Jerry Saltz, New York’s Wonderfully Provocative Art Critic

Jerry Saltz (Photo by Neil Hamel)

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Jerry Saltz, the senior art critic for New York Magazine, is seated in a conference room at the publication’s offices in Lower Manhattan. Saltz just finished an 8,000-word piece on Andy Warhol. Normally, he’d be able to bask in the afterglow that writers often feel after publishing an article, but an upcoming project has him feeling anxious. It’s “very big,” he says, though Saltz is not at liberty to talk about it.

In April of last year, Saltz won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, one of the most prestigious prizes in journalism. The committee lauded his “canny and often daring perspective on visual art in America, encompassing the personal, the political, the pure and the profane.” With his punchy, unpretentious writing style, Saltz has positioned himself as the everyman of art criticism. He writes for the common reader, not the art audience.

“My interest is in being able to somehow make people see what I can see without an education,” says Saltz, leaning back in his chair. “That they can be transported, or have thoughts, or that art can be an ecstasy machine, that museums are, you know, gardens of Eden.”

Saltz is wearing a blue button-up from Muji, which his wife, Roberta Smith, co-chief art critic for the New York Times, bought for him. That might be the nicest item in his wardrobe, though. Saltz often buys his clothes in bulk from Kmart, since he isn’t fussy about his clothing. On his wrist, he wears a knockoff Patek Philippe watch that he bought on Canal Street. He also carries around a Double Gulp, one of those hulking 50oz cups from 7-Eleven, which he usually fills with home-brewed coffee. Saltz says he needs a lot of caffeine, because he claims to write for 12–15 hours a day. His work ethic and modest outfits seem to reflect the workaday voice found in his writing.

Saltz further cultivates his persona on social media, decrying the elitist art institutions, railing against the Trump administration, and often sharing art that depicts the naked body. His irreverence for the haughtiness and exclusivity of the art world, it seems, contribute to his popular appeal. Across his platforms — Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter — Saltz has just shy of a million combined followers.

Not everyone appreciates Saltz’s use of social media, though, and his provocations have generated a spate of controversy. In 2014, he was briefly locked out of Instagram for posting a photo of a sculpture that featured four naked family members holding hands, which he wrote about for Vulture. Then he was banned from Facebook in 2015 for violating the site’s community standards with posts of medieval art that were deemed “abusive to women, sexist, and misogynist,” by some of his followers. Most recently, he was forced to apologize after sharing images of Trump and conservative commentator Sean Hannity that many found offensive and homophobic. In the past, Saltz has written about his distaste for the art world’s increasing conservatism and addressed people’s concerns about his perceived sexism, racism and homophobia.

“I know I can come off like an irksome clown and have a lot of public media platforms, but over the last year the accusatory hyperbole has gone into hyperdrive, with parts of the art world now acting like purity police, little Napoleons and Savonarolas purging perceived injustices, bad actors, and evil from our insular ranks. Loudly. Insultingly. Often,” he wrote.

Saltz refers to his online persona as his “second self.” Indeed, there’s a considerable contrast with real-life Saltz and the brazen, oft-crass @jerrysaltz that lives on social media. Those who know Saltz personally describe him as brilliant, lovable, and a provocateur. Others are less fond of his online persona. This duality makes Saltz an art world enigma. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a savvy populist writer for the digital age, expertly using social media and his common, writerly touch to bring art criticism to the masses; or a shameless self-promoter, using his bullish online persona to make himself the star of the show.

The origin of Saltz’s Pulitzer-winning prose is mysterious, since he hardly read anything growing up. About 15 years ago, he decided to become a reader, so he’ll pick up one big book a year and try to finish it. Still, when Saltz finds the time to read (which he never does) he struggles with the process. So, where did he get the idea that he could write?

“I don’t think of myself as a writer in any way, shape, or form. I think of myself as sort of a folk critic,” he says. “There was somebody named Sister Wendy who had a TV show when I was growing up. A nun who would teach art history. And I thought, I’m like her or an explainer.”

At the offices of New York magazine, Saltz is a beloved figure. Though he usually works from home, he’ll regularly pop by the office during the afternoon with cookies or a box of Dunkin’ donuts, making sure to do a circuit and offer everyone a treat. Saltz claims to be shy, but the way he interacts with his co-workers suggests otherwise. According to his editor, David Wallace-Wells, Saltz is a “rabbi-advisor-friend” to a lot of people at the magazine. He’s witty and gregarious, speaking in a tone of calm and understanding. And he’ll talk to anyone, from the ad sales department to the interns. According to Saltz, coming to the office makes him feel part of a family.

“You have to understand, I was not raised in a normal way,” says Saltz. “I was raised pretty much feral. Alone.”

Saltz was born in Chicago, in 1951. After his father, Bernard Saltz, invented something called the Dexter Hand Sewing Machine, his family moved to a stately home in the middle-class suburb of River Forest. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, designed a couple homes in the neighborhood. From the outside, his family lived a perfectly pleasant Midwestern life, but Saltz described a traumatic childhood in an interview with The Brooklyn Rail.

When Saltz was 10, his mother, Alice, committed suicide. Nobody told young Jerry about the tragedy and he missed the funeral, and after that, his mother wasn’t mentioned in the family. Shortly after, his father married a woman who had two sons about Saltz’sage. They were “greasers,” with slicked back hair, tight jeans, and a proclivity for getting into trouble. Naturally, Saltz joined them. One night, they crawled out the window and ran wild in the suburb, tearing down street signs and stashing them under the mattress at home. When his father found out, Saltz bore the brunt of the punishment, getting lashed with a leather strap.

Though Saltz was a slacker with a dismal GPA, which he admitted on the Longform podcast, he eventually graduated from Oak Park High School. The night of his graduation, he moved to Chicago to begin a life as an artist, and he never really went home again. At one point, Saltz went 17 years without speaking to anyone in his family. It wasn’t that there were any major fractures in the family, he says, they just weren’t tight-knit.

In Chicago in 1973, Saltz started N.A.M.E. Gallery (called that because they couldn’t think of a name) with his best friend Barry Holden, along with some artists from the Art Institute of Chicago. At the gallery, it was the “Jerry and Barry show,” as Holden remembered it. They were the “movers and shakers,” since, for a period, Saltz and Holden lived across the street from the gallery and spent most of their time hanging out there. The gallery was vital for the local art scene at the time. Deep-pocketed collectors were buying from a notable group called the Hairy Who, and N.A.M.E. Gallery gave young artists an opportunity to showcase their work and break through. At least that’s how Eric Fischl, a sculptor and painter who came to prominence in the ’80s, recalls it.

Saltz worked obsessively, and his most ambitious project was a recreation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Using drafting tools to create geometric shapes, and pastels, charcoal, and colored pencils to bring it to life, Saltz endeavored to create the “100 opening-and-closing altar pieces from each of the 100 cantos,” a project that would have taken 25 years. But he soon gave up art entirely.

“I erupted with fear, self-loathing, dark thoughts about how bad my work was, how pointless, unoriginal, ridiculous,” he wrote, in a piece titled “My Life As a Failed Artist.” “‘You don’t know how to draw,’ I told myself. ‘You never went to school. Your work has nothing to do with anything. You’re not a real artist.’” Ever since, the failed artist turned critic mythology has informed Saltz’s voice as a writer.

After moving to New York in 1980, Saltz got a job driving trucks for Holden Ford Art Handles, which was partly owned by his old pal Barry Holden. Then, in 1986, it was another friend from Chicago who gave Saltz his first job in journalism. Eric Fischl was working on a book called Sketchbook with Voices, and he needed someone to interview a bunch of artists. So, he sent Saltz out with a tape recorder.

“He was terrific at it,” says Fischl.

Saltz worked on another book after that, Beyond Boundaries: New York’s New Art, which compiled the work of 56 artists in the mid-1980s. Many of the artists featured in the book went on to prominent careers, such as Barbara Kruger and Carroll Dunham. Then, he wrote briefly for Arts magazine, before moving to Art in America.

In 1998, Saltz became the art critic for the Village Voice. His voice slowly began to emerge, and, in 2001 and 2006, he received Pulitzer nominations. Around that time, he was tabbed by New York to be their new art critic. Adam Moss, who has been editor-and-chief of New York since 2004, knew Saltz as “a character” in the art community. Moss thought his writing was erudite and fun to read, and he liked the stance that Saltz took on the art world. While critics traditionally reviewed what museum curators told them was important, Saltz wanted to explore the vitality of the gallery scene.

“It might seem sort of obvious right now,” says Moss, in an interview at his office. “But at the time it was kind of radical.” So, as Moss recalls, he took Saltz for an expensive lunch in Midtown Manhattan and offered him a job.

***

A few weeks after our first interview, Saltz is standing two-floors below ground in Fulton Street Station, holding a microphone. He’s wearing a blazer, slacks, and black Nike shoes. To his right, there’s a cheap replica of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. To his left there’s a sign that reads, “Masterpiece or Piece of Shit?” A producer, a cameraperson, and an audio technician surround him, and they’re filming a video for NY Mag. The idea is that Saltz talks to people in the subway, a low-brow location, to talk about some of the world’s most famous art pieces. A reprint of Picasso’s Guernica and a hollow version of Michelangelo’s David will be on display later.

Saltz has become a workhorse and de facto poster boy for the magazine, and often gets trotted out for media opportunities. Just recently, he has appeared on CNN with Don Lemon, to discuss “weird” GOP paintings in the White House; traveled to Los Angeles to interview Jim Carrey about his political cartoons; filmed a YouTube video for the counterculture site Vice; and modeled for a triple cover of NY Mag as three different artists: Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, and Andy Warhol. He also wrote the story to accompany the cover, “How to Be an Artist.” The cover story, as it turns out, was the “very big” project causing him so much anguish back in the conference room.

Aaron Holz, a professor of painting and drawing at the University of Nebraska — Lincoln, says he enjoyed “How to Be an Artist.” He has followed Saltz on Facebook for years and still engages in the comment section. Holz often shares Saltz’s criticism with his students for class discussion.

“I love bringing his work up and seeing how they’ll take it,” he says. “He makes criticism fun, smart, and approachable, and students really identify with that.”

Before long, people start to crowd around the paintings in the subway station. A teenager named Josh, who’s wearing a yellow backpack and red converse shoes, gathers the courage to go on camera. Saltz prompts him with some simple questions. What do you see? What century do you think this is? What does this make you feel? Josh knows it’s The Starry Night, but that’s about the extent of his knowledge. With Saltz’s help, Josh makes some reasonable observations. In this exercise, as in his writing, Saltz shows a deft touch, guiding the uninitiated through a beginner’s version of criticism. The point, it seems, is that art doesn’t need to be arcane, or serious, or reserved for intellectual powerhouses. Instead, the critical thinking skills that it takes to dissect a work of art are the same methods that can be applied to live a richer and more meaningful life.

With his criticism, Saltz has found a lot of success. That success, however, has come with a fair amount of criticism. In 2010, James Panero, executive editor of The New Criterion, wrote an article titled “My Jerry Saltz Problem.” Panero was critical of the way Saltz encouraged his followers to practice their own criticism in the comment section. He claimed it was just a way for Saltz to make himself the main attraction, instead of the artists and artwork he was meant to be examining.

“He portrays himself as a failed artist who became a critic. I think he won the Pulitzer based on an essay on that subject,” Panero said in a phone interview. “In my sense, he’s more a failed critic and successful artist, because he’s made his quote-unquote art criticism into a kind of performance piece.”

When asked about the article, Saltz couldn’t help but agree.

I have a Jerry Saltz problem,” he said, with emphasis. “I, too, can’t believe me some times. I, too, read my work and get very sad.” Though Saltz rejects the idea that his online activity is an art piece, he loves that people might compare writing to a performance or persona. He often describes the process of writing as “dancing naked in public.” The idea of writing books doesn’t interest him, because they’re like studio recordings to him. Weekly criticism, though, that’s like performing live. Saltz compares himself to Bruce Springsteen, a musician that — at the age of 69 — is revered for his lengthy live performances, and still sings about turnpikes and his working-class roots, despite a net worth said to be in the hundreds of millions.

The genesis of Saltz’s online persona can be traced back to his appearance as a judge on Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, a reality TV series that features a group of “up-and-coming artists” competing in a variety of competitions. Much like in Top Chef, the artists had their work critiqued by a panel of judges. Many in the art community hoped the show would make art more popular, but the show’s short run, two seasons from 2010–11, suggests otherwise. One person who did seem to benefit from the show was Saltz. Along with the added exposure, Saltz wrote episode recaps that generated a flurry of activity in the comment sections. His Facebook page became a place where laypeople and critics converged to exchange ideas about art, and Saltz seemed to learn how to create buzz on his page.

After Saltz won the Pulitzer, Margaret Carrigan, a writer and critic, wrote a piece called “Jerry Saltz Has a Pulitzer and I Have Questions.” Among other things, Carrigan took issue with the fact that Saltz won instead of his wife. She wrote that Saltz is best known for his “Internet sleaze,” while his wife has been “tirelessly, smartly, and humbly” doing brilliant criticism for years. Carrigan says that Smith has a harder time cultivating a personality in her work because she writes for The New York Times, an outlet with more traditional standards than NY Mag.

“I think she’s tasked with a much harder job of having to be more balanced and objective, based on where she writes,” says Carrigan over the phone. “I think the breadth of things that she chooses to cover, the nuance with which she speaks about them, and the overarching balance and fairness and critical eye that she brings is above and beyond Jerry.”

For his part, Saltz agrees with the critique. He, too, thinks that his wife should have won the award. “I think she’s the best critic writing alive,” he says, of Smith. “And one of the best that’s ever written.”

Saltz and Smith met in 1986. At the time, Saltz was working on Beyond Boundaries, and he asked Smith, who had recently been fired from the Village Voice, to write an essay for the book. They quickly fell in love, and were married in 1992 at the home of Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, the parents of Girls star Lena Dunham. According to Saltz, they’ve been bound by a love of criticism ever since.

“There is no other life for us. It’s all criticism all the time,” he says. “We used to have opera as a hobby, but it got too expensive.” Though they both write for high-end publications, Saltz and Smith have markedly different writing styles. Smith is polished and studious on the page, while Saltz is colorful and voice-driven. (Saltz asked that Smith not be interviewed for the article.)

The couple wields a lot of power in the art community. For starters, Saltz’s robust online following, combined with Smith’s approximately 100,000 acolytes between Twitter and Instagram, gives them booming critical voices in a diminishing field. As print publications downsize to accommodate the shift to online, full-time critics are among the first to go. That leaves only a handful of critics at major outlets across America, and Saltz and Smith happen to be two of the most illustrious. For Pedro Velez, an artist and former critic, this is a big problem.

“Who’s going to critique the critics?” asks Velez. According to him, many artists and critics are afraid to criticize Saltz because of the potential professional consequences, since sparring with Saltz could mean that their work doesn’t get reviewed by Smith. Instead, Velez says that artists cozy up to Saltz and pose for Instagram photos, so they can receive art-world validation without actually having their work reviewed.

“Everyone wants to be photographed with Jerry Saltz, because he’s always very positive,” says Velez. “He’s like your grandpa. Your grandpa pats you on the back.”

As Saltz is chatting in the subway concourse, a man by the name of Rob Walker wanders by. Walker is a writer and artist from Bed-Stuy, and he recognizes Saltz from social media.

“Listen, I’ve been following you on Instagram,” says Walker, approaching Saltz and The Starry Night.

“Come here. Wait, wait. Say that on the camera,” says Saltz.

“Alright, are you ready?” says Walker. “Give me a hug, man.”

“Hey, who are you?” says Saltz, restarting the interaction for the cameras.

“My name is Rob Walker, I’m from Brooklyn, I’m an artist,” says Walker.

“Jerry Saltz.”

“Yeah, I know who you are. I saw you on Instagram. You’re better-looking in person than you are on Instagram,” says Walker.

“Okay, cut him,” says Saltz, with a joking look toward the camera.

“I’m much better-looking than this, of course,” says Walker.

“He’s very good-looking,” says Saltz.

“I look at the things you post and I think that they’re pretty cool. I sent you a direct message. So, when I did it, you said to me, ‘I don’t like private accounts,’” says Walker.

“I hate private accounts,” says Saltz.

“I was gonna say, “Kiss my ass.” But I said, “No, he’s right. So, I went and I made it public.”

“You’re now radically vulnerable. I love it. Can I follow you?” said Saltz.