My first encounter with Jerry Saltz was about five and a half years ago, when he came to speak at the Maryland Institute College of Art while I was a student there in the Hoffberger School of Painting. November 6th, 2005, I think. He talked about the length of artists' careers, about how the sort of art-stardom phenomenon encouraged hot young artists to have 30-month careers, selling out their first solo show, being barely remembered by the time of their second, and not getting a third. He spoke of how a few artists have 30-year careers, building them slowly over time, not eager for instant success but working for a longer-term success. And then he said something sort of challenging the notion of success, encouraging us to "fail flamboyantly." Or maybe I'm cribbing that phrase from the next time I heard Saltz speak, at the College Art Association conference in New York, in February 2007. Hell, maybe he used it both times; it was sort of his favorite phrase for a while, appearing also in his admonishment to the New Museum to take some risks with their programming. (Jerry returned to MICA in 2008, where he spoke more on the topics of careers and success. This visit was the subject of an article on bmoreart.blogspot.com, from which the above photo was taken.)
Anyway, what I really remember from Saltz's lecture at MICA was from
near the beginning, when he was introducing himself, and he asked the
audience if we read him. The audience, myself included, responded with a
sort of awkward silence and murmuring, making it pretty clear that we
had heard his name but didn't really read his work. "Read me!" he
admonished us, and mentioned that in addition to writing for the Village
Voice, his work was also published online, on Artnet.com, which we
could all read for free.
For the most part, Saltz's lecture was, well, about what can be
expected, when a famous critic addresses a bunch of doe-eyed art
students, mostly undergrads but a few grad students like myself at the time, the
naïve and ambitious, making that slow march from delusionally confident
to bitterly disillusioned. Saltz told us what anybody has to tell a
group like that: you tell them not to chase the spotlight, not to worry
too much about conventional definitions of success, not to be too eager
to for instant gratification, to keep making work and to take pleasure
in the process itself, that whole rigmarole. Of course Saltz said it
much better than that, but the virtues of failing flamboyantly sounded
like cold comfort to those of us with student loan debt in the mid five
figures, and as for his hope that we'd all have thirty-year careers?
Sure, sign me up for one of those, Jerry.
Anyway, the one thing I did take away from Saltz's lecture was his
admonition to read him. OK, I thought, fair enough. That's the least I
can do, especially considering that his writing for Artnet.com is
available for free online. So I did. I have been a regular reader of
Saltz's columns ever since. And, despite what may sound like my cynical
response to his presentation at MICA, I like Saltz's writing. It's
smart, but still very readable. And sometimes it's very funny.
Recently, I was reading one of Saltz's articles,
and something jumped out at me. The article, "A Tale Of A Nose,"
recounted Saltz's running into New York art dealer Michele Maccarone at
the Venice Biennale and asking her about her broken nose. Maccarone
graciously gave Saltz permission to share her story, which Saltz phrased
"Around 3:30 am one night, tipsy and tired, she was walking back from
who-knows-where. She was far from her apartment and had to pee. So she
squatted down facing forward over the ledge to go in the canal. And she
fell in and broke her nose. As she told me how two Carbonari eventually
came, found her on the ledge, helped her pull up her underpants, and
take her to a hospital, she roared. So did I."
A bit funny and probably a little embarrassing, but hardly an art world
scandal. My family shares a story of an older female relative who,
after drinking her fair share of wine, fell off the side of a friend's
boat while squatting over the side to take a leak. It probably happens
more often than one would think. In fact, the only thing that keeps
this from happening every weekend in most art neighborhoods is the
absence of canals into which one can fall. A paucity of good places to
relieve oneself is virtually part of the definition of an art district.
In Europe, pay toilets are pretty common; in Japan the toilets are free
but you have to buy your toilet paper from an attendant, which results
in little packets of toilet paper being a common promotional giveaway on
the streets of Tokyo. Chicago's gallery districts may seem dauntingly
potty-free to the uninitiated, but with experience one learns the ins
and outs of where to go. Last year I wrote a handy guide to some good
bathrooms in River North and the West Loop.
In some areas, though, like New York's Chelsea, and apparently Venice,
it's like a scene from Urinetown. Before his death in 2009, I
had a studio visit with Carl Plansky, painter and founder of
Williamsburg Artist Materials, now owned by Golden. He came to MICA,
gave me a great critique, and talked about his work and his experience
with the New York art world. He talked about networking and being
friends with gallerists and so on, and he summarized the results as
being approximately: "Well, they won't show my work, but I've always got
a place to pee on 19th Street." (Plansky was talking about a time in
the past, of course; he has gone on to have many exhibitions, one of
which I had the pleasure of seeing while in New York in 2006.)
But pee stories aside, I noticed something funny in Saltz's article,
that I thought would be a great chance to share some amusing and totally
off-topic trivia. Notice his sentence, "As she told me how two
Carbonari eventually came, found her on the ledge, helped her pull up
her underpants, and take her to a hospital, she roared." Something
looked odd about it to me. "Carbonari?" I thought. "Isn't that a pasta
dish? Surely Jerry made a little slip and meant to say 'carabinieri.'
An easy mistake, which anyone could make, especially with the
auto-correction software most word processing programs have these
days." As it turns out, the answer would not be so simple.