Jerry Saltz: One-eyed King

Barnett Newman, Second Station, 1960

The most important art critic of the 20th Century was Clement Greenberg, champion of Abstract Expressionism, and in a relativistic age of art analysis, a believer that painting was good or bad, and history would hold onto the former and cast aside the latter.

Greenberg was followed by Robert Hughes, a vitriolic, passionate and educated student of art history who, most famously, tore painter Julian Schnabel to shreds in a now-legendary 1987 article, not in Artforum, but in the pages of Time, read by millions of Americans who didn't even know who Schnabel was but now laughed at the mere mention of his name.

For better or for worse, we now have Jerry Saltz, not so much a critic as an overly enthusiastic cheerleader for art of all kinds, from the anemic social symbolism of Banksy to the glue-gun-garbage collages and hanging, overweight-colored-tribble-and-quilt installations of Mike Kelley.

It would be unfair to call Saltz a fraud. His love and interest in art seem heartfelt and his enthusiasm about a subject that intimidates many can only be a good thing.

My issue with Saltz is while he is so eager to reduce 30,000 years of human expression into his now famous Tweets, he does not truly understand art itself, nor does he have any clue as to what is behind its creation. It is admirable to dive into the art world for the love of art itself. But those of us who were born into it, watching our fathers and friends sketch, paint, and in some cases, ultimately kill themselves to create something approaching the "spiritual" (to use a term applied by Robert Hughes), it seems natural that some kind of immersion in not only gallery shows, but artistic process, would be necessary for any arts writer.

I confess I have had a hard time putting a finger on what it is about Saltz that I find so instinctively shallow, so brazenly crass. It wasn't so much that he called George W. Bush a good painter, or that he shamelessly accepts the idea, dished out by the richest people in the world, that art has become a mere commodity (which is not true for most artists, who slave away in anonymity thinking of creation and feeding their children first, and sales last). It's not that he gives space to used car salesmen such as Richard Prince. It was something instinctive but elusive.

Then I stumbled upon an interview Saltz published with Willem DeKooning biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swann. My questions were answered, my instincts redeemed.

In the article, Saltz' inquiries and observations about the biography expose how little innate understanding he has about art, and moreover, how little he knows about even recent, well-documented art history. It is an embarrassing, if brief, piece of journalism that deserves a line-by-line examination, if there were space for such a thing.

But a few things stand out.

The interview starts off with Saltz praising the authors for having written a book that gave him "the most vivid picture of the mid-century New York art world that I've ever had."

Vivid is a fair enough term. But one suspects that Saltz, who is a poor writer at best, settled on a say-nothing adjective because, born in 1951, he lacked the personal experience to have written, "best," "most thorough," or "most accurate." Of course, it is not Saltz' fault he was too late to rub elbows with Mark Rothko or Franz Kline. But this semantic wrangling is a bad sign of the sweeping and uninformed statements to come, and further evidence that the foremost critic in America today is an emperor with no clothes.

What follows is Saltz expressing surprise that some of the Abstract Expressionists were so poor before they made it, which they did on the coat-tails of a magazine hit-piece on Jackson Pollock that catapulted Pollock to fame. Then there is the gut punch. In a sentence fragment, the senior art critic for New York magazine dismisses Barnett Newman, one of the mid-20th Century's greatest painters, and arguably, a man who was knee-deep in AbEx before Jackson Pollock learned to drip.

It plays out this way: Stevens informs Saltz that Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky "had bet their lives" on their art, and had suffered extreme poverty as a result. This is common knowledge that Saltz apparently learned from their book.

"True," snipes Saltz, "Though it really made some of them unbearable windbags. When I think about Barnett Newman blathering on about the sublime ..."

Mercifully, Stevens cuts him off. That he agrees with Saltz is neither here nor there. In any case, as an attempted historical observation, it is wholly inaccurate and reveals Saltz as a man who, in terms of art, simply doesn't get it.

Newman, who is recognized as one of the most important Abstract Expressionist painters and a pioneer of color field painting, did not starve the way Gorky and De Kooning did. He worked steadily as a teacher, writer and critic while creating his famous "zip" paintings. When he wasn't employed, he and his family lived off his wife's teaching salary. De Kooning, by comparison, was hospitalized at least once for malnutrition and lived for a time on a diet of ketchup.

Newman, an under-recognized giant of 20th Century art, dedicated his entire life to reinventing painting, to escaping from Cubism, from Cezanne, from subject matter itself. He was a scholar, a deep thinker, and had an industrial work ethic that came from working at his father's clothing manufacturing company when he was young. Without Newman's contributions, it is unlikely we would have ever seen painters such as Richard Diebenkorn, Kenneth Noland or Frank Stella.

Maybe ignorance is no great sin. Maybe generalizing history is what we all do in order to understand it. But Saltz is widely considered a critic, and historical awareness was once a pre-requisite for that job.

More important here is Saltz' condemnation of Newman's "blathering on" about the sublime. This is where we see Saltz in deep, hot water. 

In fact, Newman wrote that his contemporaries were not concerned with their own feelings or personalities (making the point that they were very different them from the Expressionists and post-Expressionists). Artists of his day he said correctly were "concerned with the sublime." And that has typically been the case, whether we are talking about Medieval religious art or late 20th Century Modernism.

Artists from Giotto to Joseph Beuys, from Cimabue to Kandinsky, spent their lives seeking that extra, mysterious, indefinable spiritual spark that would elevate their work beyond paint and support, past lines, forms and colors, so that their efforts would touch souls. In using the word sublime, Newman might well have been describing his contemporary Mark Rothko, whose paintings were deceptively complex symphonies of tragedy and mysticism.

Even Robert Smithson, who was called "banal," "cold," and branded as "egotistically heroic," was arguably hunting the sublime, according to later critics.

In 2005, Arthur C. Danto wrote about Smithson's most famous piece of earth art, Spiral Jetty, for the Nation.

"There can be little question," the critic and philosopher concluded, "that in Great Salt Lake (Smithson) found something more primordial than primary structures, something more rawly connected to the energies of nature."

Saltz is such a distant observer of art, and such a poor historian, that he doesn't truly understand the very thing he's writing about. Hughes and Robert Motherwell, both writers and historians, took up painting to better understand what it was they were looking at. I don't know if it would help him, but Saltz might consider doing the same.

Note: Via Twitter, I inspired Jerry Saltz to respond to this article. Of course, the man earns his living writing and I didn't really expect him to feed my little blog for free. That said, he did respond, also via Twitter with the message: "You could be right." Fair enough. 

Pier, El Salvador

Pier: 8 x 12 inches with a narrow border. Signed on the back. $300, shipping included.