TOWARDS ISABELLE GRAW'S LOVE OF PAINTING VIA JERRY SALTZ (PART 1)
By JAMES MERRIGAN | JUNE 8, 2018
The name ‘Jerry’ is strange yet familiar, what Sigmund Freud would have termed ‘uncanny’, when something familiar from the past erupts into the present. As I write ‘Jerry’ here, as I tumble dry ‘Jerry’ in my head like wet runners, I fall into a brutal rhythm. JERRY! JERRY! JERRY! kathump! kathump! kathump! Or is it: JERRY! kathump! JERRY! kathump! JERRY! kathump!? The surname ‘Saltz’ doesn't do anything for the mouth, you just want to get it out, triggering a lisp in the world as it slides off a flat tongue. But ‘Jerry’ wants to stay put. In the saying of it you have to curl and lash your tongue; choo-choo your lips. To really get that hooked J and crashing rr’s you have to scrunch up your face as if disgusted by the idea rather than the taste of what's in your mouth. ‘Tom’ is a way better sounding name.
I’m sorry Jerry. I couldn't resist. I'll tell you why.
Lately I've gone from feeling sorry for New York Magazine's senior art critic Jerry Saltz to finding Jerry an irritant – you could contend that the former feeling is the bigger insult as being an irritant is everyone's fate in these chronically mediated times. I didn't like it when curator and Yale MFA Dean Robert Storr took successive digs at Jerry in 2015 on a Yale Radio broadcast. But now Storr's remarks seem more reasonable in the wake of Jerry winning the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the fallout being: Jerry got himself a brand new loudspeaker with a eunuch's pitch and punch.
If you listen closely to Storr's criticisms of Jerry they are not an attack on Jerry's writing ability, describing Jerry and his wife Roberta Smith as “punchy writers”. Rather his criticisms are based on what the Internet has done to art criticism in general and what art critics have done to themselves on the Internet in general. I cannot make a judgment about Jerry's current writing because I stopped reading Jerry Saltz proper over a year ago, and if I'm honest, I haven't taken Jerry seriously since Jerry took to social media full time, from first laughing with Jerry to finally not laughing at Jerry. I still respect and enjoy Roberta's reviews, contrary to what Storr thinks are the motivations behind the New York Times chief art critic's criticism. But not Jerry.
Jerry won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism last month. Jerry's better half used capitals, exclamation marks and the first-person plural pronoun “WE” to announce her matrimonial appreciation on Twitter.
MY HUSBAND JERRY SALTZ OF NYMAGAZINE HAS WON THE 2018 PULITZER PRIZE FOR CRITICISM!!!!!!!! THANK YOU ART, THANK YOU ART WORLD, THANK YOU NYMAG, AN AMAZINGLY SEA-WORTHY VESSEL IN ROUGH SEAS. WE ARE STUNNED, GRATEFUL AND ALSO ON DEADLINE.
It's a big deal, no matter what the naysayers tweet on Twitter. Sure, there’s better art critics out there but Jerry is “playing to the peanut gallery" (Storr). ‘What's left to play to?’ you might ask. There's only been four visual art critics who have won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism since 1974, three of them in the last decade, the era of accretive social media. Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globein 2011 “For his vivid and exuberant writing about art, often bringing great works to life with love and appreciation; Holland Cotter (whom Storr has only good things to say about) of the New York Times in 2009 “For his wide ranging reviews of art, from Manhattan to China, marked by acute observation, luminous writing and dramatic storytelling”; and Emily Genauer (Who?) of Newsday Syndicate (What?) back in 1974 “For her critical writing about art and artists.” Jerry won it “For a robust body of work that conveyed a canny and often daring perspective on visual art in America, encompassing the personal, the political, the pure and the profane.”
The Pulitzer’s hydra-headed alliteration of “personal”, “political”, “pure” and “profane” sounds out of place in this literary context, jokey even, like Jerry himself. Roberta has admitted many times she is not a good reader; and Jerry has claimed that he would love to write like the guys at ArtForum but isn’t up to the task. I don't believe them; neither their sincerity nor modesty. Jerry and Roberta believe the way they write on art is the best way of writing on art – in the rush and beat of experience and deadlines. And sometimes it is the best way; but sometimes it is not.
