Roberta Smith & Jerry Saltz
OUR JOB IS TO WATCH ARTISTS DANCE NAKED IN PUBLIC, AND THEN WE WILL, IN TURN, DANCE NAKED CRITICALLY IN PUBLIC. Jerry SALTZ
Each week, the art world waits impatiently—the range of expectation depends on the stakes—for two art-wise voices to file and publish their reviews. Rain or shine, colossal museum retrospective or tiny storefront gallery show, under anesthetizing convention-center dome or open outer-borough sky, Roberta Smith at The New York Times and Jerry Saltz at New York magazine weigh in on the madness, methodology, miraculous efforts, meta-euphoria, and mental blitzkriegs of the current state of visual art. Through their respective writings, both critics have become intrepid bellwethers in appraising and transmitting the prevailing winds of contemporary art—even if it means pushing against trends, contextualizing genres and strategies that the white gallery space leaves out, or reminding us that looking at art is a chancy act of prolonged engagement. In tone and technique they couldn’t be more different: Smith’s meticulous, historically informative, straight-eyed approach often takes the form of a discourse that invites cogent reconsideration; Saltz’s spins build to a frenetic, volatile, in-your-face debate that might involve the desire to finish the conversation outside (at present writing, no punches—at least of the physical variety—have been reported). Nevertheless, in their own specific way, both journalists bring to their subjects that essential recipe of criticism mapped out by writer Daniel Mendelsohn-expertise and taste. Readers may not always like what they have to report, they may passionately disagree with the assessments, but each critic dispenses much-needed intellectual and aesthetic medicine.
Smith moved to New York in 1970, where, among other posts, she collected the writing of Donald Judd and was the art critic for The Village Voice in the early ’80s, before joining The New York Times in 1986. Saltz, who arrived in the city in 1980 from Chicago, wrote for The Village Voice from 1998 to 2007 (twice being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) before joining New York magazine’s ranks later that year. (He may also be remembered as a judge of the art reality-television show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist on Bravo during its two-season run, from 2010 to 2011, as well as for his popular blog postings after the airing of each episode. More recently, he’s appeared on Al Jazeera decrying Banksy and on CNN discussing the uncovered stash of Nazi-stolen art.) In a time when interest in visual art has never been greater in the general public, when global market forces have overtaken local, communal ambitions, and when glancing at the latest art offerings on social media with the option to “like” (but not “dislike”) is rampant, Smith and Saltz offer the increasingly rare opportunity for meaningful, objective insight beyond the interests of artists, gallerists, collectors, curators, or their attendant cultural yes-men. One never feels when reading them that one is being sold a clump of sticks for ulterior motives, even if the sculpture in question comprises a clump of sticks. Sometimes tough love is the only way to show respect for art. And disagreement is the sign that the democracy of opinion is alive and healthy.
While Smith, age 66, and Saltz, age 62, have made their reputations as distinct voices, what might be less known beyond their bylines is that they have been a couple for almost 30 years. They married in 1992 and live in Greenwich Village, using their apartment as a writing studio and a hub from which, seven days a week, each critic ventures out, together or alone, to look at shows and find the matter of their reporting. I met with them in October in SoHo to discuss how they manage a marriage of art and criticism. We spoke late in the afternoon just before the opening of the Christopher Wool retrospective at the Guggenheim—and the museum would have had good reason to send henchmen after me if I overshot my time slot.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: I want to start by asking you both what your typical week of going to galleries is like? Roughly, how many shows do you see?
JERRY SALTZ: We see on an average of 25 to 30 shows every week. It’s what we do, pretty much seven days a week. Any moment we’re not writing, one or both of us is out there looking at shows—museums, galleries, anything.
BOLLEN: And is this looking done together or separately?
ROBERTA SMITH: We do both.
SALTZ: On Saturdays we tend to go together for the first few hours.
SMITH: And then we split if I’m going someplace to take notes or if he is. Then on Sunday we’re almost always together because we’re usually driving somewhere.
SALTZ: Outer boroughs. We’ll go to Queens, Brooklyn, wherever we have to go to see the stuff.
SMITH: Art is our work and it’s also our recreation. That’s the great thing about having art in your life.
BOLLEN: I assume you both have separate writing rooms in your apartment.
SMITH: Yes. It’s very fluid. We have doors on our writing rooms but they are almost never shut.
SALTZ: Roberta works at one end of the apartment, I work at the other. I can’t hear her; she can’t hear me. We meet for all of our meals in between. But, as Roberta says, it’s really fluid.
SMITH: We’ll walk back and forth and say, “Do you remember this? What’s the word for this?”
SALTZ: And a lot of moaning, screaming agony—”Oh my god, the deadline’s coming.” Anybody who writes knows the horrible, wonderful, beautiful foulness that comes every week.
BOLLEN: Is that a shared reaction to deadlines?
SMITH: We have sort of antithetical reactions to deadlines. I’m a procrastinator. Jerry is a guy who, if fear grips him, gets to work immediately. So we’re often out of sync. I’m having to work late, and he’s going to a movie.
BOLLEN: Do your weekly deadlines tend to land at the same time?
SALTZ: I turn my stuff in at the beginning of the week, and Roberta is mid-week, so it’s pure heavenly hell. Infernal heaven in our house at all times.
BOLLEN: There must be times when you are both writing on the same show—for instance, you both wrote reviews of the Chris Burden show that’s up at the New Museum. Is there a dialogue between you two about it, or do you tend to keep your ideas close to your chest?
SMITH: When we know we’re writing about the same thing, we tend not to discuss it.
SALTZ: This week, for example, we’re overlapping on Christopher Wool for his retrospective. I have no idea what Roberta thinks of the show. And I don’t think she has any idea what I think of it. I’m basically always afraid to hear what Roberta thinks, because I love her work so much—I’m so in awe of it—that anything she says, I think, Oh my god, I can never even approach that. But inevitably her work always comes out before mine. I don’t think I’ve ever come out first if we’re writing on the same opening exhibition.
SMITH: Which is fine with me, because I often think he does a better job.
SALTZ: [laughs] Well, thank you.
BOLLEN: It can be dangerous when two writers are a couple in the sense that their voices or writing styles can start to blend into each other’s—their influences encourage a shared tone. But you two have maintained extraordinarily different voices and styles. Jerry’s, for example, is fast and loose, more off-the-cuff, like I can hear him gesticulating on the page …
SMITH: He likes to start really fast with his reviews, and there are certain qualities in that that I admire. I’ve tried for that too, but I really believe in pace.
SALTZ: There’s much more density in Roberta’s work. It’s more concise. She’s saying a lot in a little bit of space and she gets to the big ideas very quickly. I really could never touch that.
SMITH: Oh, come on. [laughs] He’s much looser. He brings in a lot of the broader culture and the street that I don’t bring in.
SALTZ: I also let myself be a character in the review.
SMITH: He writes more first-person. I rarely use the first person.
BOLLEN: Is that because of the dictates of The New York Times? Do they tell you to filter out the first person in the criticism?
SMITH: No. It’s just my style. I don’t want to be there in the same way—I don’t think it’s about me. There are pieces I write that are very first-person. I did a piece on thrift-shop paintings that we collect. But it tends not to be my first approach.
BOLLEN: When you find you have a difference of opinion about a show, does that ever lead to a fight over dinner? Is there ever a ruined meal because of disagreement over an artist? Or have you learned to raise a hand, signaling no more.
“EACH OF US HAS A REAL CAPACITY FOR ORIGINALITY, BUT ORIGINALITY IS VERY, VERY HARD TO GET TO. IT TAKES REAL WORK. I THINK PEOPLE DON’T QUITE REALIZE HOW MUCH WORK IT TAKES TO BE A GOOD ARTIST. Roberta SMITH
SMITH: I think we both have the ability to unsettle the other’s opinions. That’s what happens. It’s just kind of going back and forth, back and forth. If we really disagree, I tend to think, I’ve got to reconsider this. And sometimes I don’t think that. But other times we modulate each other in some way. The thing, though, is that writing is the real testing of opinion. You test it in other ways before you write, by talking to people. So we function as sounding boards in that way.
SALTZ: I think that writing is a process that tells you what you think. You sometimes actually don’t know what your opinion is until you hear yourself trying to piece it out and have it make sense to you. So while we might argue before or during, the process itself is so bizarre and mysterious that you never know what it’s going to tell you. Roberta has said a lot of times that when you look at art, you hear yourself thinking things you don’t want to be thinking. Like, you might dislike somebody’s work that you really wanted to like or, inversely, like somebody’s work that you thought was for sure no good.
BOLLEN: You both must take incredibly detailed notes.
SALTZ: She takes better notes than I do, which should surprise no one.
BOLLEN: Do you ever crib Roberta’s notes?
SALTZ: Never. I’ll tell you how I take notes: I draw whatever I’m looking at. I draw a map of the show, and then I make little rectangles if they are paintings, say, and draw a little shape inside. That way I can take myself back to the show visually.
SMITH: With gallery shows, I just take notes on the checklist. With museum shows, I tend to go through and number all the works. I’ll go, “Gallery roman numeral one …” Basically, I’m really interested in how shows occur spatially. It’s the way I see and the way I memorize. So I don’t necessarily even refer back to the notes, although once in a while I will.
BOLLEN: Does your opinion tend to change the longer you linger in a gallery? I think the whole Gladwellian “blink” first-opinion-is-the-best-one is terribly anti-intellectual to begin with, but for art I think it’s disastrous. Some of the artworks I’ve come to respect the most, I hated or distrusted on first impression. Do you go back multiple times before you begin a longer review?
SMITH: It’s a process of constantly going back and forth because I think doubt is such an important part of the process—of any process, really. Doubt is a form of intelligence. You constantly have to test it and go back and see a show as much as you can. But there are times when you have this terrific first moment where you think, “I love this!” and it holds up.
BOLLEN: Do you ever talk to the artist? Or do studio visits?
SALTZ: Except while teaching, never. Neither of us does. Roberta actually taught me that. I think both of us want to see the show the way a viewer would see a show—with no inside information. I might ask, “What’s the material?” or “Which one came first?” Something simple, but I don’t want to hear at all what the artist thinks. And I’m not writing for the artist. I’m writing for the reader, and I want to tell the reader what I think. I learned almost all of that just from watching Roberta, actually, very early on.
SMITH: I went to studio visits a lot when I was younger, and I loved it. I feel like that was my graduate school. I really learned from talking to artists about their work. But once you start writing for a newspaper, you just can’t do that. Because if you go to one artist’s studio, you should be able to go to everyone’s.
BOLLEN: A studio space is an intimate space, which puts the critic in an awkward position. You are no longer objective. It’s almost like hanging out in someone’s bedroom and thinking you can still be on their jury at trial.
SMITH: An important thing for a critic is a kind of disinterest. Most of our closest friends we don’t write about. You just try to keep a situation uncontaminated. You just don’t want a lot of extra information. I think the work of art, whatever form it takes, is the artist’s statement. And I don’t want secondary statement—unless I have real questions—from the artist or from the dealer or from anybody.
SALTZ: I hate when dealers talk to me. I love dealers—they’re some of our favorite people in the art world. But I hate if they do a sales pitch on me. I can’t stand it.
BOLLEN: How do you avoid that?
SALTZ: What I’ve started saying to them is, “Don’t talk. I can’t hear myself see.” Most of them aren’t bothered by that. But both of us have had to warn dealers, a couple of them more than once. Any critic will tell you that there are a few dealers where you get a little bit scared to go into their gallery, and that’s unfair to them, to yourself, to the reader, and to the artist. But I just want to look. When I’m done looking and writing, I love talking to art dealers. They are so alive and interesting and amazing—from Larry Gagosian all the way on down.
BOLLEN: If you’re a food critic you can make a reservation under a phony name. You can sit in the far corner and hide behind a menu. But dealers can spot you two in particular as soon as you walk into their brightly lit white space. I know you both sign the reception books because I’ve gone into galleries and seen your names on the ledger. Is there a tension in looking while being nervously looked at? “Oh, what are they writing down?”
SMITH: There’s a certain amount of that. But I feel I live such a large part of my life in galleries that I’m very at ease with the situation. I don’t want people to be nervous around me, but I want my privacy. Other times you’ll ask, “Can I take a checklist?” and they’ll say, “No, you can’t.” And then you have to tell them, “Okay, well, I write for The New York Times.”
BOLLEN: Roberta, when you moved to New York in 1970, you worked with Donald Judd. Did Judd and the other artists of that period have an influence on you as a writer?
SMITH: Judd had a lasting effect on me in that he was basically a materialist. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe [the British painter and art critic] used to say that Judd was a materialist formalist. If I got anything from Judd, it was how to look at things in terms of how they were made and what they were like physically. I’m still very interested in that. I think I came at a stage when everybody was very interested in taking the object apart and sort of revealing how everything was made. But I also think there was a narrowness to that time. There was a sense that there was this progress that was being made, which was sort of an illusion.
BOLLEN: Maybe there was an idea of progress in the ’70s. Today it starts to feel that everything in the art world is in infinite regress—or just repetition, in that what gets put out by the new generation has already been explored by a generation 20 years ago. Have you noticed patterns of repetition in the art world?
SMITH: Well, it doesn’t change enough to feel individual. What I got from that period was this understanding of the totality of the artwork—it’s political, it’s pleasurable, and it’s personal all at once. If you stress one over the other, things can get out of whack.
BOLLEN: The ’70s don’t seem to me as cynical of a time as today. But that might just be my position looking back. Did you find a feeling of freedom or sureness in the art world then?
SMITH: I think it was a hard time for women. There wasn’t enough attention in that way. Part of its sureness had to do with something very male. Paula Cooper [where Smith worked in the ’70s] showed a few women. But I often feel I was only half-conscious in my early years, so I might not be the best to talk about that period. I think that, as a newspaper writer, I’m very interested in the present. I always tend to like the present. I don’t have the “good old days” view.
BOLLEN: You don’t get sentimental about the time in New York when artists could live in $200-a-month lofts and make their work in Manhattan?
SMITH: People then were probably looking back on the ’30s and couldn’t believe what an easy time those people had. That’s just the way the world develops.
BOLLEN: In my mind, though, the ’70s proved a boon for gifted women art writers—I’m thinking of Barbara Rose all the way to Rosalind Krauss.
SMITH: I think women were always tolerated as critics. That is different than as artists.
BOLLEN: Did you ever find yourself championing certain artists? Publications like Artforum always had their darlings, and I think they influenced their popularity and assured their place. As a critic, say, at The Village Voice, were you fighting for your favorites?
SMITH: No. I feel like I’ve managed to avoid that. I try not to advocate for one medium or one kind of artist. I think that taste is very polymorphous and that a lot of people narrow their taste down to a position, and that becomes very useful in a way—it gives them power and visibility. But I don’t identify with that. I’m sure I’m accused of writing raves that some think are misplaced, but you know, newspaper writing happens really fast. And I try not to think about what my influence is. The Times obviously gives me a certain kind of visibility and power, but you just do your work, and then whatever happens, happens.
BOLLEN: Jerry, you moved to New York in 1980. And from what I understand, you were briefly employed as a truck driver. What did you find in the art world of the ’80s?
SALTZ: I moved here in 1980, when a lot of the art cliques and clubs were already formed. So I always thought I came late—I’m a late bloomer. I had no degrees whatsoever.
BOLLEN: But you already headed an art gallery in Chicago in the ’70s, right?
SALTZ: I was an artist, or I pretended I was an artist, and I made what I pretended was art. I started an artist-run gallery and curated, like, 75 shows and thought, Oh, I have to move to New York now to get rich and famous. I came here and didn’t know anyone really—just a handful of people.
BOLLEN: Where did you live?
SALTZ: I lived down on John Street in a sublet from another artist for a while. Then I ended up in the East Village in a tenement building where there was no rent and a drug dealer’s dogs lived in the hallway. There was no heat. I was in heaven. Because the East Village, for a lot of us, offered us a last chance. Everybody there just had one last chance to get themselves together. But shortly after I got here, I became a long-distance truck driver.
BOLLEN: What were you hauling?
SALTZ: Art. I mean, I’m Jewish, so I’m probably not allowed to haul steel. I drove a 10-wheel truck—not an 18-wheel truck—once a month to Florida or to Texas or, occasionally, California. In the trucks I got more and more isolated, miserable, and alienated. It was really bad. I knew I wanted to be in the art world. I was no longer an artist, things were hopeless, and I was desperate. And so I thought, “I know what would be easy. I could be an art critic, and then I would write things, and people would like me, and I could finally be in the art world and be around art.”
BOLLEN: Were you familiar with Roberta’s pieces at this point?
SMITH: No. [laughs] When we met, he’d never read anything I’d written. He sort of knew I’d written for The Voice.
SALTZ: That’s how insular I was. [laughs] I was looking at Artforum every month. Then, as now, it would just scare the hell out of me. I didn’t really understand much of what was written in there. It was a foreign tongue to me. And I realized that if I were to be a writer, I would never want to be that kind of writer—not that there’s anything wrong with it—but I wanted to be a writer for somebody. I wanted to be understood by anyone who would possibly pick up my work in a dentist’s office and say, “Oh, I think I understand what this guy is talking about.” I wanted people to know when I was wrong and that they could come at me and that I would be radically vulnerable. People would be able criticize me as much as they could criticize an artist. Then I would be as out there, open, and vulnerable as an artist was when they showed their work. So I started teaching myself to write, and I was terrible, just terrible. I learned what anyone who writes knows—writing is hell. You can’t listen to music. You’re always having to read stuff that you can’t understand. It was just awful.
BOLLEN: You have to learn to trust your voice against all of your self-hatred.
SALTZ: Exactly. It took me a long time to do that.
BOLLEN: This may be a stretch, but as Roberta’s style has a sort of lucid minimalism to it like Judd’s work, your style, Jerry, is much more expressive and rebellious, and I wonder if that links to the ’80s and the neo-expressive painters that were circulating at that time. Was that an influence?
I LOVE THE ART OF THE MOMENT, BUT ONE OF THE THINGS THAT’S PLAGUING OUR MOMENT IS THE NEED TO BE ACCEPTED. Jerry SALTZ
SMITH: Well, I think there’s a sensibility difference as well. Jerry is basically more outgoing.
SALTZ: I think my work is more performative, extroverted, and asshole-ish, like the ’80s could be. But I just want to say one thing about the ’70s. Enough with this purer, “It was a better time,” business. Every time is about as polluted and needy and beautiful as most other times. I was around in the ’70s, and people were just as ambitious and envious and filled with need and desire as they are today. Artists today are fine. I also want to add something, too, that you mentioned, that artists are making a lot of art that’s much too well-behaved, generic, that is all starting to mimic the same kind of “pure art” of the post-minimalists of the 1970s. This extends even to our beloved Artforum, that they will not turn the page. The love that dare not speak its name might be names like Julian Schnabel—or as Roberta has suggested, David Salle—or a lot of other artists of the 1980s. I’m not championing those artists. I’m just saying, you guys have to make work that doesn’t all look the same, that isn’t like some sticks leaned up that you found or some cement or some twisted wire, or small, modest paintings of little geometric shapes with a little spray paint on it—maybe some reproduction à la Warhol, Chris Wool, Albert Oehlen, or Laura Owens. I love the art of the moment, but one of the things that’s plaguing our moment is the need to be accepted.
BOLLEN: The love-me cry.
SALTZ: Yes, to be liked. I think that a lot of artists have succeeded in making what I might call “curator’s art.” Everybody’s being accepted, and I always want to say, “Really? That’s what you’ve come for? To make art that looks a lot like somebody else’s art?” If I am thinking of somebody else’s art in front of your art, that’s a problem.
BOLLEN: Before I forget, how exactly did you two meet?
SMITH: Well, the first thing Jerry decided to do, I guess as a way to get back in the art world, was to do a couple of books. [to Saltz] You did one with Eric Fischl. And then you did a book on your own called Beyond Boundaries: New York’s New Art in ’87.
BOLLEN: My friend has a copy of Beyond Boundaries. I was just flipping through it and I noticed that you both wrote essays for it. That’s how you met?
SMITH: He asked me to do the essay, never having read my writing.
SALTZ: I never read her writing. I heard she had been fired from The Village Voice. Everybody loved Roberta so much. They said, “Oh, she’s so great, she’s so smart.” And I thought, “Well, that’s who I should definitely get.” [to Smith] Forgive me. [to Bollen] And I asked her to write an essay.
BOLLEN: And you just called her up?
SMITH: I think we were at a reception at the Canadian Consulate for Fischl, and Jerry just kind of popped up and said, “Would you do this?” And I said, “Let’s talk about it,” because I was desperate for work.
SALTZ: I was still driving a truck at the time.
BOLLEN: How did you get to write a book on New York art if you were an outsider driving a truck at the time?
SALTZ: Well, mind you, if you’ve actually seen the book … I’ve tried to buy up and destroy every copy. Tell me where your friend’s book is. I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse. Mainly it was all images of the work of artists who were emerging at that time, just as the art world of the early ’80s was turning into much more the art world we know today.
BOLLEN: I remember there are artists in that book who are household names today—Robert Gober, Sherrie Levine, Jeff Koons. And others I had never heard of who slipped off the radar—Kevin Larmon, Karla Knight. I’m always fascinated by the artists who disappear from the art-world circuitry. It reminds me, Roberta, of when you wrote about a recent phenomenon you dubbed “No artist left behind,” which is the need to resuscitate any artist of the past and suddenly they become valuable benchmarks of art history.
SALTZ: That was a great point! I think that could be a whole essay.
SMITH: Yes, I meant these artists who were being retrieved from the past—like, you’re overlooked in your youth or your middle age, and then you’re discovered or brought back, and that means you’re automatically a good artist. It’s sort of carte blanche. I just find that amazing.
SALTZ: In a good way or a bad way?
SMITH: Neither. I think it’s interesting to grow older because you see younger people come along, and they have different interests than you. They can reintroduce you to your own time in a way. They do make you see artists that you weren’t able to see.
BOLLEN: Are there any artists who were late discoveries for you?
SALTZ: Yes, Steven Parrino, whose work I dismissed when I first saw it. He’s a painter who was killed in a motorcycle accident a number of years ago who used to make monochrome paintings and sort of yanked the canvas around. When I first saw them, I thought they were knock-off, mannerist modernistic minimalism, and now it turns out Steven Parrino is pretty influential on young artists.
BOLLEN: Does that qualify as an initial misreading or failure of seeing? Or is it a case of appreciating him now because of his influence on other artists?
SALTZ: I guess it’s what Roberta said, the influence he’s had has taught me. Artists taught me to see Parrino differently. Now I see what they must have seen.
BOLLEN: Roberta, are there any artists you initially counted out but have come to appreciate in the backward glance?
SMITH: It took me a long time to get Louise Bourgeois. Partly because I hadn’t seen her work from the ’50s—that wasn’t so available before. I can’t say the younger generation beat me over the head with that, but that was a way of getting more of her work.
BOLLEN: I started writing art reviews at Time Out New York in the late ’90s. For me, being a serious critic meant being unduly critical—I thought a negative review was a strong review. I was harsh. In my young mind, criticism meant skepticism or often lack of mercy. How do you balance honesty with the sense that you aren’t trying to savagely destroy an artist by a negative review? Or do you put the feelings of the artist entirely out of mind?
SMITH: Some of that is dictated by the age of the artist, and some of that is dictated by the work. Sometimes there’s work that’s just blatantly armored and insensitive and clueless. That sort of a negative review isn’t really going to affect the artist that much. I mean, I could be wrong, but there’s something implicitly offensive about the presumptuousness of such work. But even in cases like that, you know that if you write too harshly or dismissively, you’re just going to get sympathy for the artist. Which is not what you really want.
BOLLEN: A friend of mine told me that he’s just waiting for the oscillating reaction to the sweeping negative reaction to Matthew Day Jackson’s recent show at Hauser & Wirth. Insiders like to be contrary to general opinion. But you’ve never felt you’ve crossed a line?
SMITH: You know, sometimes you do. And plenty of people think you do. Their response is, “Oh, that was so personal.” People are always saying that.
SALTZ: All the time. And if it makes you feel bad, yeah, I guess it’s personal, but you try not to make it sound that way.
SMITH: I think a very negative opinion is seen as personal.
SALTZ: Any negative review you write, they’ll say, “Oh, you’re being so mean.” I think the problem with a lot of criticism is that too many critics either write just description or they write in a Mandarin jargon that only a handful of people can understand, or they write happy criticism—everything is good that they write about. I think that’s really not good. I think it’s damaged a lot of our critical voices. The reason I love blogs so much right now—and I’m not talking about snark—is that I am seeing more critical voices appear, and that’s kind of thrilling. I think a lot of critics in their forties or even their thirties have had their voice scared or trained out of them by the academy. I have nothing against the academy. I think it’s brilliant and fantastic, but I also think that it’s become almost monolithic. The same way a lot of art looks the same, a lot of writing can sound the same and quotes the same seven theorists. There’s always a Walter Benjamin somewhere in the piece. I always wonder, if artists and writers are coming from everywhere, then why is so much of it the same?
BOLLEN: Jerry, you said that, in many ways, today isn’t so different from before. But you both do write about social currents in the art world. For instance, you both have written separately about the influence of global art fairs, the nonsensical line between insider and outsider artists, and the decline in might of the local gallery show. Certain conditions—and a big one now is the power of the contemporary collector—have changed the field. Are there any you find impossible to ignore?
SMITH: Obviously, the market is a big force in a way that it hasn’t ever been. Not even in the ’80s, although, that is when young artists really
started selling their work. But that was nothing compared to what happened in the last 10 years.
SALTZ: That seems quaint now.
SMITH: You have artists and galleries as global enterprises. I think that sphere is just at the point of almost being its own separate world—it’s just gotten so big and so diffuse in a way that there’s no room for the other art world. But the other art world is still going to be going on underneath, just in a slightly different way. It’s a complicated question because I don’t think aiming for marketability is a horrible thing. I feel that one of the things we’ve lost is a connection with imaginative and risk-taking collectors who collect in a personal way and whose support really means something to artists. I feel like a lot of collectors right now are institutional; they’re all buying the same thing. There’s a conglomerate almost. They have a lot of money, and they validate some stuff that’s good and some stuff that’s bad. But I don’t think just because you’re a huge success, that automatically means you’re a terrible artist. And there are always going to be young artists. There are always going to be young dealers, and they will make their worlds. We’re really lucky for that. Maybe some of the kids on the Lower East Side are going to zoom at a certain point up to Zwirner level. But in the meantime, they have a completely different kind of operation. They keep things real in a way. What I’m most upset about now is that I feel collectors should be—
SMITH: Better at their jobs. Their job is to make something, to bring together works that express them in an individual way.
SALTZ: Instead of just collectors buying whatever other collectors have bought. Which is where we are now. Roberta’s right. We forget that Jeff Koons has made some phenomenally great work. These collectors all having to buy one then becomes part of the content of Jeff Koons, where it’s hard to even look at his work without thinking about the collectors not doing their job well.
BOLLEN: Jerry, you have always had an ambivalent approach to galleries. And you’ve often written about the plusses of what they provide: a free space for the public to view contemporary art. But you recently wrote a screed on the mega-galleries and their toxic effects on their stable of artists who are kind of stalled creatively by the market forces.
SALTZ: I mentioned only men because the galleries are owned mainly by men and show mainly men. The mega-galleries having to have this many shows in that many places of so many artists of a certain ilk, of a kind of artist that can produce and turn himself into a happy factory with a million assistants cranking out work for all over the globe simultaneously is having a deleterious effect not only on these poor artists who signed up for this and knew exactly what they were getting into but also on the experience of looking at art in these large galleries. And I think it’s hurting the middle of the art world a lot. I think that Roberta is right in that the bottom will always bubble up. You were talking about how, once upon a time, you could come to New York and be poor. I think that time is here again. When we go out to Bushwick or to any borough, I now see lots of kids on the street being poor in style. They may be miserable, but they’re doing it together. I think that New York is actually open again, and I think that they will bubble up and hopefully have the chance to get a foothold. Meanwhile, the middle is being challenged. How do you do 10 art fairs a year? That’s expensive. That’s probably a million bucks you have to outlay for going to art fairs, which means you better make three million dollars if you’re doing that because you’ve got to pay your artists every time. And they have to go because their artists will start to complain. That’s the perniciousness of the system, that it is self-actualizing and self-replicating. If they say, “Okay, no more art fairs,” then the artists start saying, “Oh, no. My dealer didn’t go to Frieze, they didn’t go to Miami, they’re not going to Basel.” That creates more fracture. It’s complicated. A big gallery is not bad, a small gallery is not better. Mega-galleries do just as many good and bad shows as every other gallery, but they do come with all this other content. I love their historical shows. And I want to say one thing more. We have to take this on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise, you’re turning yourself into a Tea Party Republican that just says, “Burn it all down.”
BOLLEN: Jerry, do you feel that being a judge on the reality-television show Work of Art was an attempt to bring the art world to a larger audience? Was that an opportunity to move criticism from the magazine page to the screen?
SALTZ: I don’t think I wanted to move art to the world so much as, frankly, I was much more self-interested. I wanted to see if I could perform art criticism to a very wide audience. And the experience was phenomenal. It did everything I wanted. I always thought, “Could you have a voice that was, instead of a top-down—of the one, speaking to the many—could you have the many speaking to one another in a coherent way?” If we could all talk about the same art at the same time in the same place—in this case, in these recaps online that I wrote after the stupid TV show, which was almost irrelevant to me. Roberta never saw the show once.
BOLLEN: You never watched it?
SMITH: Because I thought the whole thing was kind of poorly organized and that it wasn’t real. I mean, I thought American Idol was fantastic. I used to watch it because it was like seeing criticism being practiced before the entire nation.
SALTZ: By Simon Cowell.
SMITH: It was like stand-up criticism to a really big audience. But in that show, the judges were supposedly allowed to choose the contestants, up to a point, until the audience started voting. They were chosen for their talent. Whereas on Work of Art, the judges had to deal with artists who were chosen by the show organizer who didn’t know anything. The artists were cast. They would get a certain demographic mix and hope they’d have a little sexual tension between this or that person. It didn’t have the randomness. It was more canned.
SALTZ: The show itself, to me, was and is nothing. But the thing it did with my criticism … There were a hundred thousand comments after these posts in total. And I made it a point to try to answer every single one, address each one in a respectful way. A lot of people would write, “You’re such an asshole. How come you hated Miles so much?”—signed, juju69. I would write back to every person, “Dear Mr. or Ms. juju69, I’m sorry that you find me an asshole. I did not mean to be that. When I said this, in what I wrote or on the show, this is what I meant.” And in almost every case, I found that juju69 would come back and soften, and we would get in a conversation together. So what it did for my criticism was great. A lot of people in the art world said I’ve destroyed the art world. It’s a crass, low-brow reality TV game show, so I can understand that. Were I not on the show, I can maybe imagine going batshit on somebody that was.
BOLLEN: You were acting too much like a showman for an insider art critic?
SALTZ: Yeah. I think there’s truth to that problem. The show is not a good show, but what it did for my criticism is paying off for me to this day. In how I write, who I’m thinking about. We’re nervous Nellies in the art world when things get to be too popular. We’re a very conservative world. In a radical way, we are so conservative.
SMITH: But I think the art world is much more porous than it once was. For all sorts of reasons. There’s so much interest outside of the art world in art. It’s more accessible. I think the general public really gets conceptual art because it’s actually about ideas. What you have is this idea of creativity being able to affect things, and I think that that’s really amazing.
BOLLEN: In the December 2012 Artforum, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh wrote his own screed against the current state of the art world. His point was that the initial project of the avant-garde—to subvert consciousness or create social utopias—had been abandoned or commodified and now we have empty, spectacle-driven commodity art. And because of this we have also experienced the “de-professionalization of the critic”—in that there is no longer any criteria by which to judge an art work. What criterion do you use to critique art?
SMITH: I disagree, because there’s always art that comes out of really deep need. It’s always a form of personal expression. Maybe it’s in the minority right now—that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to outsider art, because it’s so overt in that way. There might not be any organizing system right now. Or there are fragments of it, but I don’t think that means that all art is a commodity. You had these false systems of the past, whether it was [Clement] Greenberg or even Judd saying “conceptual art forever.” There is a kind of chaos right now, that’s quite true. I think we allow ourselves to be bored or unaffected. There’s also a kind of laxness now, which everybody wants to complain about. But you’re always going to find people who are going to make really urgent work that seems original.
BOLLEN: And you feel it’s part of your job to find that original work?
SMITH: Yes. My basic idea is that our fingerprints are different, our handwriting is different, that there’s something that makes each of us individual. I don’t mean to be Pollyannaish about this, but I think each of us has a real capacity for originality, but originality is very, very hard to get to. It takes real work. I think people don’t quite realize how much work it takes to be a good artist—the drive and determination and self-criticism. You have to be harder on your work than anybody. But you’re always going to find people like that in every generation.
SALTZ: While it may be a really trying, weird time for the art world, I see good work all the time. If you just go around to that many galleries, and if you stay open, you’re going to see work with enough energy and surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to the galleries without coming home thinking, Gee, I now know something I didn’t know this morning. I think that cynicism is the enemy. Cynicism thinks it knows how things work. “Oh yeah, you know how that works.” Roberta talked about doubt. I think uncertainty is the thing you have to keep embracing. You have to keep saying, I actually don’t know, and going out is going to tell me something every time.
SMITH: But we are kind of gallery addicts. It amazes me that people can will galleries into existence. They’re like small businesses. They’re run by one person who decided, I know some artists who nobody’s showing, and I believe in them. I’m going to find a storefront and start doing something.
BOLLEN: What constitutes a successful review for you? When do you feel you’ve done your job best?
SMITH: You’re not satisfied. You’re always kind of dreading Friday. You’re always looking forward to the next week because you can make it better. That’s something that [art critic] Michael Brenson used to always say that I totally agree with. I think that dissatisfaction is something that keeps you going, and you hear back from people what kind of effect you had.
BOLLEN: Readers reach out to you directly?
SMITH: I get responses. I get them more slowly and more face-to-face. I get notes from a lot of different people in different generations. I get these little letters in creaky handwriting and think, oh that’s someone who’s probably over 80.
BOLLEN: Not hate mail?
SALTZ: There’s hate mail. There’s hate mail, threats, stalkers … I think that I’m bulletproof every week when I’ve turned something in. I think, I’m a god.
SMITH: He has a completely different reaction than I do.
SALTZ: But, when I then read my piece in the magazine, I go through what Roberta goes through. I think, “Oh, I see what I could make better. I see I didn’t have to say that. I forgot to say this.” I’m humbled after the experience, but I think I’m in so much terror when I turn something in that I just armor myself and say, “Oh, come on, this has got to be great.” But we’re both lucky because we have the next week. H.L. Mencken said that he was at his best in articles “written in heat and printed at once.” I would add that, it’s like childbirth. The next week, you sort of forget and you start again.
SMITH: Jerry uses the word terror. I think that terror is a huge stimulant to work and hopefully development.
BOLLEN: In the literary world, there’s been a lot of debate recently about the value of the negative review—if the literary audience is dwindling, does the reviewer need to throw authors under the bus? Pages devoted to book reviews in magazines have been slashed. Probably the same is true for dance or opera. But, as we’ve mentioned, visual art has become more enticing to the general public. I’m assuming you don’t feel any worry about your pages or assignments shrinking.
SMITH: So far we haven’t been scathed that much. I think the popularity of art probably helps us. And I can’t imagine not writing negative reviews. That doesn’t help anybody. Part of what you’re doing is educating your reader about their own critical faculties.
SALTZ: Being critical of art is a way of showing art respect. No sports writer would say, “Well the Yankees had a great season this year.” No food critic would get a bad meal and say, “Oh, it was so lovely.” It always strikes both of us as odd when people say to us, “Why do you write negatively about any art?” I think that everybody has mixed feelings about everything—even Goya. I mean, I look at Rembrandt sometimes and I hear a voice in my head go, “It’s pretty brown.”
SMITH: I think that criticism teaches people to be critical. It’s essential to a democracy in a way. I don’t want to overblow what I do, but it’s like you’re demonstrating one way of being critical within this certain area, and hopefully, it will get people to look critically …
BOLLEN: Good art should be able to withstand any argument leveled against it. It shouldn’t fall down if someone blows on it hard.
SMITH: If it does, it’s got problems.
SALTZ: Amen. Our job is to watch artists dance naked in public, and then we will, in turn, dance naked critically in public.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN IS THE EDITOR AT LARGE OF INTERVIEW MAGAZINE. HE IS ALSO A FICTION WRITER. HIS SECOND NOVEL, ORIENT, WILL BE RELEASED BY HARPERCOLLINS IN EARLY 2015.