BOOK REVIEW: JERRY SALTZ’S “SEEING OUT LOUDER”
By JOHN McCARTHY
“Seeing Out Louder” is a LOL reading experience that proves in its 436 pages that if you aren’t having fun in the art world – you’re doing it wrong.
Jerry Saltz, the self-described “Jewish cowboy” as the book’s author – is doing it right.
With references as wide and varied as Homer Simpson and Plato, Jerry sets the standard for art criticism in America every time he puts pen to paper. Culled from his weekly columns at The Village Voice and New York Magazine (his current job) from 2003 to 2009, Saltz’s writing style is admittedly “dense” as he tries to cram the “maximum amount of information in a minimum amount of space.” But as Entertainment Weekly said about his TV commentary on the Bravo show “Work of Art,” Jerry’s artspeak is succinct and accessible.
That is not to say that this TV personality won’t frequently send you packing to the Google images page of your iPhone as often as Martin Amis sends readers packing to their OEDs. After all, Mr. Saltz has remembered more about art than most people will ever forget.
The road to the top, from truck drivin’ cowboy to two-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, involves personally viewing 30-40 shows in New York City every week and at least 40 visits a year to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the 1980s, when Jerry first started reviewing art, he has probably seen as much work in person as anyone, so much art that he even has fantasies about making love in a museum.
Pop culture references abound, lightening the load of million dollar, brand name art, with Jerry sometimes threatening to get “mid-evil” on someone, a Pulp Fiction reference. Saltz writes art criticism the way J.D. Salinger wrote short stories – and the way Mitch Albom writes sports stories – with a lyricism and a cadence that only the best writers can “hear” and translate to essay – his writing enters our conscious and subconscious minds – the way a heroin speedball entered Basquiat‘s veins – immediately.
Jerry says (Lou Reed should write a song about him in the vein of “Stephanie/Candy/Caroline Says”) in an interview that viewing art keeps him sane, and when he is done self-medicating in the hallowed galleries and museums of NYC, we get to find out what he was “on” when he writes his review, a kind of verbal toxicology report for us shut-in readers.
Saltz self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a “loudmouth,” and one does get the impression in reading “Louder,” that if his speaking voice were as loud as his writing voice, that he could shout down a Bronx cheer-er at Yankee Stadium. Stoking the fires of an incredible cult of personality in the course of doing his writing job while also amiably chatting with interested people on Facebook (Mr. Saltz’s FB profile pic is a two-shot with former President Clinton’s arm around the author) Jerry writes so well that he approaches rock star status. (So it is appropriate that Mr. Bill was photographed with another rock star in South Africa – Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones at the Ghana vs. United States World Cup soccer match). Well, kind of appropriate, because Saltz is known in his reviews to have an almost palpable sense of honesty.
And precisely because he is intellectually honest with himself and others, Saltz is developing an underground folk hero status in art circles, people come from all over cyberspace, as Woody Allen learns from Rolling Stone reporter Shelly Duvall at a Bob Dylan concert in “Annie Hall:” “He’s God! I mean, this man is God! He’s got millions of followers who would crawl all the way across the world just to touch the hem of his garment.” To which, Allen Konigsberg of course replies: “Really? It must be a tremendous hem.” And to bastardize another Allen-ism, that’s why most people love Saltz – whether it is in his weekly magazine columns, daily online Facebook banter, or weekly Bravo TV show – Saltz gives good hem! How could you not like someone who begins a column: “I have always wanted to have sex in a museum?”
That is not to say he does not have critics of his own, who carp about him being some kind of unpaid “apologist” for superstar artists such as Jeff Koons; but they mostly come across as village idiots with a bad case of sour grapes, who tastelessly profess to have no use for the multi-sensoral verbal condiment of Saltz and pepper. Some “V.I.” even post half-assed online reviews of his TV show “Work of Art” – without actually bothering to watch the show.
