an art critic that he turned into this.
The first thing I want people to do when they see any Francis Bacon is forget the subject matter. Let’s just say it’s a picture of a pope, okay? You must ask what is the content of the Bacon? And the content of a Francis Bacon might be hysteria, fury, the feelings of being boxed in, right? All of his people are in this damned little invisible box that always stretches just to the edge of the canvas.
It might be not anti-religion only, but as a homosexual whose very pleasure was against the law and could get himself arrested he would be a little pissed off at the chief enforcers of these old ideas: the church. So it’s about authority. It’s about portraiture. You have to see through the subject matter. That’s what you’ve got to do when you look at art. See subject matter first and make subject matter the first thing you stop seeing. Trust me on this and you will see deep, deep, deep into arts’ layers and you will begin to dance to the music of art.
I don’t remember what you asked, and I’m embarrassed again.
Charlotte Burns: Well, actually, it’s—
Jerry Saltz: The voices come back quick.
Charlotte Burns:—It takes me to a different question I was going to ask you, which was about how you see art. I remember someone told me once that the artist Joseph Beuys—I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve always believed it—his way of going to see art was to walk through exhibitions at a fairly brisk pace until a particular work of art whispered, “Joseph, Joseph”, and then he would stop, go back, and see it. How do you go to see art in exhibitions?
Jerry Saltz: Well, that’s a brilliant question and it goes right back to the other question. Art is something that does something, and I think that what you would like your great or even terrible art to do is something like this: “You there. I saw you looking at me out of the corner of your eye from the across the room. Come closer. Come closer. Come close. I could change your life. You could love me. You could put me in your bedroom. We could live together forever.”
Yes, artists need a lot of attachment in spite of how weird you all are. It’s like you make something like this and you go, “That’s my sculpture. I want to be loved by everybody everywhere for the rest of time.”
You guys are messed up people, let me tell you. And it is possible, if you know how, to do one lousy thing like this and get the business class ticket to Venice. You know, be in the damn biennials, if that’s what you want. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting that. Anything you want is fine with me. You’re ambitious? Fine. I don’t care. Go for it.
Charlotte Burns: Jerry, you talk about ambition. What are your ambitions?
Jerry Saltz: I used to write for The Village Voice. It was a very hip publication. It’s closed now. And when I left The Voice for New York Magazine, the entire art world made fun of me—to my face, in print—and they went, “Pfff. He’s going to go right for a general interest, general audience publication.” They said to me, “Why?”, and I said, “I want an audience.” I write for the reader.
I just wrote this, but art is for anyone. It’s just not for everyone. Okay? And I want a bigger audience. Most of the art world is in such a small conversation.
I want to write to whoever might wake up one day and go, “Wow. Yes, I could look at that painting of an exploding pope and I think it’s doing something.”
Charlotte Burns: You want to make people go and see more art? Is that an ambition of yours, to get people to see more art? Or you’re happy with them reading? I was thinking of a podcast you recently did, and the interviewer said to you that he’s been reading your articles for years and years now but didn’t really go and see that much art himself. So his gateway to the art world, he was seeing things through your words.
Jerry Saltz: I love that. I want to be your gateway drug. You know? Let me be your marijuana until you get addicted on your own. Then you don’t need me anymore. And please, argue with me online. You’ve seen me online.
I want you, my loves, all of you in every profession to have elephant skin. You must grow elephant skin. You must learn to deal with rejection. Man up. Woman up. Grow a pair of whatever! If somebody doesn’t like your work, I’m sorry. It hurts. I read about 50,000 negative comments about myself a day. And to most of them there’s a few things you can think. One, there’s a grain of truth in every criticism made of you. You have to ask yourself, “What did I do that allowed them to make this mistake?” So, one is I think you could be right.
The other is, “There’s nothing you could say bad about me or my work that I haven’t said worse to myself a thousand times. You can’t touch the terrible things that I’ve said to me and that I will say to me on the way to the airport tonight, and then I’ll be fine when it’s over.” I will answer you back. If we disagree, so what? Like I said about your museum, being critical of art is a way of showing your respect. I only ask two things.
Charlotte Burns: What are they?
