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'Work of Art': Jerry Saltz on the TV Show the Art World Loves to Hate

When the Bravo television series "Work of Art" debuted last year, the art world ridiculed it, complained about it and dismissed it as "piddle." They also obsessively chronicled -- in blogs and on Twitter -- the melodramatic twists and turns of just about every episode.

Wednesday night begins Season Two, when 14 eager, ambitious and largely attractive young artists out-conceptualize each other for a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.

The program will reunite one of reality TV's more eclectic casts: icy art hostess China Chow, who dispatches losers with the phrase, "Your work of art didn't work for us"; mentor and auctioneer Simon de Pury, known for his double-breasted suits and his exuberant Swiss-accented encomiums ("Be bold. Be Brave. Be amazing!"); studiously tousled Lower East Side gallerist Bill Powers; and New York Magazine's senior art critic (and two-time Pulitzer finalist) Jerry Saltz.

Saltz was kind enough to take some time out of his busy press junket schedule to talk with me about what it's like to critique art on TV, what sorts of nudity we can expect in Season 2 and what it's like to party with the New Jersey "Housewives":

WNYC arts critic Carolina A. Miranda: Last year I did an interview with you about the show and you told me that people were saying that it was “terrible for art.” In fact, the artist William Powhida (whose work you have praised in New York Magazine) dismembered the show -- and all of us who watched it -- in a piece called “Dirty Kunst.” How do you respond to that?

Jerry Saltz: Well, I hate the show sometimes, too. I do think that sometimes people need to get a grip, however. This isn’t a billionaire collector flying a millionaire artist to Venice to party down on a private yacht. This isn’t a billion dollars spent at auction for pieces of drivel. I think that the show may be a light thing when heavy things are happening, but I don’t think it’s destructive. I don’t think art is going to be ruined. I would like to tell all those artists like Powhida — whose work I really like — that I think art will survive this reality TV show just fine.

CM: Your wife, Roberta Smith, is an art critic at the New York Times. What does she think of the show?

JS: I would never do this show if she didn’t approve of it 100 percent and love that I’m doing it. She’s never seen the show. Never a minute of the show.

CM: Do you really want me to buy that?

JS: I really want you to buy that. [Laughs.] She’s Quaker so she can’t lie. I’m really telling you the truth. She’s just too busy. You know what meeting a deadline is like. Does that sound so weird?

CM: It sounds convenient. What have you learned about doing criticism on television?

JS: Keep it simple, stupid. Keep it short, stupid. (This is me speaking to myself.) Don’t go try to go into an elaborate explanation — and don’t use jargon. Just be as direct as I can.

CM: What did you think of the art that was made on this go around?

JS: I often spend time on the show thinking, “I wish the art was better.” But I spend a lot of time walking around Chelsea thinking, “I wish the art was better.” I take what’s put in front of me and try to explain it to the audience. Did I see some artists that I think are pretty good? Absolutely. I watched contestant Lola be absolutely lost and have no idea what she was doing. And out of nowhere she made this deconstructed thing that took apart one work of art, reconstructed another and projected a sort of dream world, real estate house in the woods. I thought, “Holy god, not only is it a good work of art, it really met the challenge.”

CM: Where does the intrigue lie this season? Is there any sex or death?

JS: There’s a character named Sucklord, who I thought was a joke being played on us by Bravo until Simon de Pury actually announces that he owns this Sucklord’s work. He was more endearing than I could ever imagine. But the guy gets on my nerves like crazy.

CM: How did you address him? As Suck? Or Mr. Lord?

JS: I tried to avoid using his name. All I was thinking was, “Who the hell is this guy? Get him out of here.” He’s the only one that’s not that good looking and what do I see? The girls seem to flirt with him. What is it with women? They love these kinds of cocky guys.

CM: Women don’t necessarily go for looks. They go for confidence.

JS: Jesus, what is your problem? [Men aren't] going for looks. We’re going for anything. I mean anything.

CM: Male standards are rather low when it comes to these things. Which leads me to another important question about Season 2: How much nudity will it have? Are there going to be naked masturbation paintings like in Season 1?

JS: I would look forward to genital sightings. And there will be blood. But I mean that (maybe) metaphorically. There’s more pain, I think, being doled out to the artists. And there’s a bit of drama.

CM: So, if you could demand absolutely anything from the producers at Bravo for your green room, what would it be?

JS: I want Larry Gagosian in the room, so I can ask, “What are you doing?” I’d want all the curators in there so I could yell at them for being academic. I would like T-shirts that say, “Fear Eats The Soul.”

CM: Do you ever get to party with the other Bravo reality TV stars?

JS: Oh, yes. I have met the "Housewives": Atlanta, New Jersey, New York. I told one of the New Jersey "Housewives" that I was frightened of her. That did not go over well. The Atlanta ones I just loved. They’re all a hundred feet tall. And the New York ones -- I don’t remember them really. There’s a lot of mouths and teeth.

CM: Why should people watch "Work of Art"?

JS: It’s art performed on a live stage.


The second season of "Work of Art" premieres Wednesday night on Bravo at 9 P.M. Saltz will be recapping the show over at New York Magazine's Vulture blog the day after each episode airs.

Listen to Saltz doing his best Simon de Pury impression below:

Or watch a preview of what's in store in this video: