If ever you find yourself lost in the thickets of contemporary art, Jerry Saltz is the kind of critic you want to lead you into the light, to help separate the hype from the heartfelt or the politics from the so-called product. Irascible and bracingly astringent, Saltz is a passionate student of the contemporary scene who by his own admission visits about 40 galleries a week and in its first year after re-opening dropped in on the Museum of Modern Art’s newly refurbished “beautiful tomb” (his description) some 50 times.
Seeing Out Louder is a generous collection of short, sharp weekly dispatches, covering Saltz’s work from 2003 through last year, as senior art critic first for the Village Voice and then for New York magazine (an earlier volume, Seeing Out Loud, assembles his writings from 1998 through 2003). It chronicles strange days in the art world, when, as Saltz notes, globalization and economic expansion invaded nearly every corner and “cracks appeared, expanded, and finally broke.” Saltz casts a knowing eye on many of the younger figures who had already made their mark—Kara Walker, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Matthew Barney—and pungently dissects the accomplishments of those, like Richard Serra and Gerhard Richter, who had achieved Old Master status in the contemporary pantheon. He is a whiz at drop-dead similes: “Walking around these undulating sidewinders is like being around a herd of otherworldly elephants,” Saltz writes of Serra’s 2007 MoMA retrospective, “or seeing steel skirts blowing in the breeze.” And he is blessed with keener powers of observation than many, noting that “in Jeff Koons’ Cicciolina sex paintings, you never see the artist’s face and his erect penis in the same shot, suggesting that a body double may have been used. Could Caucasian genital insecurity be rearing its little head?” His reviews of lesser-known artists or of shows you may have missed will send you scrambling to the Internet for images.
Saltz is also one of the art world’s most entertaining scolds, lambasting many obvious targets—former Guggenheim director Thomas Krens, the new MoMA’s “elevator music” vision of modernism, and Damien Hirst’s “$200 million worth of crapola”—but also performing a much-needed service by reminding us regularly of the paucity of exhibitions devoted to women (a crusade he has continued on his Facebook page).
One of the disadvantages of such a collection is a certain amount of repetition—how many times can Currin be compared to comedian Larry David?—but all told, this is a juicy and readable overview of a period leading up to the present moment, when we are experiencing what Saltz calls “a kind of Wikipedia art world.”