Jerry Saltz: Online in my feed I will block anybody that calls anyone else a name because then the whole thing falls apart. You can call me a name, but you can’t call anyone else a name. And I block cynics. I hate cynicism, and I’m going to define cynicism. May I?
Charlotte Burns: Please.
Jerry Saltz: Cynicism thinks it knows things. Like if you got a show it’ll go, “Oh, I know why Charlotte is writing for that website. I know why they had to hire her.” “Oh, he just slept his way there,” or, “Ah, I see why that rich gallery is showing so-and-so.” You don’t know anything. As one of my favorite TV shows said, “You know nothing, John Snow.” You know that TV show? Game of Thrones? It’s coming back. Last season!
Is Robert Lehrman here by the way? There you are! We met before. I was just looking for you. Good to see you.
Jerry Saltz: Hey, thank you. I love him. I forgot what I was saying.
Charlotte Burns: You were telling people not to be cynical, in an enthusiastic way.
Jerry Saltz: Oh. English people, they’re geniuses.
They wrap us around their fingers, right? Then when they’re alone in the bathroom they have no accent. I’ve heard you talking in there. No.
Art—you—must be able to embrace paradox. Certainty and cynicism go together. Paradox is the ability to believe more than one thing at once and every artist knows what I’m talking about. Every writer knows what I’m talking about. I’m right, and I’m not right. This is so and it’s not quite so. That’s what you have to embrace in your work. Just let it go.
Charlotte Burns: Jerry, I want to talk to you a little bit about audience, considering we’re here in front of a live audience. You’ve spoken in the past on the podcast that you and I did together—
Jerry Saltz: That was great.
Charlotte Burns: —You talked about your first self and your second self. And how your first self is quite hermetic and introspective and at home with a tunnel life, thinking about art, occasionally leaving to go and look at art, and then coming back again to words and books and solitude.
Jerry Saltz: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: Then there’s a second self which is having a wild time several times a day on social media. Here we are in front of a live audience, which is sort of both selves. I wanted to ask you—with all these different audiences that you have—what are your expectations of your audience and what do you think their expectations are of you?
Jerry Saltz: Really good questions. When I went to New York Magazine, one of my goals was to be the most read art critic in the world. That is what I wanted. I wanted to change, for me, the structure of criticism that felt exclusive to me. I couldn’t get in. I didn’t go to the right schools. Most of you didn’t. Or you don’t live in the right city, or you can’t schmooze, or you don’t know how to draw, you don’t know your art history, yada yada.
And I felt that with criticism—and art in general—it would be one voice speaking to the many. I wanted to make it a voice where the many could speak to one another and make it horizontal a little bit. Even though I am the critic and I’m trying to show you that I’ve earned my credibility. It’s about credibility, not power. That’s a key thing. No one is more powerful than you. You must earn your credibility.
The voice I try to have is “We’re all in this together”. I hate you. You’re sitting next to me on the New York subway. But that’s what is so great about urban worlds—and why they always vote blue, I’m sorry—is because we have to learn how to hate each other. You sit next to me, your thigh touches mine, and I think, “God, I hate you.” We hate everybody, but we do this together.
This is the art world I envisioned, that we’re one family. We’re around a big fire looking at each other. Even though there are many, many, many, many fires, many art worlds, the walls are coming down.
Melissa Chiu and I were talking about this before. The outsiders are coming in. They’ve come in. That doesn’t just mean outsiders, self-taught artists. That means women can now show in more institutions. The galleries are a little behind oddly enough. It’s the market of all things. This thing that drives us batty. They buy an institution’s exhibit, the work of women and the work of artists of color and they are a little ahead.
Institutions like the Hirshhorn and the insane market—which you are so great on—are actually doing acts of radical, unbelievable, political, insurrectionary acts. Does it mean that some crapola women and artists of color will become rich and famous? Sure. But white men have been doing this forever. Look at me. I have a career. So why shouldn’t you have a shot? I haven’t answered it but I’m having a ball. I love this city, I’m sorry.
Charlotte Burns: Jerry, what was the best advice anybody ever gave you?
Jerry Saltz: I don’t know that it was ever spoken to me. I learned by a little imitating. That’s so good.
I think I learned from a friend a long time ago to always bring the most energy I can. I don’t want to be a deadbeat and now you can see that I’m more like Bruce Springsteen when I give lectures. Have any of you ever been to my lectures? You know then. I’m like Bruce Springsteen: I will talk for three hours until no one is alive in the audience.
