“You can go to the greatest museum in the world and see a Rembrandt and go, Hmm it’s kind of brown” says seventy-one-year-old art critic Jerry Saltz. “Or you can go to a museum looking for all the naughty bits. The point is, not all the art you see is good. And you won’t like most of it.”
Saltz, who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, is interested in what he calls “play” art. And he sees a lot of “playable” art from the South. “I mean it’s visually believable, there’s something believable about it without any explanation. I don’t have to like my job, I just have to tell myself, People should watch it and hate it or love it” And he encourages people to speak honestly about what they feel.
When Saltz travels to Charleston, South Carolina, in November to speak at the Gibbs Museum of Art’s Distinguished Lecture Series, he’ll return to a country he loves, the one he first realized through the window of a truck (he tells that story below). His personal and entertaining new book, Art is lifeReleased on November 1. Here, the author talks about how she came to love the South, her pretty entertaining Instagram account, and why she thinks there should be more appropriate words for some of the greats. Southern artist.
South know how?
I was a long haul truck driver for about ten years. I drove from New York to Texas or from New York to Florida once a month, so I spent many, many, many days, months and hours in the South and absolutely loved it. That’s what I kept thinking The real America. As someone from the Midwest, I’m from there too America. I’m a Great Lakes boy, but New York, where I live now, sometimes feels like this little island off the coast of the United States that flies a pirate flag and thinks it’s the center of the world. I spent many happy nights and days in my truck, but I loved being in the South. Parts of it are as busy and crowded as any city, and the city itself has terrible traffic, just like terrible traffic anywhere. good architecture And Vanity architecture. The losing sports team, won.
But the South is not just a place; It is a great cathedral of the American mind. It is one of the most important sources of all our great art. It is a miracle of literature, music and visual art that emerges from that place despite its problems. It’s not crazy-style if you think about it the birth That often sometimes a hundred years go by and think, oh novel! Oh landscape painting! They are genres. But over the course of a hundred years, blues, jazz, Southern Gothic, all these genres were born in the South.
Where do so many powerful female artists come from? South. While the men of blues and jazz may have left home because it wasn’t possible to succeed as breadwinners, what we tend to forget is that women stayed at home and created this little thing we call Southern literature. A little thing that we call This country has some of the greatest two-dimensional art ever seen In the form of quilts, embroidery, painting.
Who are your favorite Southern artists?
Clementine Hunter. Bill Traylor, perhaps the greatest American artist of the 20th century. I can make the case that Traylor is the greatest of them all. Yes, we call them “outsider artists,” but they had a studio practice. They showed their work, they sold their work, and in a way, they had the same story that Van Gogh had. Van Gogh was a poor and famous artist in Paris. Every artist knew what he was doing, the same way a trailer could display his work on the sidewalk, his work was admired, and those around him knew he was an American dreamer. You talk about Southern artists, you talk about Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Kara Walker, Nellie Mae Roe, Thornton Dial—I could go on and on and yet every time we talk about Southern artists, there’s a tragedy. We use the phrase Southern artists. instead of the artist. Imagine if I spoke about your work every time, I said Female writer CJ Lotz.
We have cursed ourselves with this strategy, with this regional thinking. It’s a curse because it keeps people stuck in a way. God knows we do outside artist. Clementine Hunter? great painter. the artist It’s all in the works.
How did you get into the industry?
I started out as an artist, and I had some success. When I was young, I sold my work, my work was reviewed, I got a National Endowment for the Arts, and I took that money and I moved to New York, and I lived in a walkup on the fifth floor of a drug dealer. The building where the guard dog lived in the hallway. I had no heat, and I was happy, living in a shed. I was going to be an artist. But then the ghost spoke to me. The same demon that talks to all of us at 3:15 in the morning as someone who never went to school, has no degree, and is desperate to be in the art world, I listened to the demons and I stopped making art. I am self-exiled.
I spent those ten years driving. One hundred percent alone on the road, living a giant lie. I was filled with hatred and jealousy because I had supplied expensive art to rich collectors and famous galleries and I was so bitter and angry with everyone else, thinking that everyone else was worse off than me but everyone else was doing well. I was eaten alive by this. And one day I thought, something better. I never stopped going to art galleries, and I thought I had to get back into the art world or I’d die.
It’s a long story. [The full story is in Art Is Life. It’s funny and involves a Texas art collector, Saltz simply telling people he was an art critic, and meeting his now-wife, the critic Roberta Smith.]
I wrote my first review when I was forty, and it didn’t matter that I was crap. I knew I was finally failing in public, and I had to try to be radically vulnerable. I felt as radically vulnerable on the inside as I felt all artists are on the outside. In 2018, when the Pulitzer Prize people called me and told me I won the Pulitzer for criticism, I was sitting in the same office that my wife and I rent all year, and we hugged. My wife is a much better critic than I am. He should have won that award. But the point is, and all writers will understand this, that within an hour of breaking the news, my wife and I were back at our desks, writing our deadlines.
I’ve talked to people who’ve won Pulitzers and Nobels, and the most comforting thought for those who want to dance naked in public—as all artists and writers actually do—was my greatest comfort that week, I kept thinking, Well they can’t fire me now! About eighteen more months! Now I think again every day. I’m overachieving, like all artists and people who make things.
How do you look at Instagram and choose what you’ll feature?
I call myself a hashtag archaeologist. We are all seeing this light and color and motion and everyone else’s life and thoughts, How do I go out?? How they do this and that? I’m scrolling in the morning when I think of writing, I’m death-scrolling, and when I see something I like, I go, His work is fine. And now it takes a millionth of a second, but I’ll see he’s posted another person’s work and I’ll look there and then there, and I’ll click and then all of a sudden an Andrew Lamar Hopkins!
You’re referring to New Orleans artist Andrew Lamar Hopkins, who is going to have his First solo show in New Orleans. What attracted you to his art?
It’s way beyond expectations. People should see it. It’s not stuck in trauma narratives or art pain fetishes. Peacock glory about his art life, shiny, crazy, and it has this great sex. It generated a huge amount of interest on my Instagram.
I have two rules on Instagram. One, you can call me Surgery. You can’t say anything bad about me that I haven’t said about myself today. But you can’t call anyone else a name in this thread. I have seen people attack each other, and no. I will block you. Two, I don’t like cynics. people with attitude, i know why He really got this job. His parents are rich. No one knows what each of us goes through to get here.
What do you hope to take away from people Art is life?
In the 21st century, I have this accidental and intentional front-row seat to everything that comes down the pike from 1999 to 2022. None of this art was created naturally. Wars, the rise of mega-galleries, pandemics, where everything has gone back indoors in these cave-like conditions where people create art from what they have on hand. Your room was also your work, your studio, your family, we were all back in the cave. At the center of all our DNA, creativity itself was questioned. Art history is being rewritten right now, and this book covers it.
Right now, more underrepresented artists are taking the stage, rightfully so. More women, more artists of color are becoming the focus of the market. Some cynics might say that more mediocre work can happen because we’re rushing to make sure this party is held accountable, and this and that. But that’s no different than all the mediocre male artists who found success first. Art history will sort it all out. Of course, 85 percent of any industry is made always Bad but then you get it one Kara Walker from Atlanta? An artist of that power is enough to change a nation.
Learn more about Saltz’s speech in Charleston here. Find her book here Art is life And How to be an artist.