Essays

Battle for the Nation: John Yau Questions Jerry Saltz’s America

by Hrag Vartanian on February 5, 2010

Drawings of John Yau (left) and Jerry Saltz by Phong Bui placed on top of Jasper John's "Three Flags" (1958).

In the February issue of the Brooklyn Rail, editor John Yau takes on New York Magazine‘s art critic Jerry Saltz and his characterization of America as “big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted—while also being abrasive, creepily sexualized, fussy, twisted, and, let’s face it, ditzy.” Yau asks, “Is this ‘our America?’ Or is this Jerry Saltz shilling for Jeff Koons?”

In his essay, “The Difference Between Jerry Saltz’s America and Mine,” Yau goes on to call Saltz an apologist for Koons and suggests that all Saltz is doing is indirectly celebrating Koons’ – and his own – narcissism.

Yau also accuses Saltz of badly riffing off classic New York critic and poet Frank O’Hara. Judge for yourself.

Saltz on Koons:

[Koons] is also the emblematic artist of the decade—its thumping, thumping heart.

Koons’s work has always stood apart for its one-at-a-time perfection, epic theatricality, a corrupted, almost sick drive for purification, and an obsession with traditional artistic values. His work embodies our time and our America: It’s big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted—while also being abrasive, creepily sexualized, fussy, twisted, and, let’s face it, ditzy. He doesn’t go in for the savvy art-about-art gestures that occupy so many current artists. And his work retains the essential ingredient that, to my mind, is necessary to all great art: strangeness.

Frank O’Hara on Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” (1952):

Blue Poles is our Raft of the Medusa and our Embarkation for Cythera in one. I say our, because it is the drama of the American conscience, lavish, bountiful, and rigid. It contains everything within itself, begging no quarter: a world of sentiment implied, but denied; a map of sensual freedom, fenced; a careening licentiousness, guarded by eight totems native to its origins (There were Seven in Eight). What is expressed here is not only basic to his work as a whole, but it is final.

The whole article is a great read and my favorite line is:

Imagine that—a work of art—or “demanding pet”—that costs “upwards of $75,000 per year” to maintain. In other words, Puppy exists somewhere on the spectrum between a Hummer and a private jet.

Priceless and beautifully characterized.

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  • http://heartasarena.blogspot.com/ Heart As Arena

    That’s, like, the most badass Chia pet EVER.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Rich people need Chia pets too!

  • http://artblahg.blogspot.com/ Harry and Harrietta Falloff

    We thinkith that Mr. Woau and Saltz are drafting off our stinky stream-o-consciousness ranting adjective riddled art speak fumes that goes on forever because we refuse to use punctuation that the nuns taught us about because we never liked them so we didn’t listen and we hate copy editors because they crap our style.

    We admit that wee got the idea from the dying writer of the player piano novella not these Mr. Boring Bozos and we like poetry too. We often also ask “Is this still L’America?” And we use the “shill” word a LOT. But of course these 2 Misters can own whatever they want because they make the big bucks, har!!!!!!!!!

    We like the big pussy with flowers on lawn by Mr. Coons, we think it’s the best thang ever did and will go down in the historical books like dat!!!!!!!!!!! Lovvvvvvvvveeeeeeeeeeee ya!!!!! H+H

    • artlab

      Ditto

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zachary-Adam-Cohen/761572845 Zachary Adam Cohen

    I’d like to see Yau flush out just what his vision of America is. Is it really that dark and pessimistic? Jerry’s article comes off as purposefully hyperbolic, ironic even. But Yau doesn’t give us much of his own vision except as it exists in opposition to Jerry’s. Maybe he doesn’t need to?

    Not knowing Mr. Yau, I’d like to see what his America looks like.

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  • david – Long Island City

    Its simply this : Mr Yau called him on it.
    Like Jon Steward did with a recent Kieth Olbermann.

    its ridiculous to put Koons, in the same food group as ” emblematic” and “our american”.
    We know the problem is not with Koons, (He,s the donald trump New york art , a designer designing products). its jerry , what happened !
    if the text is wrapped with shinny irony , its still dick-sucking.
    I like Jerry . We all thought we,d know better. But he,s human and this
    illustrates the distance between “the ground” and “the club”

    American likes best, the authentic.

    David
    Artist
    Long Island City

  • http://currentartpics.blogspot.com CAP

    Jerry just can’t stand to be criticized. That’s fatal for a critic. You want to dish it up – you’ve got to expect to be on the receiving end at some point. Not that Yau was being especially savage. Brooklyn Rail is never savage.

    Jerry’s response to Yau completely misses the point. Yau criticizes Koons’ reputation as a whole, and not a single work, like Puppy. As Yau notes – after copious citation of previous published assessments – he felt he didn’t have to see Puppy (by the time we get to the 21st century). What’s to see? Landscape gardening goes high tech? The main thrust is that Koons does not deserve Jerry’s exalted praise, that he’s endorsing something like an academic or corporate pompier.

    The second point is that, like O’Hara – and Greenberg for that matter – the justification for Jerry’s praise is that Koons reflects American virtues, in a certain era. In as much as Koons reflects Amerika, it’s far-fetched to see key features to his work and method as virtues. Greed, laziness, inflation, infantile narcissism, conspicuous delegation and extravagant commission – are these really what America stands for now? A nation of managers with nothing left to manage? But Jerry, like his predecessors, flails around for a good old catch-all like America, simply because he is unable to otherwise sustain the praise. He doesn’t have the art history to place Koons in context there (and if he did, he would surely concede that Koons’ place is firmly in the 90s, not the naughties) he cannot bear to think of art as international or as anymore than nationalist gambits. So the final appeal is to Amerika.

    Jerry, ‘tis of thee.

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