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Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz on Bad Art and Good Marathon Viewing

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

Dear Jerry,

I saw that you wrote about Christian Marclay’s The Clock a lot while it was up at Paula Cooper’s 21st Street gallery. Did any other nearby shows catch your attention?

—Lee Johnson

Dear Lee,

In fact, there was a tremendous, galvanizing object lesson of art only a few feet east of The Clock, at Larry Gagosian’s gallery. There, in Gagosian’s gorgeous pharaonic palace, is installed the stunningly shallow, ridiculously overproduced, empty-headedly decadent exhibition of the market darling Francesco Vezzoli. The gallery has been reconstructed to look like a church or chapel. Everything is painted gray; the lights are dim. A kitschy, hackneyed statue of a Madonna stands at one end. Really, the gallery resembles a Vegas marriage chapel or a high-school theater set. In large plywood nooks, the artist has installed pictures of supermodels as saints holding children. The figures all cry sewn-on tears in the shape of modern masters like Rothko and Lichtenstein. The images are framed in gold-colored frames, melted at their bottoms, Dali-style. It’s nitwitted inanity, a bird-brained and shoddy vacuity, and yet there are collectors stupid enough to buy this work (priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, I’m told).

What’s thrilling and encouraging about this silliness is that it can be in such a big gallery and still have absolutely no effect on anyone anywhere. Apart from the idiots who buy it, the Vezzoli show will sink without a trace, confirming that high prices and hype don’t affect anything, and that these sorts of measures of quality have less and less impact outside a tiny insular group. The rest of us were down the block at Paula Cooper—or almost any gallery in town—having a better experience.

Dear Jerry,

The first line in your recent review of “Paul Cézanne; Card Players” was “It is not possible to overstate the influence of Paul Cézanne on twentieth-century art.” Isn’t that a bit, ah, overstated? There are, ahem, a lot of artists who influenced twentieth century art. Don’t you agree?

—Edouard Manet

Dear M. Manet,

I love your work. You totally changed the way artists approach art. No one since Goya used black the way you do. You’re a god. I see where you’re coming from on Cézanne, but we both know that you called his work “foul” and refused to show with him in 1874. When you said, “I will never commit myself with Monsieur Cézanne,” it crushed him. (From a PR standpoint, you were right not to show with him that year — he was attacked more than anyone else in the show, dismissed as a “madman.”) Your best buddy and his childhood pal, Zola, publicly turned on him, writing that he “never matured” as an artist. Of course, Cézanne got off some good lines too. After Gauguin visited his studio he said, “I had a little way of painting … but it was mine. One day this guy Gauguin, he took it from me.” He also called academicians “castrated bastards and assholes.” Who doesn’t appreciate a good art smackdown?

Look, I know Cézanne was hard to take. He was this ruddy alien provincial from Aix who spoke with such a pronounced accent it was almost impossible to understand him. Everyone thought he was an animal. I should tell you that he wouldn’t shake your hand in the bar that night because he so respected your work that as someone from Aix he felt he wasn’t worthy to touch you. But Manet; you’re so touchy! In my review I said that that Cézanne’s influence on twentieth-century art can’t be overstated. I didn’t say there aren’t other equally influential artists. Ahem, like you. You big baby.

I’ll finish with five loving zingers about Cézanne by that fellow-flamethrower D. H. Lawrence.

• “Cézanne is the artist who shoved the stone from the door of the tomb.”
• “Walls twitch and slide; chairs bend or rear up; clothes curl. Lemons shrivel, go mildewed. You see the gradual flux of change.”
• “Cézanne created a new chaos.”
• “Cézanne’s apples hurt. They made people shout with pain.”
• “Cézanne’s apple is a great deal more than ‘Plato’s Idea.”

Dear Jerry,

You wrote that you watched nineteen hours of Christian Marclay’s The Clock last month. That got me thinking about how much time we look at art. What is the longest you ever spent with a work of art?

—Rody Douzoglou

Dear Rody,

We’ve been seeing a lot of marathon artworks lately. People spent whole days sitting face-to-face with Marina Abramovic in MoMA’s atrium. I spent ten hours in the Tino Sehgal Guggenheim show. I slept overnight in Carsten Holler’s sculpture at the Guggenheim. Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film, Empire, is on view at MoMA right now, and people are staying for the whole thing.

Here are guesstimates as to the five longest times I’ve spent looking at a work of art in a single sitting, or in long consecutive sessions. I’m not tallying cumulative time, because I couldn’t possibly. I’m not including video, otherwise I’d have to admit to spending 56 hours watching Matthew Barney’s Cremaster IV 75 times. No buildings, either, or else I’d go on about days spent in the Pantheon or the Hagia Sophia.

1. Giotto, The Scrovegni Chapel: 36 hours. When I was in my early thirties, I spent three-straight twelve-hour days in this walk-in ecstasy machine — not eating, not moving, just looking. In that tremendous fresco cycle, I saw the birth of Western Painting, and the death of any doubt I had that maybe art wasn’t enough.

2. Caravaggio, Bosch, and others: 12 hours. On my first trips to Europe as a young adult, I often spent entire days in front of a single work of art. Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of St. Anthony in Lisbon; Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross in the Prado; Piero della Francesco’s chapel in Arezzo; Correggio’s swirling ceiling Assumption of the Virgin in Parma. I could go on. These were the best days of my life. My favorite: the shock-and-awe in Caravaggio’s three paintings of Saint Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome. Here I saw the invention of modern drama and experienced the electrifying jolt of seeing a single second come to life.

3. Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas: 11 hours. Two years ago, feeling my age, I grew scared I might not ever see it again. I’d spent five straight days of eleven hours each in the Prado (maybe the best vacation to and from myself I’ve ever had). On the last day, I sat in front of this one painting from opening until closing. I think I entered some sort of mushroom-based universe of timelessness. (I have looked at the work of Velazquez, Goya, and Cézanne more than I have any other artists.)

4. Matthias Grunewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece: 9 hours. To me this is the greatest painting in France. Housed in a church turned museum in Alsace, this extraordinary pictorial healing machine has drawn me back several times. The first time, however, a miracle happened. I went in at 9 a.m. At noon, the museum closed for two and a half hours, and everyone left. Except me. It was pre-9/11. Maybe the museum was used to obsessed viewers. I decided to jam my fourth chakra and alter the flow of my kundalini in order to become invisible, and for some reason I’ll never know, the staff agreeably locked me inside the museum with one guard. I had the painting completely to myself for two hours. It changed my life.

5. The Basilica of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy: 8 hours. My wife and I walked into this amazing early Christian-Byzantine church. We were smitten for eight straight hours by the dazzling sight of walls, vaults, columns, and stones covered in fifth-century mosaics. A full day came and went, completely without our realizing it, as we were transported to other astral planes.

Honorable mention: The shortest viewing that changed my life happened three summers ago. My wife and I visited the Niaux caves in southern France. We and a group of fifteen paying tourists were led 30 minutes’ walk into the cave. It was cold and dark, our paths lit with only flashlights. Finally, the guide stopped and asked for our lights. She then shined her own flashlight on a wall of prehistoric paintings of bison and antelope. The psychic-visual magnitude was so powerful that I thought I was going to die. I’ve never seen anything this staggering before or since. No one ever painted mammals this spectacularly again. We were allowed only five minutes. They still reverberate within me.

Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz on Bad Art and Good Marathon Viewing