Looking Back

Four Years on, a Critic Reassesses and Reconsiders

Four years and seven weeks ago, I began writing art criticism for this paper. That isn't much time in terms of art, criticism, or a career in either, but it seems like a lot when you're the one meeting the deadline. H.L. Mencken said weekly criticism is "written in heat and printed at once." It is a thrilling, humbling, weird business. You go to shows, sometimes as many as 40 a week, looking, always looking, and thinking, "Is this the show I'll write about? Is this the one?" It's like wondering who you'll marry. You're constantly dangling the line of your responses into the stream of exhibitions. For better or for worse, shows usually choose you.

Writing weekly is also like being dropped into combat. The art world is coming at you from all sides. Everything is noise and chaos. Things catch you off guard; gaffes happen. Then, when you finally select a show to write on, just as suddenly you find yourself in total, abject isolation: home alone, trying to sort out your thoughts and get them down on paper.

For me, writing always seems to take everything I have; sometimes it's hell. Generally, I don't know what I'm going to write until I write it. However, in the same way that art tells you things you didn't know you need to know until you know them,writing is a way of finding out what you think. Of course, often when you start figuring out what these thoughts are, they're not always the ones you hoped you'd have. You might dislike something you thought you'd like. Or vice versa. I often find myself writing about art that embarrasses me, is unknown or unresolved. About reviews like these a colleague warned, "Critics make their names by writing unequivocally on well-known artists." Maybe, but just doing that reduces you to what artist-critic Douglas Blau calls "a validator of the inevitable." Reactions are complex, and critics should try to plumb this complexity and be willing to fail in public, sometimes flamboyantly, just as artists are. Reviews that are all positive or negative, only neutral or descriptive, or so obscure or academic you can't figure out what they're saying, sell everyone short.

Mr. Saltz regrets: not describing the opening night of Pipilotti Rist’s 2000 installation at Luhring Augustine (above).
photo: Robin Holland
Mr. Saltz regrets: not describing the opening night of Pipilotti Rist’s 2000 installation at Luhring Augustine (above).

Rapid-fire deadlines make preparation almost impossible. I sometimes skim museum catalogs, but I avoid reading other critics before I write, since they usually only confuse or intimidate me. I don't make studio visits or interview artists because I want to see the work fresh, for the first time, the way everyone else does. Sometimes I wish I had years to work on something, the way people who write books do, or months, as magazine writers have. But having a review out while the show is still up is where the rush is.

The rush had better be enough, because despite what people think, art critics don't have power—at least not in the bullying, Greenbergian way we did in the past. We may have some effect, or be able to turn the spotlight on an artist; we can trash or praise exhibitions, raise questions, and cast doubt, but we can't make or break careers, or close shows the way theater critics can. If I had that kind of power, a certain museum director would no longer have his job, several careers would be over that aren't, and a number of artists would be more recognized than they are. Nowadays, power is seen to be in the hands of curators, dealers, collectors, and museum execs. Critics may be loved, feared, or scorned, but we're not part of the current power equation. Perhaps I'm envious, but I couldn't help noticing that of the 150 so-called "power people" listed in this month's silly issues of Art & Auction and ArtReview, amid the dozens of curators, museum mucky-mucks, money people, and art advisers, including the composer of Cats, there were just 10 artists (Hockney, Johns, Richter, Gursky, Hirst, and Schnabel, among them), and only one art critic, windbag Time writer Robert Hughes.

Critics are very here then very gone. When people want to learn about a period, a movement, or an artist they tend to read articles, essays, or books. Reviews are considered minor or irrelevant. If and when people read Ruskin, Baudelaire, or Greenberg today they either won't agree with much of what's being said or won't know who it's being said about. Most critics lose their eye after a time: Greenberg fell for Color Field painting, Baudelaire named Constantin Guys (not Édouard Manet) the quintessential "painter of modern life," and Ruskin's views on his wife's pubic hair are better known than his outlook on the Pre-Raphaelites. In truth, something crucial to criticism does fade with time or get lost. When it comes to weekly criticism, it fades faster. Faster still if you write on newsprint. If you don't finish a newspaper review the first time you read it, you probably won't finish it at all.

Looking back, some of my columns aren't as clear as I wish they were. There are shows I didn't cover because of deadlines, space, or free-floating anxiety. I'm sorry I didn't write about Mark Lombardi, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, or Glen Seator while they were alive. In my review of MOMA's "Fame After Photography," I wish instead of writing "This show is terrible," I'd have said "confusing." Also, MOMA's current "Drawing Now" exhibition isn't "a good show with a lot of mediocre work," as I noted; it's closer to a mediocre show with some good work. I like Thomas Ruff's horny porn pictures, but they're not "stunning," as I wrote. I could have gone easier on Takashi Murakami's sculpture in light of how good a few of his large paintings are. Plus the title the Voice gave that column, "Imitation Warhol," was unnecessarily harsh. (I title about half of my pieces.) I regret writing negatively on Philip Taaffe's 1999 show because so much of his early work floors me. If I could change the gist of only one review, I would write more about how magical Pipilotti Rist's invitation-only Luhring Augustine opening was, and less on how the show weakened over the course of my 17 visits. No one goes to shows 17 times. The review had a readership of one: me.

In a way, I never meant to write any of these reviews at all. As with many critics, I began as something else: a painter. But I was always angst-ridden and blocked. I attended art school (never graduated), exhibited my work, sold it, was reviewed in Artforum and Art in America, and even got a National Endowment grant. But that's just the failed artist in me shamelessly trying to convince you I could have been a contender. By 1988, when I started writing criticism, I was working as a long-distance truck driver, and had never written a word in my life. All I knew was I had to be in the art world, I loved looking at art, and that I craved attention.

At first, everything I wrote was positive. I was like a cheerleader or a mascot. Eventually I realized I was leaving out half of what I was thinking—the skeptical half. By the time I started at the Voice, I had written mixed and negative reviews. Still, I was writing for a small world—insider to insider. The Voice changed all that. I no longer write for the artist, the dealer, or the curator. I write for the reader. So this is for you. The rest has been learning on the job.

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