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ASK AN ART CRITIC
by Jerry Saltz
 
Dear Jerry,
I’m not signing my name to this question because I’m a New York dealer whose gallery you visit. You once talked to me about "some bad art-dealer behavior patterns." I’ve been freaked out about it ever since, thinking you meant me. You never said what this "bad behavior" was.
-- ItAin’tMeBabe

Dear ItAin’tMeBabe,
I’ve talked about "bad art-dealer behavior" to quite a few gallerists over the years. Sometimes I’m trying to send them a message; other times I’m just grousing.

I love art dealers. In some ways, they’re my favorite people in the art world. Really. I love that they put their money where their taste is, create their own esthetic universes, support artists, employ people, and do all of this while letting us see art for free. Many are visionaries. But they do certain things that are incredibly annoying.

My No. 1 rule for dealers is: Never use your sales pitch on a critic. Ever.

I can’t tell you how much I hate it, and it happens constantly. I’m looking at art in a gallery, and after two or three minutes the dealer strides out to say hello. He (or she) then starts explaining. He tells me what the artist says the work is about. He repeats some pithy thing the artist said, or recites a text the artist thinks viewers need to know to understand the work. Curator X was just here, I learn, while the art was being packed for Biennial Y. "Artists especially" like this work -- Chuck Close, or Chris Ofili, or Maurizio or Klaus or Brice. (I always want to say "Maurizio likes everything," but I don’t.) Some dealers talk about who’s buying the work, which museum-purchase committees are considering it, how much it sells for.

All this erases me as a critic and as a person. I want to say to the dealer, "Be quiet: I can’t hear myself see." But I can’t because critics have to remain neutral. There can’t be bad blood, or else the dealer will chalk up everything in future reviews (or the lack of them) to personality issues. Not to mention that the critic can’t use anything the dealer says, because the dealer will then go around saying things like "I told Jerry all that stuff he wrote."

It’s hard to stop this, but lately, I’ve taken to looking directly at the dealer and saying, "Trust me. I’m a professional. I know how to look at art alone." If I say this to you, back off a bit. Let me look at your show. If it’s good, I’ll know.

Dear Jerry,
Last week you wrote about Ai Weiwei’s installation at the Tate’s Turbine Hall. Then I read Tyler Green’s essay about the lack of large spaces like that in America. Any thoughts?

-- Lucy Cash

Dear Lucy,
I always get jealous when I’m in London. Behemoth space isn’t necessarily better, but the Turbine Hall has been great for the Tate, and I always think "New York needs one of these." Oh wait: We had four, up until Dia blew its budget building a beautiful tomb for minimalism, up in Beacon, and then shut down its breathtaking spaces on West 22nd Street in 2005. Don’t get me started.

When museums are built these days, architects, directors, and trustees seem most concerned about social space: places to have parties, eat dinner, wine-and-dine donors. Sure, these are important these days -- museums have to bring in money -- but they gobble up space and push the art itself far away from the entrance. In fact, one measure of good museum design is how long it takes you to get from the front door to the permanent collection. In Paris, the glass pyramid at the Louvre means it takes a half-hour to get to the art, if you can find it at all. At the Met, on the other hand, you step inside, turn right, walk a few feet, and you’re in Egypt. Turn left, walk the same distance, and you’re in Greece. You’re carried away into the group mind and the continuum of history within one minute. Ideal.

But back to the Turbine Hall, and whether we could have one of our own. Off the top of my head, I’d say yes, because I can see the outlines of a space like that here in New York. I know people say the Brooklyn Museum’s glassy entrance makes it look like a car dealership. I don’t disagree, and it galls me every time I visit. But once I get past the silly interior atrium, I’m always amazed at how much underused, or ill-used, or unused space there is inside. If the Brooklyn Museum let a number of artists wander its museum unimpeded for five hours, I guarantee they’d find room for large-scale contemporary installations. The Brooklyn Museum Turbine Hall is just a dream and a little gumption away. If they built it, we would come.

Dear Jerry --
How do you plan out your week? I'm hoping that, since you see so much art on a regular basis, that you can offer an organized strategy for seeing a lot in a limited time.

-- Fabian

Dear Fabian,
When I got into the art world it was so small that I could see all the shows in. . . oh, never mind the geezer rant. I see 30 to 40 gallery shows a week, and no matter what kind of mood I’m in, no matter how bad the art is, I almost always feel better afterward. I can learn as much from bad art as from good. Sometimes I get carried away and return to the same shows over and over. This is usually good for my work. (Not always. I went to Pipilotti Rist’s New York debut show 19 times, and during the last five or six, it had grown so familiar that I was looking only for flaws. The review I wrote was too nitpicky.) Before I wrote about Matthew Barney’s Cremaster IV, I watched it 75 times. What can I say? I really like it.

I don’t plan out my visits rigorously, but I do have a list of about 125 New York galleries, alternative spaces, museums, and so forth that I visit regularly. That's the closest thing I have to a strategy: I go to a lot of places, many that artists don’t visit.

Speaking of which: Why do so many artists dislike seeing a lot of art? (When artists say they’ve seen shows in Chelsea and I ask how many, they’ll say something like, "A lot. Four." One or two streets and one or two galleries -- one being a friend’s show or someone they know. Then they lose interest and they go back to their studios or meet friends for coffee.) Is it because they’re in their own world and they fear being knocked out of their groove? Maybe they’re competitive; maybe they don’t like putting the hate on shows or feeling high-and-mighty or envious or whatever. Painters seem to see the most shows; then sculptors; then photographers. Sometimes I think artists see less art than anyone else in our world. Maybe this is the only way a lot of them can work.

Critics are different, especially weekly critics. We see a lot, all the time. It’s how we do what we do. Say hi if you see me.


JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at jerry_saltz@nymag.com.



 



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