Jerry Saltz has had an eclectic career. As an artist-turned-truck driver-turned-art critic he has seen the art world from many angles, and thus has a huge amount of advice to offer. He has gathered this knowledge in a new book, How to be an Artist, which is published in the UK this week.
The book is written in Saltz’s frank and open style, which has been evident in his writing since first becoming an art critic in his early 40s. He was a critic for the Village Voice for almost a decade before joining New York magazine in 2007, where he remains senior art critic. It was with New York magazine that Saltz won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2018, having been shortlisted twice before, in 2001 and 2006.
Saltz is married to fellow critic Roberta Smith (who is co-chief art critic for the New York Times) and as he explains below, the duo live an almost monastic existence in New York, devoted to art. Here he talks about the experience of being an artist-turned-critic as well as about the impact that social media – on which he is a huge presence – is having on the art world, and how it is shifting the “power pyramid” of art criticism.
On how he first discovered art I grew up in a Jewish suburb of Chicago, Illinois. There was no art in my life at all. My mother used to bring me to classical musical recitals. I hated them. One day when I was about ten years old, we drove into the city and she parked me alone at the Art Institute of Chicago. I walked around. Finally, I stopped in front of two small colourful paintings. On the left was a man in a prison cell, with a man with a halo talking to two other crying men outside the cell. On the right the man with the halo has bent forward, leaned out the window, and his head has been cut off by a man with a really long sword. Blood spurts from the neck, someone is placing the head on a gold platter. I looked left; I looked right. Back and forth, and then it suddenly hit me. “This painting is telling a story!” I looked around the museum and I realised that everything here, every object was telling stories, that the museum was a never-ending sort of letter to the world from 100,000 different voices. I fell in love with art.
About a month later, my mother committed suicide. My father never told me and my two younger brothers how she died; we never went to the funeral; she was never spoken about again for the rest of my life. We went back to school the next day. As if nothing had happened. Yet I grew antennae; I knew I was being treated differently by everyone; I learned to intuit vibrations, nuance, body language, seemed to glean feelings and thoughts from the air around me; I “saw” like a fish, with my whole body, sensing changes in my electromagnetic environment.