Jerry argues in his books that the art critic of today is obsolete – there are no more Clement Greenbergs who can take a Silly Putty Jackson Pollock and mold him or her – through an orbiting of clever words, -isms and columns – into the greatest artist of all time; however, I’m not so sure…when Ashley Bickerton is asked a question at an NYC art opening about his new work, he bolsters his argument by saying his new style is egg-zactly like the old style, “and Jerry Saltz had the very same observation.”
Say what you will about Jerry Saltz: Nothing half-assed about him. This full-assed HDTV effect was never more on display than in his review of Carroll Dunham in “Charnel Knowledge” when he delights in seeing self-portrait pictures of his male friend “bare-assed and bent over with his anus in the viewer’s face like some mad Humanoid Baboon in a state of sexual presenting.”
Saltz “shocks them/shows them” just as the lady friend referenced in Keith Richards’ “Little T&A” from the Rolling Stones’ “Tattoo You” was exhorted to do in the song – because Jerry aims to be the first “bad boy” art critic – not a bad thing in and of itself — Quentin Tarantino is the “bad boy” director of American cinema — and his “b.o.” always passes the smell test. Just as “all art is contemporary art” (a Jerry-ism that you learn while reading his seminal opus), to his credit for a sexagenarian, most of Saltz’s references are to modern day cultural icons such as Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” at the end of “Babylon Rising,” where he asks the musical question: “Where were you while we were getting high?”
I only counted one reference to a pop star presumably more age appropriate to a 60‘s guy (he is one way or another — but Wikipedia is no help because it does not present his birth date) Jerry is a refreshingly unselfconscious electronic personality who modestly describes his TV look as a human “Sharpie” marker. But, if Jerry is under-confident about his glamorousness on the boob tube, he is justifiably more confident in his ability to hit a home run in print. Didn’t finish the column? Saltz says: My bad: I should’ve written it better. Now that’s accountability!
As much as I love Jerry (no one has more to lose by writing even a lukewarm review of a Saltz book – as a 47-year-old art brut living in the American Caribbean – spamming the world for a national audience for my art – I am wary lest I hear Jerry re-enact the Ving Rhames line to Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction where he says if Butch the Boxer were going to make it, he would have made it by now –and your ass turns to vinegar rather than fine wine etc., etc.) – there were a couple of things that I did not fully understand.
Jerry says photo-realistic art is boring now that Warhol has done it all before. The late Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans are rounded up as the usual suspects – yet Saltz (as the British World Cup announcer kept saying while the U.S. was being eviscerated by Ghana this weekend: “It has to be said.”) seems to have a deep reverence for non-flying Dutchman Jan Vermeer – who may have been the world’s first photorealistic painter because he used a camera obscura to “mindlessly copy” the human figures depicted in his paintings – and a string to get the one-point perspectives photographically correct – as demonstrated in the 2001 Meryl Streep-narrated documentary “Vermeer: Master of Light.”
The longest review in the book about any individual artist, at fully eight pages long, is devoted to the Irish-born Sodomite/Londonite Francis Bacon – whom he glibly describes as a “cartoonist,” among other things. This after holding up Francisco Goya as the art world equivalent of “God” at spring graduation ceremonies where he gave the commencement address at two universities, and equating African-American silhouette-ist Kara Walker with Goya in previous columns. Admirably, Jerry burnishes the reputations of Pollock and “American Picasso” Robert Rauschenberg, who get nearly as much ink-time.
So when you read a Jerry Saltz reverie-review, and you see him artfully describe Bacon’s “intense chalky, apricot” colors that are keeping this “bugger’s daydream” outsider art alive today your thoughts are: “That’s me! That’s what I think!” And you realize that you have witnessed something quite special – another J.S. work of art – because as he daubs the words onto his magazine canvas – and unblushingly talks about the oozing crispness of sex in all of its forms, functions and practices (perhaps except for the modern-day poet Larissa Szporluk – has anyone more rivetingly driven the dialogue including sexuality to such a high art position?) you register that this has been no ordinary luncheon in the grass.
Jerry Saltz does for art criticism what Hunter Thompson did for LSD.