I want to have no energy in my tank when I leave you. I just want to try that.
The other thing I learned from the painter, Eric Fischl—we’re not friends anymore but that’s what happens in the art world, it’s what happens and it’s okay—is be nice. Be supportive. Be genuinely nice to your peers. The ones you hate you don’t have to be that nice to, but generally.
Those are the two best. And stay up late every fucking night with your fellow vampires. You are vampires.
Artists that are not living with other artists, here’s what I need your mate to know. You must let your crazy artist mate out every night. She or he will feed on blood.
They will always come back. If they don’t, you’re in your 20s and that’s normal. If you’re still dating the drummer in your 30s, call me.
You’re nuts. You’ve got to get over that self-hate phase! But in your 20s, have fun.
Artists learn from one another as you’ve talked about. You’ve written about it. Artists learn from each other. When the teachers go home, when the director leaves the room, when the bigwig art critic you’ve lied to and said, “Oh, I like your work,” has left, then you talk amongst yourselves.
You must do this and you must stay up late. There’s no excuses. I was poorer than you, I promise you. As poor as you are, I was poor into my 40s and I didn’t start writing my first word until I was over 40. Okay?
It’s not too late if you bring the energy, you try to be nice and you show up. My first self is very shy. I’m sociopathically shy. I have a very hard time going out of my apartment. I’ll see 20 or 30 shows a week. I have no problems with going to shows.
Roberta and I are invited to every dinner. It feels good to be invited but I don’t think I’ve gone in decades. No. I hide.
There’s something wrong with me. It’s been with me a long time and one of the best things about being “successful” is that I don’t have to show up anymore. There’s pain, there’s terrible pain. And the person I am online—the second self you referred to—he’s having a ball. I don’t know what the hell he’s up to.
I get very, very anxious when I’m writing. “This is shit, this is no good.”
Then I think of a subject like a Medieval torture scene of a saint and I’ll go online start hyperlinking. One saint, then to a torture, the next thing I know I’m in Ancient Rome and I go, “Oh, that’s a nice picture,” I’ll take its picture because I don’t know anything about tech. I’ve never had an assistant. Then I post it with a wise-ass idiot caption like: “Dear artists, I’m coming to your school or I’m coming to the Hirshhorn. This is what I’m going to do to your asses.” I’ve posted some great unknown art and also tried to show whatever was on my mind. To dance naked—just like you are—in public.
Charlotte Burns: Is that liberating, to have that—
Jerry Saltz: —It’s embarrassing but like I say, I believe in radical vulnerability. Every single thing we do comes from pleasure or pain. These places inside of us can expose us and show us to be vulnerable hacks, cruel… not cruel. Cruel is off limits for me. Stupid, asshole-y, a ham, interested in questionable things. “Why is he posting so many pictures of butts?” I don’t think I’m that interested in butts, honestly, but the guy that’s searching around, he seems to like that. This is just an example.
You’ve got to be radically vulnerable in your work and I can spot it in one second in your work. If it’s all sewed up and perfect and you’re obeying, you’re staying in your lane—I’m not interested in people who stay in their own lane, mm-hmm. Mm-hmm—that’s not why I got into this art world. I’m interested in you wearing any hat you want to wear. Any hat. No matter how questionable. As long as it’s not cruel or hurts another person. That’s it.
Then make your work. Have your own voice.
And that second self has found a way for me to not feel so scared in public and I’m not sad anymore. I’m only sad inside, like a clown.
I’m not sad inside. I’m generally an ecstatic person. I feel so lucky. I am so lucky to be doing this. I never want to abuse this. I never want it to stop. I want to do this to the day I die. Even though I too wake up every morning like, “Get me out of here. I can’t go on. The pressure is too great. The failure, the public humiliation is too intense. What I might show about myself is too awful and shameful.” But we go on. We beat against the current.
Charlotte Burns: Jerry, we’ve talked a little tonight about what art can do and what art can be. I wanted to ask you if you could think of a few pieces of art that have changed your life: works that have made you cry, changed your career, caused you to consider life in a different way. Can you pinpoint any that stand out?
Jerry Saltz: I’m from Chicago. We didn’t understand abstraction very well where I’m from. Our history has more funk in it, many more outsiders. When I was your age—all of your age—we were then just inventing and discovering artists like Martin Ramirez and Henry Darger. I was among the first to see these people and they were discovered by other artists. We got very turned on by that.
We liked Medieval art. There’s a painting in New York by Giovanni di Paolo in the Lehman Wing [at The Met], of [The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise] (1445). Do you know this painting?
Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm.
Jerry Saltz: Very beautiful, by a Siennese painter in 144. I just find it to be one of the most beautiful things on the planet of the Earth. On the other hand, after 9/11 when I thought there was no hope to be in contact with beauty again, I remember going to Modern and seeing a 1950s plastic chair that was just curved in such a beautiful way I thought, “I can go on.” Beauty is here too. Beauty is alive. Beauty doesn’t die. It changes. Sometimes it hides. All art is contemporary art.
Right now we’re seeing a brand new painter, a woman named Hilma af Klint. You’ve seen her show at the Guggenheim? She was before all the male painters, who were great artists—I’m not a big Kandinsky fan, but whatever—Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich. Who else invented abstraction?
Charlotte Burns: Well, there were all the Germans talking about spirituality and art at the turn of the century.
Jerry Saltz: All those people. All of a sudden you have this Swedish woman ten years before: Hilma af Klint. She made absolutely nonobjective, intentionally large scale, repeated—not just one off, not cray-cray art—abstract art ten years before the fact.
Go into the first gallery at the Guggenheim before it closes. I don’t care about the rest of the show, which I think is great. Look at the ten paintings in the first gallery. Aren’t they amazing?
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Jerry Saltz: Melissa Chiu said this to me in her office: “Art history is just beginning.” The old art history? We’re putting it in a salt mine. It is great shit—it is the Garden of Eden and I’m not throwing out no Cezannes—but all of a sudden, art history doesn’t have any limits on it anymore. We can find the people that didn’t get in the first time and you have a shot.
Men, I think maybe we shouldn’t show or write—ugh—for five years. I’m sorry, men. We had a good 50,000 years.
We had a free pass. Maybe for five years men should lay fallow from exhibition. Not from working!
You keep working and if women and artists of color ruin art history by 2024, then we take it back from those fuckers. Okay?
Charlotte Burns: So I think we’re almost getting to—
Jerry Saltz: Have I ruined it yet?
Charlotte Burns: We’re going to open up to questions shortly, but before that I did ask people today online on Twitter and Instagram if they had any questions that I should ask Jerry. I have a few sample questions. This is a quick-fire round—
Jerry Saltz: We’ll do a quick-fire. I’ll shut up. Yeah, sure. Interrupt me If I’m starting.
Charlotte Burns: —We’re going to do a quick-fire round and then we’re going to go to the floor. Jerry, what do you like about the art world and what don’t you like about the art world?
Jerry Saltz: I love that everybody’s making it out of themselves. That we’re all trying the same way. We’re all equally bashful. Most people have no idea what they’re doing but they know how to do it. And what I hate about the art world is that in the popular imagination where this rich, rich world where the facts, as you well know and have written 1,000 times, is that only one percent of all artists have any money. That we’re paying attention to this one percentile, that I don’t like. But this will pass. I promise you, when the money goes away, so will the Banksys.
Charlotte Burns: Jerry, what’s your favorite museum shop and why?
Jerry Saltz: My museum shop?
Charlotte Burns: Your favorite museum shop.
Jerry Saltz: I like two of them. One is the Asia Society on Park Avenue in New York. I buy my wife jewelry there. And I like The Met shop. You see, I’m very New York-centric because I don’t leave my zip code much because I’m a weekly critic. You want me to come to Washington? I don’t leave my desk usually for more than six hours. Writing weekly criticism is like performing live on a stage. Writing monthly or writing books, that’s like recording in the studio. I have to be live otherwise it doesn’t work.
Charlotte Burns: What is going to happen to local criticism given the demise of media?
Jerry Saltz: What’s going to happen?
Charlotte Burns: To local art criticism, especially in New York given the demise of The Village Voice.
Jerry Saltz: What’s going to happen to art criticism? It’s going to thrive like it never has in the history of our species. Why? Because more people can do it. It’s free. You cannot make a dime from this goddamn profession, if you think you can.
