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Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz on MoMA’s Women, Auction Madness, and George W. Bush’s Official Portrait

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

Note: “Ask an Art Critic” will take a Thanksgiving break next week. It’ll be back the week after that, on December 2. Keep those questions coming, campers.

Dear Jerry,

Last week you wrote about MoMA’s Abstract Expressionist exhibition and mentioned the “sad lack of women.” In years past you’ve written a lot about there not being many women on view in MoMA’s permanent collection of painting and sculpture. What’s the situation these days?

—L. Darnor

Dear L. Darnor,

In the past year, MoMA has made enormous strides toward gender equality. The photography department did an all-female installation. There was a marvelous exhibition of Lee Bontecou, as well as shows devoted to Marina Abramovic, the women of Fluxus, and the films of Maya Deren. “Mind and Matter” was devoted to eccentric forms and materials in the work of women, the current Paula Hayes lobby project went on view, and so did the recently opened “On Line” drawings show, which is half female and better for it. The museum even published a large 500-page book, Modern Women; Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art. This year, it outdid every other major institution I can think of. You go, MoMA.

That said, the galleries devoted to the permanent collection of Painting and Sculpture on the fourth and fifth floors still haven’t come close to parity. Six years ago this week (on November 20, 2004), MoMA reopened in its sleek new building. As I’ve said before, it was immediately clear that the galleries for the permanent collection were too small, and the result has been a built-in imbalance. That first week, of the 415 works on view, less than 5 percent were by women. By 2007, the number had actually dropped to around 4 percent. This year, it’s crept back up … to a rip-roaring 6 percent.

Chief curator Ann Temkin has struggled mightily against the space constraints. She has regularly rotated work into and out of these rooms, creating revelatory installations. The current Constructivism gallery is extraordinary; ditto the German Expressionism one. Temkin has a great feel for the ways objects shed light on one another, but there’s only so much she can do here. MoMA says all of its spaces are one, and that it doesn’t privilege these two floors — but let’s face it, they are the place where the story of Modernism is being told to every new generation, and to the world. We deserve better.

Dear Jerry,

Last week, all I read about was record-breaking art prices, and auctions, auctions, auctions. Is the art market in as good shape as all the newspapers and bloggers say? I’m a mid-career artist, and it hasn’t seemed to affect me.


Dear StillWaiting,

I don’t know much about auctions. I sometimes go to previews and see art sardined into ugly rooms. I’ve gawked at the gaudy prices, and gaped at well-clad crowds of happy white people conspicuously spending hundreds of millions of dollars. As I read those same reports you do, I often feel sick to my stomach and want to hit something very hard.

Believe me, I have no problem with money and art sleeping together. None of this is a moral issue to me. However, it does seem like an aesthetic one. When people in attendance applaud after high prices are reached, it’s gross. The crowd clapped for a Roy Lichtenstein that went for $42.6 million. I saw it, and it was nice, clean, bright, compact, and tight, but certainly not one of his best. Auction records were set for living artists like Mark Tansey, Urs Fischer, Cindy Sherman, Julie Mehretu, Cady Noland, and Mark Grotjahn. Nice for them.

After its auction Christie’s went so far as to say it “made history.” I have no counter-model to offer, and I don’t want be a grouch. But it seems like auctions are basically the same 40 artists being bought by the same 60 people for 150 clients. This time, same as ever, it was François Pinault, Larry Gagosian, the Mugrabi family, Aby Rosen, Peter Brant, Maria Baibakova, Adam Lindemann, Thaddaeus Ropac, Philippe Segalot, Neal Meltzer, and teams from White Cube gallery and David Zwirner gallery. These people buy what other people buy because other people buy it; no discourse is generated except about auctions. As curator Laura Hoptman has written, they “have as much relationship to the art-making process and to inspiration as the real-estate market does.” It’s just a handicapping game, a tautological, self-confirming, semi-closed structure. If those folks stopped buying, would anything bad happen in the larger world?

Yes, auctions generate attention for art. They’re like publicity stunts. The public perks up when it hears about high prices, and it’s always nice when, a few times a year, a new artist starts making lots more money. So that’s all good, I guess. Yet last week a quote jumped out at me. The art adviser (and my good friend) Stefano Basilico told Lindsay Pollock, “The patient has made a full recovery.” This seems exactly wrong. The patient hasn’t recovered. It’s merely returning to the same borderline insane behavior that brought it to its knees and almost killed it.

I’ll leave this subject with a thoughtful observation offered by my friend Todd Levin, a curator and art adviser. “The most important condition of the auction market is the external need of the investor to find a good place to store excess capital. The aesthetic meaning of art collapses under the brute weight of price. At auction, art and money exchange roles: Money becomes ‘divine’ by being translated into art, and art becomes commonplace by being translated into money.”

Dear Jerry,

I read that the National Gallery of Art unveiled its official portrait of George W. Bush this week. Political considerations aside, what do you think of it as art?

Misunderestimated Artist

Dear Misunderestimated,

I’ve always said that an art critic can put aside politics around art. As a Jew I was raised to not like Wagner; I love his music. That said, I never voted for George W. Bush. I’d like to think that doesn’t color my reactions to the painting.

The Bush portrait, by Robert Anderson.Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

That said, it’s a failure. Robert Anderson’s portrait is 100 percent generic, unoriginal, slick, banal, mechanical. It evinces no internal knowledge, intuition, desire, consciousness of time or place, conflict, or honesty. It has the physical presence of cardboard, or a slightly fuzzy, highly contrived ad for something. It is more a replica of a painting than anything else.

In this way the painting is an uncannily apt reflection of its subject. The deep content is happy, hollow, spacey, uninterested, displaying laid-back contentment and superciliousness. Bush looks out at us undisturbed and pleased.

He sits too far forward on an overlarge green couch. His pose is the dreaded wide-stance posture familiar to New York subway riders. His legs are spread extra-wide as if to signal giant reproductive organs. The pose is a studied paean to masculinity, virility, and privilege. Bush, raised primarily in Connecticut, wears a classic Western shirt open at the collar, signifying ease and American authenticity. The ranchlike room is dark and filled with big wooden furniture.

A few props stand out — notably the white lilies behind him. An avowed Christian, Bush is backed up by this well-known Christian symbol of the Immaculate Conception. In many ways his first election was a kind of Immaculate Conception, consummated not by the popular vote but from on high, in a Supreme Court writ. (Bush has talked about being “called” to the presidency.) The large empty chair directly behind him, a very unusual symbol in a portrait, is sandwiched in tightly, making the space around Bush extremely unstable and unreal, and stands in for more powerful fathers. Think of the shadowy Cheney, or Bush’s own domineering absent dad, or his authoritative mother. Lilies also symbolize royalty, and their presence here marks his place in a political dynasty. The artist Jennifer Wayne Reeves has observed that lilies symbolize purity, and here they further signal Bush’s stance against abortion and stem-cell research.

I said above that the painting is a failure, but perhaps it should be. It is what it is in name only, and thus provides a perfect representation of its subject.

Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz on MoMA’s Women, Auction Madness, and George W. Bush’s Official Portrait