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Work of Art Recap: Jerry Saltz Is Back Recapping His Own Reality Show

China Chow and Jerry Saltz judge Work of Art.

It’s baaaa-aaaack! I’m sorry.

Work of Art, the reality-TV game show — or more accurately, that unscripted sitcom that features me as a judge — has returned for its second year. I’m as shocked as anyone that this strange, strange show lasted past season one. But it did. Blazingly, evidentially. Even more surprising, I know last season’s shows are now being aired around the world, because I’m getting lots of e-mails from South Americans upset that Peregrine got eliminated, and from Germans asking me what the show’s “concept” is. In New York people still stop me on the street and say, “Hey, you’re that reality art judge!”

Feelings are more mixed in my crowd. Whenever the show comes up, Peter Schjeldahl, my good friend and New Yorker art critic, sadly shakes his head at me and says, “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry.” So let me say something to all those who hate this show and to the many who send me angry-e-mails, post nasty comments on my Facebook Page, tweet mean things about me, or write articles about how this TV show is destroying art: I’m not trying to hurt anything. I get mad at things in the art world too: at idiot billionaires flying mindless millionaire artists to bloated biennials to party down on private yachts; at seven-figure prices paid for derivative dreck that supposedly “critiques the system;” at cuckoo collectors like Adam Lindeman opining in the New York Observer that MoMA’s de Kooning show is “dated,” “quaint,” “bland,” and “predictable” and sniffs that he didn’t read the great de Kooning bio because “I’m a student of the postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida…”; at gilded auctions attended by those who get their kicks from being profligate in public; at curators flying from city to city to speak on one other’s panels about “The Role of the Curator”; at tenured academics who can’t turn the page from 1968. I grant that Work of Art is a light thing at a time when heavy things are afoot. But it doesn’t feel destructive, vile, or annoying like these other things do. Okay, maybe it’s annoying sometimes.

I never thought seriously of saying no to this show. It gets me out of the house, and stops me from being alone at my computer all the time. I love the free food on-set. I especially love learning how shows like this get made. And I know we’re not supposed to say this in the art world, but it’s really fun to do. On the selfish side, I’m trying to see if art-criticism can be more elastic and populist. I want to see if criticism can coherently be performed for audiences outside art-land, where we have weird ways of talking that many of us don’t actually understand. I’m trying to see if it’s possible to have what we always say we want: To have more people look at, appreciate, and be exposed to art, wherever it comes from, however it’s seen.

My wife* still hasn’t seen a single episode of the thing. It’s not that she doesn’t approve of it; I’d never do this without her go-ahead. It’s just that we’re both so busy. Last night she flew to L.A. (Maybe she saw it there.) As with last season, I’ve no idea how I’ll be portrayed. I could be a heavy, a clown, whatever. Last season, the regular judge Jeannie Greenberg was an alpha presence in all judges’ discussions. Her TV character came off less smart than she really was. This year she left the series, and I miss her. A lot.

My fellow-judge Bill Powers rightfully calls the show Work of Art: The Next Great Grad School. We often spend 45 minutes reviewing a single piece. These crits are as intricate and intense as any I’ve been in at Yale or Columbia. On TV, however, you see just tiny snippets. If I were creating the show for myself, I’d make each episode three hours of crits, but TV is not grad school. (At least these artists don’t leave the show $75,000 in debt.)

A word about these recaps: I don’t see the shows far in advance. Bravo sends me a DVD of each episode the morning before it airs, so I have a little time to write and post that evening. When I get the final product, I usually want to write long explanations about what I meant to say, how this observation got cut, or that comment was taken out of context. I often feel my skin crawl. The rest of the time, I’m just stunned at how short I appear.