Once critics and writers realize they have nothing to lose they are armed, in love and dangerous. I promise you. All of you should open blogs, start blogs, start writing. If you build it, they will come. If they’ll listen to this, they’ll listen to you.
Charlotte Burns: Who would Jerry be if not Jerry?
Jerry Saltz: I ask myself that a lot. He asks himself that a lot. My wife and I ask each other, “Can we get out of here? Is there a way out?” And I think I have the answer: no. This is a crippling thing. Once you get it, you’re a lifer and I thank God I’m a lifer.
Charlotte Burns: Describe your ideal art world.
Jerry Saltz: My ideal art world is about what it is. I just wish people wouldn’t write so much about the top ten prices and the top 12 pieces at Frieze and they would pay attention to losers like this and go, “the six worst paintings by this woman.”
I would be very interested in that world and it will come once the money… It comes and it goes. I’ve seen it in 15 phases. We’re just in a moneyed phase and we’re living in one of the most important periods. Oh, can I say one thing?
Charlotte Burns: Please.
Jerry Saltz: A lot of you will worry. Am I political enough? My answer is yes. Even if you paint just monochrome paintings. The content of now is in your work because you live now.
Just because you make art in a good cause, my loves, does not make your art good. Do you understand what I just said? Just because you took this piece of canvas to Bosnia and then went like that [makes rubbing motion] for six hours with a blindfold on and show it in a gallery in New York saying, “This is about the Bosnian refugees, man.” My review will say, “No, it’s not.” The content of that is unoriginality. See it? Fear of doing something that might be about a hard subject like Bosnia.
Don’t worry if you’re only building cardboard models of desks. If there’s politics, if there’s content—sometimes the content is that you might just want to make something beautiful in this very, very, very ugly moment. That moment, too, will pass. Twenty-four months and it’ll be gone. Probably.
Charlotte Burns: Final question from the worldwide web before we get local.
Jerry Saltz: Love the web.
Charlotte Burns: What would art critic Jerry say to artist Jerry, if he could time travel?
Jerry Saltz: The art critic in me would say to the artist in me, “I love you very much. I love you so much,
Jerry, but you let us be this because it’s all we had. And it worked and you’re happy.”
Charlotte Burns: I think that’s wonderful. So—
Jerry Saltz: Do you want to go home? I’ll stay forever.
Charlotte Burns: Do we have the picture of Jerry today?
Jerry Saltz: Oh yes, do you have the picture of me today?
Charlotte Burns: I’m going to scroll and scroll.
Jerry Saltz: Oh, wait. That’s me. Go back. This is real. Do you see where I am? Is there another picture? Show the next one. This is the press room of the supposed greatest country in the world. We all have to get $10 together and give it to these poor press people. I kept saying, “You’re living in hell.”
Do we have one more slide or anything of this?
Charlotte Burns: Let me see.
Jerry Saltz: This is all of their offices. It’s 700 people that have to run upstairs and they’re in the basement. It’s insane. There’s mold in there, there’s mouse traps all the fuck around here.
Their desks are smaller than your idiot desk. What are we doing? I like the press. I’m not saying you have to love them, but for god’s sake. I stood in the White House and stories will be broken. Worlds are going to be shattered. Stay tuned to New York magazine.
Charlotte Burns: We’re going to get to some questions from the audience now. I think we have a few minutes here at the end. Jerry and I have one rule, which is the first rule of journalism. It’s the kiss rule, which is: keep it simple, stupid. We want questions, not statements.
Jerry Saltz: Questions only. You make a statement, we’re going to get medieval on your ass. Don’t hate me—
Charlotte Burns: Let’s go with this lady at the front and then with this lady here.
Jerry Saltz: —Then you jerk the microphone from them if they start a long statement about capitalism.
Audience Member 1: Thank you very much for coming. You gave a picture earlier about like a bonfire and darkness and people sitting around looking at it. What exactly did you mean? Do the women storm the ramparts? Why is it happening now, finally?
