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Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz on London Art and Power Lists

In his new column, Jerry Saltz dispenses art advice to all comers. Got a question for Jerry? Send it to

Dear Jerry:

I saw you’re on ArtReview’s “Power 100” list. What’s up with lists like this, anyway? Do they actually have value?

—Laura Mosquera

Dear Laura:

Yup. Wait. No.

I don’t mean lists like this “have value.” I mean yup, I’m No. 75 on the ArtReview Power 100 list, and I love being on this list. I also hate being on it. On the upside, people congratulate me, and I pretend I don’t really know or care, or that it’s really nothing and just a joke. (Of course, as soon as I made the list, I e-mailed my editors to tell them casually, secretly hoping they’d be impressed.) In 2005, before I was on the list, I wrote snotty things about it. Since I made it, in 2006, I’ve fretted about falling off. Last year, I noticed I was one ahead of Jasper fucking Johns. This year I’m ahead of my wife (hello? Honey? Are you picking up?), but my entry reads like an ominous warning: “Saltz’s artworld power is a slippery thing this year, given that he’s spent much of it cultivating mass appeal — both through his appearances as a judge on the Bravo reality contest Work of Art (2010) and in the slow buildup of his Facebook and Twitter tribes.”

Of course, it’s the popular kids’ table in the lunch room. The “Power 100” should really be called the “Publicity 100,” or “A List of Mostly Men Who Make Lots of Money.” Or possibly “We Love Larry Gagosian and Francois Pinault,” since they’ve repeatedly traded the top slots. It’s also heavy on people who go out a lot and get their picture in’s “Scene and Herd.” (This includes me.) I mean, people from auction houses are on the list! All they do, really, is run expensive, high-visibility stores.

ArtReview’s list still defines power as having to do with money instead of according to the power of art or the imagination or wild leaps of it. That’s why you never see artists like Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper, and Peter Saul on these lists. Ditto Pipilotti Rist, Sarah Sze, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Keith Myerson, and Dike Blair — all of whom have shows up right now in London or New York. To me, all have more power than Larry Gagosian and Über-curator and Antonin Artaud look-alike Hans Ulrich Obrist (who are Nos. 1 and 2 this year). Or lots of other artists.

So let’s make our own list. Call it “Jerry Saltz’s Vulture 100.” All of you readers: Send in your suggestions. Ground rules: You can’t name yourself; nominees have to be living, well-known, and included for something done this year. You build it; we’ll publish it.

Dear Jerry:

I saw from your Facebook page that you went to London’s Frieze Art Fair last week. What did you think? Was it better than before? Worse?

—Katherine Williams

Dear Katherine,

Thanks for asking. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because the last time I was at Frieze was October 15, 2008, the day the art world came to a halt before my eyes. Young dealers stood shocked at a sight they’d never seen — the absence of the feeding frenzy that had held sway for the previous half-decade. It was the day the stock market dropped more than 700 points for the second time, a month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and Damien Hirst had auctioned off more than $200 million of his own dreck.

Since it started in 2003, Frieze has been the “It” fair. Now it’s one among many. It’s better than Miami, which is basically about skin, boob jobs, and Bigfoot private collectors showing off their mansions and warehouses full of art; or our New York fairs, which are all busyness. But what I detected, this year, was fear. The new normal was caution. The five-figure sums spent on booths, the one-person shows of lesser-known artists, the backroom after-hours deals that paid for it all — they were gone. Apart from Frame, an excellent section of the fair with smaller booths for newer galleries, about 85 percent of the booths were hung with group shows. A sameness set in, and inspiration ran low.

Why? I think it’s because prices have gotten too high. It’s more difficult than ever for newer galleries to open, get traction, and survive their first five lean years, with prices of emerging artists’ work being as high as $30,000. Mid-career artists sell for well over $100,000. I want artists and dealers to make money, but the experimentation necessary for fairs like Frieze to remain vital disappears when so much is at stake. At the fair, I found myself fantasizing about the idea that everyone from top to bottom, across the board — even Damien, Takashi, Jeff, Maurizio, and Richard — should drop prices by 20 percent or more. It’d be good for everyone, even them.

Dear Jerry:

Did you get to see the big Ai Weiwei installation at London’s Tate Modern? If so, tell us about it.

—William Landau

Dear William,

I did see the Ai Weiwei, and came close to missing the entire point.

A little background: Over the past few years, Ai Weiwei has paid hundreds of skilled artisans in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen (known for its porcelain trade, now faltering) to hand-make 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds out of porcelain. He then had scores of people hand-paint every one of these seeds with three or four gray stripes of the unfired watery clay mixture known as slip. At the Tate, the replica seeds are spread out in a huge field on the floor of the Turbine Hall.

A few hours before it opened, I was in the museum looking at the Gauguin show and saw the installation from a balcony high above, as the artist was finishing the setup. Since I had another appointment, I left, writing it off as another lame installation-art gesture. I hated it.

I had no idea people were going to be allowed to walk around on it. Fortunately, I woke up the next morning feeling guilty about snap-judging such a big work (it’s a critic thing), and when I went back, I was blown away. As I stood on this field of crunchy porcelain bits, I suddenly gleaned an approximation of China itself. A hundred million seeds and the huge physical field and my tiny place in it allowed me to actually sense the billion that is China. In true colonialist fashion, I was part of the millions in the West who were now walking on the billions of the East. It was an extraordinary illustration of infinity, impossibility, life, politics, proximity, and individuality. Crowds happily walked on the seeds; it was like a metaphysical beach, or limbo. Kids ran around, played games, or buried one another. Like many others, and in violation of the rules, I took home a handful of seeds. My wife kept pointing out gray clouds that puffed up wherever people were walking. She also pointed out that our hands and clothes were covered in the dust.

I thought nothing of it.

I should have. It turns out those clouds were the gray slip being ground off the porcelain seeds as they rubbed together underfoot. Two days later authorities shut down the piece. A notice posted on the Tate’s site reads in part: “We have been advised that the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust which could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow members of the public to walk across the sculpture.” Now it can only be seen the way I saw it that first day, from above or outside. I’m saddened that you can’t see it the way I did — but the metaphor is unmistakably powerful all the same. The coming together of these civilizations and numbers produces a toxic cloud.

Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz on London Art and Power Lists