Saturday, February 28, 2015

Art Critics: Roberta Smith & Jerry Saltz, "Seeing Out Loud!" (Special Issue)

Roberta Smith (left) and Jerry Saltz (right) on the speaker's stage addressing a packed house, for a Clyfford Still Museum speaking event held at the Denver Art Museum
Feb. 12, 2015.
Roberta Smith &
Jerry Saltz 
Seeing Out Loud!
"Friends of Clyfford Still" 
Winter Keynote Program

On Thursday, February 12, 2015, The Clyfford Still Museum, which is a part of the Denver Art Museum complex in downtown Denver, Colorado, invited Roberta Smith, a critic for The New York Times, and her husband, Jerry Saltz, a critic for New York Magazine, to have a dialogue about art with Colorado artists and art appreciators. The official title of the event was A Critical Conversation: Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz Get Down About It All. 

Roberta Smith (left) discusses art criticism with a patron of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, CO.

Roberta Smith has been writing for the New York Times since 1986 and lectures widely on art and art criticism. She writes on art from all periods, the decorative arts, architecture, design, and outsider art. For many, she tops the list of all international art critics writing today. Sample: Louise Nevelson: ‘Collage and Assemblage’ February 27, 2015 - NYTimes "ARTS".
Jerry Saltz (left) with a Denver art enthusiast at the Winter Keynote speaking event for the Clyfford Still Museum in downtown Denver, CO.

Jerry Saltz has been a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism and last month won the prestigious National Magazine Award, in the Columns and Commentary category, a rarity for art criticism! (Check out his winning essays on Jeff Koons, Henri Matisse, and young abstract art.)
This event was held in the DAM's large Ponti Hall to a standing room only crowd, many of whom were Colorado based artists. Smith and Saltz told of their rarified life as art critics in today's changing media environment and shared some of their insider information about the art world. A lively question-and-answer session followed the art couple's comments on contemporary art and art criticism. 

(EDITOR'S NOTE: ALL of the editorial points included in this article were made by Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz while at the podium on February 12, 2015, during the Clyfford Still Museum Winter Keynote Speaker event. No audio or video recording was made by ARTSnFOOD for this article and, although the text is written as a conversation, almost 100% of the article is PARAPHRASED being derived from quick, handwritten notes. The statements are attributed, but THE COMMENTS ARE NOTES, NOT QUOTES. Finally, this married couple sometimes completes each others thoughts, because of this, portions of certain statements may be mis-attributed, to avoid dividing up a sentence.)

A Critical Conversation: 
Roberta Smith and 
Jerry Saltz 
Get Down About It All

Hello - I'm Roberta Smith, and I'm Jerry Saltz, we were invited to come to Denver, to see Clyfford Still's museum and, while here, were shown Denver's "art highlights". We are here to talk about our work as art critics.

R.S. - You have such a strong ART presence in Denver, especially with the Clyfford Still museum. 
J.S. - I didn't know what to expect from the museum. There are only a few Clyfford Stills out there in the art world, because, for much of his life, he didn't show his work publicly. I was worried we were going to have to endure some very questionable "Octogenarian Abstract Expressionistic Paintings". Happily we are very impressed at how extensive his oeuvre was, how diverse his mediums were and how interesting it is to view so many works from one artist's oeuvre in a single museum. It gave us a different perspective on the artist.
R.S. - Clyfford Still did so much art. This museum shows his ambition and his drive to create.
R.S. - We work as art critics. It's interesting that fewer and fewer people are writing about art as a paid profession. 
J.S. -  There are only about 12 full-time jobs in the US, where the "Art Critic" is paid a livable wage, gets health benefits and concentrates his or her writing only on the visual arts. "12!" Roberta is one. I am also, but you would be surprised how little I make, I don't get paid for any of the blogging or social media work that I do and I personally don't have a contract with New York magazine. I write for them at their pleasure, they can fire me tomorrow. 
J.S. - How many of you in the audience are artists?
(Approximately 40% of the crowd raised their hands.)
J.S. - Wow! Thanks for not giving up! Well here we are, all of us, dancing naked in public!
R.S. - It is not easy being an artist. I must say, if you have a choice at all with your interests and talents, do something else, anything else other than art - do that, not art! You will be so much happier with your career choice and if you also love art, dedicate some of your income to helping those who have chosen to give their life to their art process. Support artists by buying art. 
J.S. - Now, to the artists out there. Artists must have an incredible work ethic - and don't be big babies - you are never going to have enough money or enough time. Just get to work. You must communicate, through your art, who YOU are. And like Roberta said, don't be an artist if you don't have to - YOU MUST WORK, WORK, WORK all of the time! If you have not done any work in the past six months, you might not be an artist. If you have not done any work in the past two years, you are no longer an artist!
R.S. - Jerry coined the term "Seeing Out Loud", THAT is what we do. It is not necessary to understand any of the art we all look at, because ART is its own language. There is always a one-to-one communication between a work of art and the viewer.
J.S. - Most people don't understand art.
R.S. - I probably got into the art criticism business because I had a very critical mother. She had strong opinions, but also was generally interested in what I thought about the things we were considering: colors, furniture, collectibles, etc. There was this whole thing about "closely looking" at things and having a definite opinion. She said I had a good eye.
     I researched Donald Judd, in depth, as a part of my Art History studies. He was an organizer and collector of both the best and the worst of things. My first, full-time, "real" job was being a personal secretary at MoMA. One day I read an article about Judd. Soon I sat down and wrote a rebuke to that article, then I showed it to the curator I worked for at MoMA. She said she knew the editor of Art Forum, Phil Leider, and would send it off to get his opinion. A return letter arrived from Art Forum regarding my essay. Leider said it was an obnoxious way to become a critic, but if I would cut the text by half, he would run it! From then on, I was an art critic! I remember thinking I didn't want to be a critic like Robert Rosenberg or even Donald Judd (who also wrote about art), they could not get past the era they loved and seldom appreciated art styles and approaches as the history of art progressed through the decades.