It is easy to be dismissive of Jerry, and by association, the Pulitzer Prize, as so many lesser known American art critics (and artists) were in their responses to Jerry being crowned king of the very small and very exclusive circle of full time, paid, and, let's face it, widely read art critics. Twitter on that day of days helped infantilize some good writers and commentators on art. But what's new. We can snigger along with Art and America’s Brian Droitcour when he tweets that “jerry saltz won the pulitzer prize for being horny on main.” We can fist pump when critic-cum-artist-cum-critic William Powhida tweets “*Trump criticism.” We can whoop when critic Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal tweets “yes, hi, 911?” But it's all a bit spit-paper-straw behind teacher's back. At times Jerry possesses all those P’s that the Pulitzer tagged him with. Jerry on his best days is a better writer on art than all of us. But now I cannot get past the giant loudspeaker and the little man levitating it with superhuman flatulence. I think they called him “The Spleen” in that Ben Stiller film, Mystery Men.
The Pulitzer Prize for Criticism fallout on Twitter is not the reason why I am writing about Jerry here – and perhaps unfairly recasting Jerry's name in the dregs of a tabloid talk show. I am writing about Jerry for something Jerry tweeted three weeks after the Pulitzer announcement, when Jerry let this tweet rip:
“It's about time for a book declaring ‘the love of painting’ after the aridity of postmodernism's announcement of painting's demise.” Rosalind Krauss on Isabelle Graw's book. This from the #1 pronouncer of that demise to the #8 pronouncer of that demise! God I love the art world!
Executive editor Andrew Russeth at Art News Magazine was the catalyst. He tweeted an extract from the blurb – if a blurb wasn't shorthand enough – that was cut and paste from sternberg-press.com, the publishers of The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium, and the main publishers of Graw’s writings on art. Russeth just lay it out there for someone like Jerry (no, just Jerry) to take the bait. And Jerry did.
Jerry: Hah! Spoken by one of the great pronouncers of that demise to another major pronouncer of the demise! God I LOVE the art world!
Jerry: xox So SAY it maybe next time! I don't have to be the only one thrown under the bridge! Xoxo
Aside from Jerry's back-of-the-bus mixed metaphor, which is water under the bridge at this point, Jerry took just four minutes to tweet a muscular version of Jerry's reply to Russeth on Jerry's personal Twitter account. This time, however, Jerry pulled relative standings out of Jerry's arse, ranking Rosalind Krauss “#1” and Isabelle Graw “#8” pronouncers of painting's demise. What got to me about this exchange was neither Jerry nor Russeth had read the book at this point, and Jerry was forming opinions on the book's contents based on one thing: the counter-intuitive title The Love of Painting in the context of the ‘theoretical’ track records of the two writers that grace the inside (Graw) and outside (Krauss) of the book, two writers who have critically and theoretically speculated for decades, with respect and poise it must be said, on an ever evolving, market-influenced artworld.
Like the Twitter tantrum over Jerry winning the Pulitzer, this was playground stuff in dirty nappies. Not being a reader, Jerry probably formed an opinion of Graw via Artforum's book reviews, and perhaps via Roberta, who partook in a combative but bizarrely complementary and entertaining discussion with Graw ‘Criticism in the Expanded Field’ at the American Academy in Berlin in 2014. But between you and me, Roberta is closer to Graw in critical temperature and temperament than both would ever like to admit. They might even be frememies (Graw doesn't do friends) if it wasn't for Jerry.
As someone who has enjoyed reading Graw on painting, I have never visualised a hammer-headed Graw looming over a coffin with nails in one hand and paintings in the other. On the contrary she has nurtured my personal love of painting. Graw has undoubtedly questioned painting's position amidst the logic of the art market, critical agency and against Krauss' 1970's pronouncement of the “post-medium condition”, but as a reader I have always come away with a feeling that painting will adapt and absorb time and progress because of its historical and what Graw terms “vitalistic” attachment to being human. If Jerry had taken time just to open the book, not read, just scan and flick through two pages, he would have found Graw's very human and telling dedication in light of her book's complicated title The Love of Painting... Love aways is.