How to be a quitter


Dear Artist,

“Tell your own story and you will be interesting,” wrote Jerry Saltz last week, borrowing from Louise Bourgeois. He used her quote as Number 2 in his 33 Rules for How To Be An Artist, an article he wrote for New York Magazine, the publication for which he’s been the senior art critic and columnist since 2006. Some of Jerry’s other tips: “Prize vulnerability, make an enemy of envy, learn to deal with rejection, and accept that you will likely be poor.” In his Rules, Jerry is full of idealism, artist myth-making and scrappiness. Living on what he calls, “the other side of the critical screen,” Jerry feels he’s in a special spot to help artists be — and stay — artists.


Jerry Saltz, ca.1976
in front of his drawings
photo: Carol Diehl

Jerry Saltz grew up in the Chicago suburbs with a leather-strap wielding father, Polish Catholic stepmother and a couple of up-to-no-good stepbrothers. Art was not a part of the equation, and his biological mother, who had committed suicide when Jerry was ten, was made invisible. After a few turns at petty crime and the subsequent beatings by his father, Jerry enrolled at The School of Art Institute of Chicago and moved into a cold-water, 6-floor walk-up studio in the city. There, he bushwhacked a path to righteous re-invention by way of what he felt was a new language and identity. He made hundreds of pastel and pencil crayon drawings — admitting he was too lazy and insecure to learn how to paint — and worked on what he thought would be a life-long calling: illustrating 100 cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy, complete with wall-based, opening-and-closing alter pieces. Jerry toiled at his masterwork while eating from a hotplate and showering at friends’ places — for a dozen years. He also showed in Chicago and New York and received critical, positive reviews in not-unimportant art rags. Jerry was living the dream.


—altarpiece inspired by the second canto, depicting Beatrice’s meeting with Virgil
photo: New York Magazine

“On the outside, things were great,” he said. “On the inside I was in agony, terrified, afraid of failing, anxious about what to do next and how to do it. I started not working for longer and longer periods. Hiding it. Then not hiding it. Until all I had left was calling myself an artist.” Jerry says he listened to the demons. “I never made it to the inside, I never made it further. I quit making art in the early 80s and felt miserable, became a long-distance truck driver,” he said. “Behold the failed artist.”


artwork by Jerry Saltz



PS: “Every artist does battle, every day, with doubts like these. I lost the battle. It doomed me. But also made me the critic I am today.” (Jerry Saltz)

“You never fail until you stop trying.” (Albert Einstein)

“I miss art terribly.” (Jerry Saltz)

Esoterica: Jerry Saltz, after a couple of sell-out shows, winning a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and using the money to move to New York, was eaten alive by self-doubt and envy. He dropped his art making, never to pick it up again. He started writing about art for The Village Voice and, later, Art in America, Flash Art, Frieze, Modern Painters and New York Magazine. Today, a winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Jerry says he approaches his writing and teaching as a failed artist; suspending cynicism and maintaining the belief that every artist means everything she’s doing, sincerely, even if the end result is not his cup of tea. “I didn’t have the ability and fortitude. That’s why I always look for it in others — root for it in others — even when the work is ugly or idiotic. I want every artist, good and bad, to clear away the demons that stopped me, feel empowered, and be able to make their own work so we can see the ‘real’ them.” Jerry’s other tips for being an artist include: “Work, work, work, Art is a form of knowing yourself, Don’t be embarrassed, Start with a pencil and Be delusional.”


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Being an artist also made me realize that I wasn’t built for the type of loneliness that comes from art. Art is slow, physical, resistant, material-based, and involves an ongoing commitment to doing the same thing differently over and over again in the studio.” (Jerry Saltz)

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