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Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz on Smug Galleristas and Sunday Hours

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

Dear Jerry,

A friend told me you visited Rudolf Stingel’s show at Gagosian Gallery five times. I went once, and that was enough for me. I like Stingel’s big installations. But come on! This show just looks like product for sale, phoned-in. What are you looking at all of these times, Jerry? Maybe you’re seeing things I’m not. Maybe you’re seeing things that aren’t there.

– Baffled

Dear Baffled,

You’ve really freaked me out. How does anyone know how many times I’ve seen a show? But it’s true – I’ve gone to Stingel’s exhibition a lot. I’ve been a fan since his dazzling 1991 New York debut, an eye-boggling wall-to-wall electric-orange rug in an empty gallery that blinded me with color, allowed me think about painting in new ways, and made me realize how far this Italian-born artist was willing to go to produce extreme optical effects. (It was one of the best shows of the nineties.) Over the next two decades, Stingel made his name installing giant perforated blue Styrofoam walls in galleries, and covering walls with silver installation panels and letting people mark them up. I’ve come to admire and trust Stingel as one of the more no-nonsense, challenging, pleasure-producing painting-about-painting artists around.

The first time I saw his current Gagosian show (curated by my friend Francesco Bonami) I was really disappointed. I wanted Stingel to blow the roof off with some gigantic retina-zapping architectural extravaganza that attacked The Man and went hardcore anti-commodity. Instead, he hung several rooms of large paintings. The first time I saw the show, I thought, “Dude’s sold out.” But when artists you really respect make something you think is bad, it often turns out to be better than you think. Also, 55 year-old artists shouldn’t be expected to be eternal radical revolutionaries. I went back to Gagosian, gave the show time – and it took off.

In the first large gallery are three giant grisaille photorealist pictures of Stingel as a young man, one on each wall. It’s like walking into some cathedral of Italian saints or three Warhol Mao paintings. All the pictures are virtually the same; each depicts the same creases and drips. Essentially, what we’re seeing is Stingel’s current self seeing his younger self. Painted in this rote, time-consuming absolutely generic photorealist way, the huge self-portraits lack any self-expression. A doleful feedback loop forms. This face looks directly at you, like some Chuck Close medieval icon, man of sorrows, or sick Bacchus. The painting becomes a sort of death mask for painting, an offering of inwardness, withdrawal, and minimal expression. The paintings recede from you and you’re left in this temple to skepticism, otherness, and the question “Why?” Why would anyone do this? Where does this come from? I thought of Bruce Nauman’s tremendous Mapping the Studio, in which he projected huge video images of his empty workspace at night.

The next gallery is a long hallway with two rows of silver paintings, each made by silk-screening or imprinting with pieces of tablecloth or carpet. Other than references to Warhol’s silk-screens, this gallery is a rapid fire barrage at super-close range of the kind of big flashy trophy art that mega-collectors love. Decorousness turns tyrannical as questions of good and bad way give way to visceral intensity.

Then comes the gigantic third gallery – a Temple of Holy Relics or an Egyptian sepulchre, hung with gargantuan gold paintings. Each painting tells you exactly how it was made. Canvas covered the studio floor and was painted gold; imprints and outlines of floorboards and brick are visible. On top of this, you see the smears and splatters of the gray-scale paint that must have been used to make the portraits in the first room, as well as scuffs and skids where paintings were moved. There are silver patches from the silver paintings, showing evidence of the carpet used to print them. There are rings left by paint cans, places where brushes have been dropped, footprints, and spills. It’s an homage to Pollock’s floor, Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, and Warhol’s Shadows, but most of all Stingel, has created an inverse alchemy. The gold becomes the artist’s desire to paint something clear, beautiful, absolute, and perfect. The stains of paint are imperfections, chance occurrences, mistakes, and discoveries that happen along the way. Life.

Stingel made me work hard to get all this. Maybe too hard. But in the end, I left shaken and stirred.

Dear Jerry,

In a past column you wrote about the “bad dealer behavior” you experience as a recognizable critic. As an ordinary engaged observer, however, I often experience something very different at galleries: smugness. I’ll ask for a piece of information and am dismissed with some uninformative answer. Occasionally, I’m asked if I’m a collector. It’s not a big deal, since I’m there to look at the art, but it does leave a bad taste. Would you please ask those galleries to be a bit more welcoming to those who’ve made the trek to the windy west?

– Plebeian

Dear Plebeian,

I feel your pain. I’m not sure why, but walking into galleries can be intimidating. Being cold-shouldered is a drag. Still, allow me to say a few words on behalf of the unsung people who work at art galleries. Many will be the next generation of art dealers. (As a critic, I try to train them accordingly. But that’s a subject of another column.) The people who work at those front desks are usually paid very little. Many have no insurance or benefits. Like you, they’re poor, in it more for the love or desire than money. They may be on the “inside,” but there’s a spiritual cost to that: Dealers are ultra-demanding control types who expect impeccable work out of them. Moreover, they’re on public view and subject to all manner of abuse. They’re sneered and stared at, and are asked for restaurant recommendations, street directions, bathroom keys, suggestions of what else to see. They are pummeled with demands to know who bought this, how much it costs, what the artist thinks they’re doing, and why the gallery would show such crap. They are bombarded with artists asking them to look at their slides. If the person behind the desk is a woman, she will be flirted with, hit on, sometimes followed out the door. This goes on all day as he or she is trying to do all the things the dealer has tasked them to do. The pressure is intense. Dealers can hold these people responsible for not recognizing a collector who has come in or for misdirecting a tiny piece of seemingly insignificant information. All I can say is that the people behind the desk are more like you than you think. They may be short with you, but they’re not dissing you. They’re probably as concerned about how they’re perceived as you are.

Dear Jerry,

As an art dealer, I’m curious how you feel about Lower East Side galleries staying open on Sundays. In terms of establishing a community, I find it odd that only a few galleries in the neighborhood don’t keep Sunday hours. Are those real Lower East Side galleries, or are they just galleries in the Lower East Side?

– Diane Pruess

Dear Diane,

I couldn’t have put it better. My wife says “Galleries on the Lower East Side are in a different time zone than in Chelsea,” and all but three of them are open on Sundays. Those three are Sperone Westwater, Salon 94, and Lehmann Maupin. I know it’s a drag to work on Sundays, and that the last two keep to the same Tuesday-through-Saturday schedule as their other New York locations. Tough luck. All three of you moved here from other neighborhoods. You wanted to be here. We love you. But if you want to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.

I visit Lower East Side galleries (and those in other boroughs) mainly on Sundays because that’s when Chelsea is closed. I hate to miss your shows. I admire your galleries, a lot. This will be my loss, and it’s not a threat. But from now on, I’m only coming on Sundays. That’s the way it has to be.

Since we’re on the subject of Sperone, I should add this. I’m sorry to say it, but the main space of the spiffy new building has proportions that are ultra-unfriendly to art. It looks to me like a cruise ship or clothing store. Somehow, some way, I hope the folks at Sperone can remedy this. Either way, I’ll see you on Sunday.

– Jerry

Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz on Smug Galleristas and Sunday Hours