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Work of Art

THE DRAMA’S DONE

by Jerry Saltz
 
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“Then all collapsed,” goes the last passage of Moby-Dick, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled 5,000 years ago.” Work of Art ended last week, although without sublime terror. Its end brought three good shows by three good artists, any one of whom could have won, all three of whom could have real careers (ditto the recent losers Lola and Michelle; Sucklord, get thee to Mordor). The three finalists, plus with my overall feelings about the program this season, tell me that a sea change took place on our show this time around, in public and private. Last year, waves of hatred predicted the collapse of the art world and the destruction of art by television; this year unfurled in its own spreading shroud. A bit like art itself: sometimes capturing attention, mostly gliding slowly by.

This year’s Work of Art was less sideshow, more grad school. I suspect that it made for less entertaining TV, though the artists were better and, unlike last year’s, had a sense of how it would go. Each found ways of making personal work in the midst of one of the most impersonal situations any of them will ever face. As for me: I tried to be clearer in my criticism, weighed 15 pounds more than last season, marveled as Bill Powers blossomed into an excellent judge, crushed on China Chow, gasped at Simon de Pury’s charisma. I stood in front of a dozen cute stylists. I saw my bald head powdered with makeup. I wore white Spanx that broke my dark heart. It’s a hard. . . it’s a hard. . . Wait. Sorry.

About the finalists: just as last year’s winner, Abdi, should have been given a grant to a good grad school (with the win going instead to the true artist, Peregrine Honig), the excellent artists Lola and Michelle didn’t make it. Sara, who did make the final three, surprised me. After starting off making nice watercolors, she lapsed into cliché and confusion. Although her personality feels oddly absent (both in the flesh and in her work), she got in touch with her inner performance artist, the sculptor within, and excelled with materials. I’m told that Sara is in grad school now, and it should give her a chance to develop her talents. She didn’t win on this night, when much of her show dealt with secret lives and mutant creatures. Once she escapes generic symbolism (like the hypodermic needles she stuck in an old mattress) and ersatz surrealism (origami birds flying from a cage), her work, I imagine, will stand up in the real art world. Congratulations, Sara.

Young’s work rattles with repressed emotion and cerebral acuity. Sharp as a tack about art, the most articulate contestant ever on this show, he became adept at merging the social, the personal and the material. His show dealt with life, loss, longing, the death of his father and the cancer of his mother -- a lot to take on at once. Thus, it lost emotional momentum. I fancy that Young’s losing a TV game show about art might make his eventual art career easier (though the $100,000 might’ve helped, too). He should move to New York, find a dive in Bushwick, have his New York nervous breakdown and join a promising next wave of talented people.

Kymia took the prize based on her drawing skills. The surfaces of her drawings didn’t come across on TV, but they were covered in pebble-like flecks, pooled paint, sedimentary minerals and other original marking techniques. Replete with circumspect touch and fine line and nicely scaled, they had physical presence and psychic gravitas. I was most taken with her rendition of a ship, a sort of psychic raft from the underworld drifting on Melville’s rolling ocean. The shadow of two legs on the sails was hokey, but I wasn’t bothered by this lapse into bathos. Her outing showed an artist following her vision to wherever it led her.

Which is what this show was for me. It already feels far away. My wife has still never watched a minute of Work of Art, though she loves that I did it. So do I. I’m not sure why this is, and would love artists to tell me if there’s an equivalent in their process, but for me Work of Art was all about the before and the after. The show itself was never the thing. It was about getting out of my office; learning how TV is made; being around artists trying as hard as they could; being a part of a mass of people, cameras, lights and sound equipment functioning as an organism; confronting my fear of celebrities when the show’s executive producer, Sarah Jessica Parker, was a guest judge; being ogled by stylist girls while standing in my underpants.

I loved making the show, trying to bring art to a wide audience, writing about it and the tens of thousands of conversations it generated via my recaps, Facebook posts, tweets and random street-corner conversations. I dug the shock of someone saying to me in my building’s elevator, “Hey! You’re that mean art-critic judge on TV.” All this experience enriched me -- my life, my work and my stomach.

But the televised show itself? I missed watching four episodes this year -- twice I forgot it was on, and twice I had the wrong time. That’s how curious all this has been for me. Right now I feel at peace with my TV god; I’ve gotten everything I wanted, and I don’t want to do it again. If there is another season and I’m asked back, I’ll probably tell them to get another writer (Linda Yablonsky? Rhonda Lieberman? Emma Allen? Walter Robinson?) instead. Then I’ll brood for a few weeks, call them back, play hard to get, try to weasel two new suits out of Bravo, then beg for more than three figures per week. Then I’ll call them back again and just say no.

Now it is done. As I am a confessed inner hysteric, allow me a final act of exaggeration, as I end this strange, strange voyage into art criticism on television with the epilogue of Moby-Dick: “The drama's done ... one did survive the wreck . . . I was he whom the Fates ordained . . . I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks . . . glided by . . . I was picked up at last . . . another orphan . . . I alone am escaped to tell thee.”


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