Jerry Saltz: No, women have to make their work. That’s the period we’re now happily starting to phase into. And again, I said the irony and the paradox of this is that institutions are opening the doors. Usually it’s the outsiders who get them open from the inside galleries. My beautiful gallery world. But the gallery world is a little slow on it. They’re catching up with women, not so much artists of color, but they are. So, I’m saying if you build it they may actually come. That is a big change, as you know. You’re younger than me, but you know. You’re older than me? That makes me feel good. Next question.
Charlotte Burns: Next question.
Audience Member 2: I’m Paula. I’m a DC artist. I know you said about having a new art history, but what about renaissance? Do you feel like there will be a renaissance or something along on those lines?
Jerry Saltz: Will there be a renaissance? I would say that there absolutely is one going on as we speak. The renaissance is that the walls and the definitions are lowered, the shields are lowered. They’re low. As low as we’ve ever seen them. This is your moment and these moments do not pass quickly. They last. They’re eras. We’re in an era, especially because of this ironic thing where the top changed the most first. It leaves a lot of room for your work to be good. But just because you’re a woman or just because you’re an artist of color, that cannot be enough. But it can be a lot.
Men played that card for 50,000 years. I don’t give a damn. Just make your work and stay up late. If you don’t stay up late at work, work, work, work, work I don’t want to talk to you. I really don’t. It’s all in your head. You’re not in my art world.
Charlotte Burns: Okay, any other questions? The gentleman in the blue shirt.
Audience Member 3: You’ve given a lot of advice to artists, but as someone who’s outside of the club—I’m not an artist, I just appreciate it—do you have any advice for some of us who want to feel like we’re more part of the community?
Jerry Saltz: Yes. Are you saying you’re not an artist?
Audience Member 3: I’m not an artist. I’m a math guy.
Jerry Saltz: You’re a what?
Audience Member 3: I’m a math guy.
Charlotte Burns: Math. He likes mathematics.
Jerry Saltz: Math. Well, we all need you. None of us can do math. Can you? No. I had to figure out how old somebody was today. The art people around me all went, “We have no idea!”
Okay, here’s the simple answer. You have to look at a lot and you’ve got to trust yourself. Go to museums.
Do you live here, Math? Good, you live in a great museum culture. You have to go. You have to be really honest in there and you have to say, “I’m not sure I get what the hell this thing is trying to get at,” and don’t be afraid to talk to them. It is not about money. You do not have to buy it. You don’t have to do anything.
The other thing is—I guess I would be talking to other art interested people all the time and I would read me.
I’m pretty accessible. And read me this week. It’s for you, Math. I wrote how to be an artist, but deeper it’s how to have a life lived in art, which is what you’re really asking. How can you be you and appreciate art? I’ve got the answers for you. Just read the cover story. It’s long. It’s a pain in the ass.
Click on the damn thing. Help me live!
Charlotte Burns: I would also say that you should subscribe to In Other Words and read all the things that we write and listen to our podcast too.
Jerry Saltz: Yes! Click on this podcast. I learn shit from them! Oh, here’s a question.
Charlotte Burns: A question here at the front.
Jerry Saltz: Please speak up, though. Have I ruined the night yet?
Charlotte Burns: I think we’re at the end now. I’m getting signals.
Jerry Saltz: One more. One more.
Audience Member 4: What advice would you give an artist who is struggling with perfection and the attachment to ideas?
Charlotte Burns: Struggling with perfection, and the attachment to ideas.
Jerry Saltz: Are you attached to perfection?
Audience Member 4: Yes.
Jerry Saltz: That then, if it doesn’t hold you back, should be one of your superpowers. However, perfection often stops people from finishing. And one of my pieces of advice for you, specifically, since our destiny has been to cross: perfection or not, finish the fucking thing. Not just you but everybody. It will never be perfect. Everything that Charlotte turns in. Everything that Melissa Chiu does. Everything that I do, you always think, “This is not perfect.” It’s as good as you could make it in the time allowed.
You must keep moving. If you only are working on one thing you’re not really working anymore. It’ll never be perfect, and the next time it’ll be a little worse and a little better. Meet the deadline. Make a deadline for yourself and meet it. There are no excuses in art. Proust is never wrong. Come and pose with me if you want.
Charlotte Burns: I think we have to wrap up here. Thank you very much everybody for coming. Thank you, Jerry.
Jerry Saltz: I’m sorry.
Charlotte Burns: You were great. You were great.