Jerry Saltz Reviews Jerry Saltz: A Critic Looks at His Own Early Artwork, 35 Years Later
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Jerry Saltz Reviews Jerry Saltz

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Photo: New York Magazine

In this drawing for the closed outside panels of an altarpiece for the first canto, Dante becomes lost "in a Dark Wood" and the spirit of Virgil appears before him, explaining that the only way out of this dilemma is for the poets to pass through the three great kingdoms of the afterlife: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

This drawing is a map of those worlds: Earth with Hell as an inverted blood-red triangle that the poets will descend, seeing ever-greater degrees of sin with Satan at the center. The blue triangle directly opposite Inferno on the other side of the Earth is the Mountain of Purgatory. There are nine glowing yellow spheres at the bottom of the image to indicate the nine spheres of Dante's Paradise.

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Photo: New York Magazine

This is another drawing for the outside of a Canto I altarpiece. Above, in a gold-dotted rectangle, is the Dark Wood where Dante finds himself "lost from the true path." The flickering silver shape in the gold ground is the soul of all people who become lost. Above are the names of others who have become lost: Gulliver, Amelia Earhart, etc. Below an inscription from Canto I describing the appearance to Dante of Virgil: "A presence gathered before me on the discolored air."

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Photo: New York Magazine

A drawing for the inside panels of an open altarpiece. In the center panel, the inverted blue triangle of Hell; above it is the Mount of Joy that Dante tries unsuccessfully to climb. On the left is the Mountain of Purgatory with Virgil in blue and Dante in red hovering over it. Above them, a yellow flicker is the spirit of Beatrice who appoints Virgil to save Dante. On the right are the nine spheres of Paradise.

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Photo: New York Magazine

Another drawing for the inside panels of a Canto I altarpiece. This is the second drawing I made for the project; as you can see, it is very muddy and rough. In the bottom of the center panel is the Dark Wood of Error where Dante becomes lost; above it, three beasts who block Dante's way up the Mount of Joy. On the left, an inverted black triangle is the cone of the Inferno; above that in blue is the spirit of Virgil; above that in dark red is the spirit of Dante. On the right is the Mountain of Purgatory, and, above, the nine spheres of heaven.

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Photo: New York Magazine

This is a handmade pigmented paper study for Hell and the Mount of Joy. Hell is located exactly underneath where Christ was crucified. The Mountain of Purgatory is directly opposite on the other side of the Earth.

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Photo: New York Magazine

A sketch for the outside of an altarpiece for Canto II. In this Canto Dante becomes afraid of going through Hell and asks Virgil how it was that he came to save him from this Dark Wood. This is a sketch for Virgil hovering in a blue halo and speaking to Dante, who is red.

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Photo: New York Magazine

A drawing for the inside of an altarpiece depicting Canto II. In the center panel is the heavenly spirit of Beatrice, Dante's protector, coming to Virgil in Hell (Virgil is in Hell with the Virtuous Pagans; those without sin who were born before Christ). Beatrice commands Virgil to rescue Dante from the Dark Wood and take him through Hell and Purgatory, after which Dante will then be guided through Paradise by Beatrice, as Virgil may not pass into Heaven. Beatrice is in a yellow halo; Virgil is seen in the blackness of Limbo. On the left is Virgil then appearing to Dante; on the right are three more heavenly spirits who warned Beatrice of Dante's imminent fall from grace.

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Photo: New York Magazine

A drawing for the inside of another altarpiece for Canto II. Here, Beatrice again appears to Virgil in Hell; on the left, below, are the three spirits who warned Beatrice of Dante's imminent fall and above, Virgil appearing before Dante. On the right is a crude rendering of a horse to indicate Dante's becoming afraid — the way that horses sometimes do of their own shadow. Above that is a rendition of the spirit of Dante.

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Photo: New York Magazine

A drawing for the outside of an altarpiece depicting Canto III. These are the gates of hell. The famous inscription appears above the portal, the one that begins, in first person, "I Am the Way Into the City of Woe, I Am the Way to a Forsaken People." There are no doors on the Gates of Hell because anyone who ventures too close can easily enter. Around the gate are ten diagrammatic spinning spheres, one for each of the levels of hell. I imagined these gates would be built outside cities and that these balls would spin.

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Photo: New York Magazine

A drawing for the inside of an altarpiece. In the central panel, when you opened the gates you would see the first thing Dante saw inside — the souls of the Opportunists whirling in the murky air, forever pursued by wasps and hornets who sting them; their tears and pus drip to the ground that is covered in loathsome worms and maggots. These are those who were neither for good nor evil but only for themselves; neither in or out of hell. Dante says, "They have no hope of death" and that they "envy every other fate."

On the left, below, are the hundreds of thousands of the souls of the damned crowding to the shores of the Acheron, the first of the three great rivers of sin in Hell, to be ferried by the monstrous beast Charon to their proper place in Hell. Dante says, "They long for what they fear." Above that is Dante. On the right, below, is a diagrammatic of arrows flying in different directions to represent The Opportunists; above that is Virgil.

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Photo: New York Magazine

Another drawing for the inside of an altarpiece for Canto III. The central panel is a diagrammatic representation of the Opportunists of arrows turning this way and that; also etched into the surface is the haunting echo of the Gates of Hell that Dante and Virgil have just passed through.

On the left, above, is another look at the Opportunists blowing in the winds in the dirty air; below that is Dante. On the right, the souls of the damned crowd to the shores of the Acheron, waiting to be ferried into Hell proper by Charon. Virgil is below.

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Photo: New York Magazine

A large diagrammatic drawing of the Opportunists being blown in all different directions in the tempest of hell.

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Photo: New York Magazine

A diagrammatic map of the Inferno divided into four spheres. At the very top and bottom are yellow facing triangles. The top represents the Gates of Hell; the bottom is Satan. The various sins are divided and compartmentalized: the Heretics, the Violent, the Fraudulent, etc. The three rivers of Hell are shaded in blue. These maps were devices to picture an entire cosmology.

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Photo: New York Magazine

Believe it or not, I have no memory of drawing this diagram, and looking at it closely only makes me understand that it depicts planets, elements, forces of the universe, a numerical base-ten system of some kind. I devised a way of drawing that involved coating one side of a sheet of paper in jet-black thick charcoal or pastel, placing that facedown on a clean sheet of paper, and then drawing by pressing hard so that the marks would imprint — as if from a non-hand — on the sheet below. (I would love for someone to help decipher this one.)

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Photo: New York Magazine

Another map, not meant as part of an altarpiece. This is looking down at the funneling cone of the Inferno. Depicted are the ten divisions of hell with Satan at the center gnawing on three sinners, Brutus, Cassius, and Judas. The various punishments are sketched in under the murky color. In addition to my altarpieces, I had intended to do huge versions of these drawings.

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Photo: New York Magazine

A drawing for the outside panels of an altarpiece for Canto IV. These are the gates of the citadel of Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, the Virtuous Pagans. Here Dante meets Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Hector, Aeneas, and many others whose only punishment is to live without hope. The gold, silver, and bronze spheres represent the souls of those who Dante meets there. This is the saddest of these works to me, for it was my last. When I finished this drawing I stopped making art.

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