Jerry Saltz is America’s “most popular, and unpopular” art critic, according to a lengthy profile of the writer in Tablet’s current print issue by Dushko Petrovich. In the piece, Saltz, the senior art critic for New York magazine, schmoozes with just about everyone he sees during a trip to Chelsea one afternoon (including Gagosian gallery employees, whom he quizzes about their student loans), and explains why he decided, while working as a long-distance truck driver, to become an art writer in the first place. “I could have sex with women!” he says.
Petrovich (an ARTnews contributor) gets at the heart of what has made Saltz such a popular figure with readers who might otherwise be indifferent to the hyper-insular art world. Saltz’s followers on social media number far greater than all other full-time art critics combined, and rival those of most major art magazines. “I know what it’s like for you people!” Saltz tells Petrovich at one point, discussing his humble roots as a freelance art writer and adjunct, in a phrase that Saltz repeats in so many words throughout the profile. Petrovich writes:
This filter of the self, which Saltz presents with humility that often borders on self-loathing, is crucial in that it allows him the fallibility and flexibility of “just one man’s opinion.” When this works, the “lowly” Saltz—the bald Saltz who drives an old car and shops at Kmart—can capture the complexities and contradictions of the art experience that are less available to critics with a tendency, or a mandate, to be authoritative. (Like his wife [Roberta Smith, the chief art critic for the New York Times].) This may be why Saltz—whose social position is nothing if not extraordinary—presents himself so conscientiously as an everyman. The well-advertised fact that the Chicago-born critic adores gyros and pizza and prefers regular, unassuming clothes, gives his readers, especially art world outsiders, a way to see themselves in him.
But the piece also takes Saltz to task for this very reason. As Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art, says of Saltz in the profile, “The idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world…all these things are about Jerry.”
Petrovich claims that, to some people in the art world—and some of his readers, as well—Saltz acts mostly in self-interest, at the cost of his reputation as a serious critic. (Roberta Smith, Petrovich writes, “plays the valedictorian to her husband’s class clown.”) As an example, Petrovich cites Saltz’s piece about Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, which was on view at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg in 2014. That review, like much of Saltz’s writing, led to a heated debate online. The full title of Walker’s work, a 35-ton sphinx made of sugar, includes this description: “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” Saltz’s review took the form of a personal vision he had while viewing A Subtlety. “So,” Petrovich writes, “while Saltz praised the piece repeatedly and in detail, many felt that framing the review in terms of his vision, not Walker’s, was wholly inappropriate to an artwork whose subject was the systematic erasure and extraction of contributions of black women.” (Walker herself chimed into the debate to say she appreciated Saltz’s piece.)
Saltz, as one of the few remaining staff art critics in the country, has a lot of power in the art world. He is also a widely known public figure (uncommon for critics of any genre). Negative criticism of him is rare and largely kept private. I’m sure Saltz’s followers would happily—or, more likely, angrily—debate the profile on social media, though in a strange bit of irony for a subject whose persona is so entwined with his presence online, Petrovich’s piece is only available in print.