This week, I really liked that the show captured some of the anxiety, ridiculousness, and chaos of making art, as it introduced the fourteen contestants. It may surprise viewers to hear this, but we judges are told nothing about the artists’ backstories or biographies. I learn that stuff only when I see the show — for instance, that Michelle (currently an assistant to the artist Marilyn Minter) was in a terrible hit-and-run accident months ago and has just relearned how to walk. We often hear complaints that certain artists have been cast for their looks, though I find, as an older person, that all of them look young and beautiful. Except the one who calls himself Sucklord. (“What kind of bullshit name is this?” I thought when I met him. He claimed he’s “like Warhol,” and just as I began to wonder whether he’d been put on the set as a Bravo prank, the show’s super-suave artist mentor, Simon du Pury, mentioned that he actually owns Sucklord’s work.) Despite his stupid name, as the first episode developed, I started to feel a strange camaraderie for this fellow-non-looker who gets by on energy and attitude. Whereupon contestant Lola cooed that she “finds him kind of attractive.” Argh. Youth trumps everything. Fuck me.

The show opens with the artists’ meeting one another at what our glamorous host China Chow always calls “the world famous Brooklyn Museum of Art.” (Every time she says that “world famous” I get the heebie-jeebies.) Then I think about how inept I’d be at meeting thirteen other artists, knowing we were all going to be living and working together and competing for $100,000. In this week’s challenge, each artist chooses a work from a bunch of thrift-store paintings and kitschy stuff and is told to keep one part of the work and then transform it into “a piece worthy of being seen in an art gallery.” As I’ve seen so much art in New York galleries that’s far from “worthy of being seen,” I think this is a good challenge to begin with.

Next we’re treated to scenes in the studio of the artists running, working, worrying, cutting, painting, printing, and fretting. I love these scenes, maybe because they mirror my anxieties as I watch the show. I must admit I am appalled that Lola, whose piece I totally loved, cries when her work is simply questioned by Simon. Artists can be such babies!
This year’s bunch seems more savvy than the relative innocents of last season. The artists know the jargon this time around. Sara talks about “art that turns women into objects of consumption,” and I’m back in art school. Bayeté claims that his conventional collage of a black face and a white face is about “deconstruction, identity, and race,” and I’m back in 1994.

I try not to be too hard on the contestants, as I know that they have less than 48 hours to make something not of their choosing. They’re caught saying dumb things (Dusty said he was “amazed at meeting important celebrities” when introduced to the winner of last season’s show, Abdi); they’re going on no sleep, under bizarre circumstances, with cameras constantly following them, even into bathrooms (I always wince when we see the girls putting on their bras in the morning). Yet I still found a lot not to like this week. Bayeté’s collage “about race” displayed no insight into race at all — other than observing that America is still a mess in this department. Ugo’s Keith Haring-lookalike red drawing was flashy wall décor. When Simon asks if he’s heard of Keith Haring, Ugo says “There’s room for ten Harings.” (“Yes,” I think silently. “Ten good Harings.”) Sucklord’s little wizard action figure — or as he snaps at contestant Kimia, “It’s Gandalf! His sword is called Glamdring” — has no presence as art, no scale, touch, or imagination. I wanted him and it gone. Whereas I loved Michelle’s paper sculpture, doubly so after she said “I haven’t been this nervous since being tested for STDs.” She won, and responded, “Super-duper.”

Fate moves in mysterious ways under the glare of 75 lights, fifteen cameras, and people trying to pass gas silently so microphones don’t pick it up. Sucklord admitted that he “didn’t transform the piece into anything, and that maybe it’s just bullshit and I have to learn from it.” This saved him. Ugo went home; he was right when he said that his work was “sincere,” but he didn’t see that he had not yet made these gestures and style his own yet. (As Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry is sincere.”) At home I sigh in recognition and muse about how slap-happy and earnest I’ve become about this show myself.

Oh, one more thing. After we sent Ugo home, all the women in the crew and most of the gay men berated us for eliminating the show’s most gorgeous artist, depriving them of their porn hit and probably dooming us all to the ratings basement. Thus was I robbed of my sincere delusion of believing, for one fleeting hour, that once upon a time when I was young, that I too might have been beautiful. Reality TV sucks. Or maybe it’s just that reality does.

*Ed. note: Jerry’s wife is Roberta Smith, art critic for the New York Times.

Photo: David Giesbrecht/Bravo