J.S. - I started being an art critic by accident. I was an artist myself. I had moved to NYC and my personal quest was to draw (illustrate) all aspects of Dante's "The Divine Comedy". I needed a day job, but I was a very self-conscious employee. I didn't enjoy anyone looking over my shoulder as I performed a task. I thought driving a delivery truck would be a good option, since the boss would never be around. I landed a job in "Long Distance Trucking". I still wanted to be in the art world, while I drove, so I decided to learn art criticism via audio recordings. Soon I started writing criticism and I ended up here.  
     By the way, most people in the "Art World" are NOT artists. They are people who enjoy or love art and want to work in the business in some auxiliary way. They work in galleries, frame shops, museums, as art handlers, etc. 
R.S. - It is well known, I was fired from the Village Voice, but first how I got there. I was writing criticism and being published in various art publications, reviewing art exhibitions after the fact. I had a discussion with a colleague about my work, they told me I needed "readers". I responded, I have readers - back at me - they said, not really, you need to write for a large circulation publication, where people will follow what you write. So I went to the Village Voice, told them I was an art critic and they hired me. Suddenly I had "readers" and I was writing about current shows that were still up and would be viewed by my "readers". I was petrified I would get it wrong. Fear was the motivation to make certain what I wrote was "useful to my 'readers'". My writing was now only about ME, the ART and the READER. The connection was intoxicating, then I got fired! For a while I didn't know who I was, because what I thought, my writing, was not in print. Many months later I was hired by The New York Times as an art critic, and I am still there today. Everyone should get fired once in their lives, to learn: "When bad things happen, you can and will recover - life goes on."
     Another point, when I wrote for the art magazines, I was writing for the artists, at the Village Voice I was writing for the viewers of art. Artists would come up to me and say "That is not what I was trying to say with my artwork." 
J.S. - The reality is, artists don't know what their art says to an individual viewer, or at a later time, in some completely unexpected context.
     Roberta and I go to 30 to 40 art exhibitions a week. That is all we do, days, weekends, evenings, and if things are slow, we start looking for sculpture parks or other art venues to review. 
     85% of all gallery shows are "CRAP"! The interesting thing about art is the turbulence. The 85% that's considered "CRAP" is different for each person forming an opinion about it. As it goes around, almost every type of art is appreciated by someone.
R.S. - Although there are many opinions regarding what is good and bad art, a critic must occasionally write negative reviews, if that is how they see it. Writing only positive reviews is not helpful to the progress of art. I am content to I write what I write and let others think what they think.
J.S. - We often hear: "The Model" (art that's noticed) is the "ONE" speaking to the "MONEY". In the arts, you must do what you do, even if you don't get paid for it. To be an artist, you have to be addicted to your work.
R.S. - We are all excellent critics of our every day lives, making decisions driven by pleasure and these decisions also have an aesthetic component. All of us are good critics of popular culture, we have strong opinions about the music we like, or movies or humor. 
     When looking at "Art" there is subjective data transferred to us, while we stand in front of a work. Our schools don't teach "visual literacy" the same way they do literature and music. We would live in an entirely different culture if they did.
J.S. - We are invited to all of the glitzy art parties and I go to some, Roberta does not. 
R.S - Generally speaking I don't fraternize with the people I may have to write about. Integrity is the essence of art and criticism. Through our actions we show art is important and we make our love of art evident in what we do. 
J.S. - Museums are storage places for these objects made by people. They house art pieces which have enough presence to be deemed worthy of being kept for the cultural future. 
Question: How do you tell if a work of art is good?
R.S. - A critic is looking for a bit of pleasure - GOOD ART is always making some noise. I walk into a room and something catches my eye, there is an attraction, and I want to look deeper into it.
Question: Is anything new or is it all derivative?
J.S. - There are comparisons - hey, we all steal and have influences, but I am not usually thinking about another artist, when I view a piece of art. I am in the moment with that art.
Question: Do critics get frustrated with all the problems of the Art World and in publishing? 
J.S. - Yes, critic are whiners! They often declare with great fan-fare, they are going to quit. Then the next month they're back. I say, "The Art World is an all volunteer army, no one is being forced to be a part of it. If you are unhappy, please leave!"
Question: What pivotal moments have you witnessed in the progress of Art History?
J.S. - I remember the beginning of the Fall Art Season, September of 1990. I went to a gallery to see a new young artist named Matthew Barney. I stood there and watched this young man put Vaseline into every opening of his body: eyes; nose; ears; etc. I remember thinking, this is a paradigm shift in what we call art. I was also thinking about the numerology of the timing! The number "9" is very powerful and we were in the ninth month, of nineteen ninety, at the start a new art season, with a new artist and I was viewing something I had never seen the-likes-of before. In that moment, I felt a seismic shift, we were starting a new chapter in art history.
Question: Does art history miss good things along the way?
J.S. - Talented people were doing art other than Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, but AbEx. caught everyone's attention. You should Google the artist James Castle who worked in the same era.
Question: Does your voice change when writing in different publications?
R.S. - Yes, of course your point of view changes with different publications and for different audiences. Realistically, as a rule: I think everyone should always write as close to how they talk, as possible. 
J.S. - Write it close to how you talk!
     We are all dancing naked in public: artists; writers; museum directors; and all creative types. There is no pretense when you are naked, JUST BE YOUR VERSION OF YOU.
R.S.- Clyfford Still is a great example. Almost all of his work was done out of the market. He did his work for his consumption only, representing his vision. Seeing this large collection of his work, here in Denver, was a great experience.
J.S.- We need to make envy and cynicism our enemy. These adversarial relationships must stop. Clyfford Still considered the "Art World" his enemy, but it is the "Art World" who created him, they made him famous and no one else cares. No matter what he said, he probably wanted attention, just like the rest of us!
R.S. - When viewing art, there is not much else going on in and around you, that is not about the art you are viewing. You are concentrating on the art and connecting with it.
J.S. - Also, the art you hate is speaking to you.
R.S. - The negative emotions you may feel, are coming out of your communication with that artwork.
Question: What are you doing to keep yourself open to the "NEW" and to female artists or Hispanic artists, etc.?
R.S. - Yes, we are constantly evaluating those kinds of things, trying to be inclusive.
J.S. - We search out female, or Hispanic artists and other ethnicities.

