Jerry Saltz

"The Good, The Bad, and the Very Bad," Lecture @ PNCA, 1241 NW Johnson, 242-1419, Friday Jan. 16, 7 pm, $8-12

A fter a promising career as a young painter, armed with an NEA grant and reviews in glossy art magazines, Jerry Saltz quit painting and became a long-distance truck driver. He was still trucking in 1988, when he began writing art criticism, and since then he's become one of the country's leading art critics. He has been the regular critic at the Village Voice for five years, and his columns appear regularly on His personal tastes in art are hard to pinpoint, which is a reflection of his philosophy that art critics shouldn't come from fixed ideologies and specific interests and tastes. As he puts it, "Knowing where you're coming from means knowing what you like before you like it and hating what you hate before you hate it. This takes all the life out of art." This Friday night, Saltz comes to Portland to discuss "The Good, the Bad, and the Very Bad: Ten Years in the Life of a New York Art Critic." If he is half as engaging in person as he was on the phone, this should be a great way for Portland's art community to kick off the new year.

Has there ever been a time when visual art, or writing about art, failed to stimulate you?

Um, frankly, no. Every single week, when I begin, I'm often not sure what I'm going to say, but then once I get inside of my own process, I'm sort of shocked and thrilled about how much I have to say. I'm not saying what I have to say is any good, but I know that I'm excited by it. So no--art always gets me going, and writing about it keeps me going.

As a reader, do you find art criticism to be a lively genre?

No. I think that art critics are letting people down. They're not opinionated enough--not comprehensible enough. Too many write with jargon. Most do not give opinions. I can't stand that. I'm only interested in writers' opinions. That would be sports writers, restaurant critics, movie critics, theater critics, book critics, and that would include, hopefully, art critics. The problem in the art world is when you write about something you don't like, people always say, "Well, why are you writing about that? You should only write about the things you like." And my response is always the same: you would never ask that of a movie critic. You would never say you only want a sportswriter to write, "The Trailblazers are good." You have to have what's good and what's bad; otherwise you're only getting half the story.

In a 2002 Columbia University survey of almost 300 American art critics, almost two-thirds of the writers surveyed prefer to write in a positive vein about art.

Well, that's a crock. How do you know beforehand what you want to do two-thirds of the time? You respond on a case by case basis. Not even all Goya is great. So it would follow that in every exhibition, you're going to see things you like, and things you don't really like that much, and you owe it to yourself and more so to your readers to deliver that opinion.

I was also surprised to read that on the whole, art critics are only moderately excited about the current moment in visual art.

Then that's why I'm only moderately excited about the majority of art critics. They should just get out. If you're only moderately excited about something, my advice would be to stop doing it. Stop boring us with your incomprehensible, jargon-filled, tepid, boring reviews, or just your enthusiasms.

You've written that art critics don't have power. What, then, do they have?

Art critics don't have power the way theater critics have power--the way theater critics can conceivably close a show. If I say that a painter is bad, it won't close his or her show. I cannot make careers, and I cannot break careers. What critics do have, basically, is a lot of deadlines.

I have a quote here that I've lost the context for, but I love the quote and I've taped it near my computer. It was advice for artists. It says, "Professionalism is the enemy."

(Laughs.) I wrote that. What I meant by that is these days artists know how to have a show, how to make the invitation, how to have the opening, how to talk to dealers, how to talk to critics. Everything seems extremely "known" at the moment, and I think that is a bad thing for art. The real enemy is probably not professionalism. The real enemy is probably stupidity. CHAS BOWIE