J.S. - Back to artworks I don't like! I always ask myself, "What would I be like, if I was the kind of person who liked this art?" 
     The more you look at art, the more you see. We are all building an experience bank. It takes a certain amount of time to create true and mature appreciation of artistic concepts and philosophies. Collectors want to jump on the band wagon, investing in these young artists still in grad school, but I feel sorry for artist who have young success. They are at a conceptual disadvantage and many get trapped in immature approaches by being recognized before their thought processes have seasoned. 
     I have written about "Zombie Formalism". IF YOU MAKE ART, YOU HAD BETTER MAKE IT YOUR OWN!
(Editor's Note: Zombie Formalism: “Zombie” because it brings back to life discarded aesthetics of past art movements and “Formalism” because the art involves traditional, straightforward methods of making a painting.)
R.S. - We should speak about ideologies, beliefs people assume, IE: the author is dead; argument is at issue; everything can be repeated; art has a responsibility to change the world, etc.
     Art is just fine! If you think an art object is passive, you are mistaken.
Question: What is your opinion of regional art? Can we succeed as regional artists?
R.S. - Great art can and is being created outside of New York City and Los Angeles. With jpegs, social media, plus quick and easy communications, you can connecte with the Art World from anywhere. Here in Denver you have an advantage over many cities with your Clyfford Still museum, your encyclopedic Denver Art Museum, your Museum of Contemporary Art, and your many good galleries. 
     Writing criticism several times a week is a little different. A top tier critic must be in a city like New York, because of the extensive number of gallery shows available to cover and all of the museum shows to be reviewed.
J.S. - It's certainly possible to work successfully as an artist in a regional market, but L.A. is only an hour and a half away from Denver by air. Would it kill you to go there once a year, just to keep up with what's going on?
J.S. - Art is a point of view, when you go into an exhibition and you get defensive about what is good or bad, remember just look at the art, then let it go. There is plenty of other art out there.
R.S. - We go to many museum shows, only to see most of the people concentrating on the large text, silk-screened onto the walls, and the labels by the artworks, instead of spending time with the art itself. ART IS A CONVERSATION BETWEEN YOU AND THE ART, its not about labels!
J.S. - I agree, spend your time with the art! I have learned over the years, if you do want to read the exhibition labels, they finally get around to any useful information in the last two sentences, that is all you need to read. That's what I do.

Until Later,
ARTSnFOOD, is an online publication dedicated to "The Pursuit of Happiness, the Arts and Food." ™ All rights reserved. Concept, Original Art, Text & Photographs are © Copyright 2015 Jack A. Atkinson under all International intellectual property and copyright laws. Any gallery, event, museum, fair or festival photographs were taken with permission. Images © individual artists, fabricators, respective owners or assignees.

1 comment: