PRINT January 1999

Focus Preview

the critics lineup

SOON IT’LL BE SPRINGTIME WHEN, as everybody knows, the hickory meets the horsehide. But it’s also the time when on the playing fields of Chelsea and SoHo and in a few elegant old white cubes up on Fifty-seventh Street—the hermeneutics meet the horseshit. Yep, it’s the second half of the art season. Last fall, two blockbuster moves changed the critics’ lineup, and the effects are just starting to be felt around the league. Here’s our (somewhat belated) scouting report.

(from The Village Voice to The New Yorker): 56 years old, 6’ 0", 165 lbs., living white male.

THE SITCH: Under new skipper David Remnick, the post-Tina, post-celebrity-suckup New Yorker wants an every-fortnight art critic, so Schjeldahl replaces a platoon of designated hitters: Adam Gopnik (a flaneur who’s only interested in batting in the big MoMA games), Simon Schama (a natural historian who always seems uncomfortable in the critic’s box), and Calvin Tomkins (an avuncular base-on-balls specialist).

THE SCOOP: Nominally bats from the center-left, but actually hits deceptively like a mild righty. Always had power potential, but basically a finesse hitter. Lots of elegant bat waving prior to the swing, but sprays mostly upbeat singles and doubles. Takes the occasional big cut and is certainly capable of driving the ball, but doesn’t tend to go for the fences when facing blue-chip contemporary artists.

STRENGTHS: Often wonderful to behold: smooth swing and a kind of baroque flutter to the ball when he connects (.503 lifetime). In the majors for decades, he’s not flustered by deadlines, insider politics, or expensive press kits. A poet during the off-season, he keeps his word skills sharp.

WEAKNESSES: A tendency to want to be liked in the art world causes him to avoid digging in at the plate. Schjeldahl has, in fact, said in print that he writes positively about 80 percent of the time. (David Salle can get just about any knuckleball by him.) Some say he’s gotten predictable—an occupational hazard for critics past fifty—and his new champion-of-painting stance looks forced. He’s also a bit solipsistic, but this quirk could help him if The New Yorker reverts to its “Letter from the Long-Winded Lady” conceit.

WORD FROM THE LOCKER ROOM (Deborah Solomon, freelance, ex-Wall Street Journal): “His dismissal of the Bonnard show at MoMA was just insane. But he writes like a dream, and nine out of ten times, I’d rather read his review of a show than see the show itself.”

COME CRUNCH TIME: Schjeldahl will boost The New Yorker a slot or two in the standings and give it a constant presence in the first division. He’s not likely, however, to turn it into a tastemaker/breaker. But that’s because, in today’s game, taste is all but extinct.

(from free agent to The Village Voice): 47 years old, 5’ 7", 135 lbs., living white male.

THE SITCH: Saltz replaces Schjeldahl at the Voice. Could be a difficult fit. The Voice—a parochial but powerful presence in the game (“a players’ paper,” many artists say)—already has a passel of art critics who could have easily absorbed Schjeldahl’s at-bats. Management must have thought a lineup of veteran lefty females including Kim Levin needed “balance.” This can’t be a happy dugout.

THE SCOOP: The guy’s indefatigable; will see any show, anywhere, anytime. Holds the record for freelance appearances in a single career, and could surpass Donald Kuspit for most words committed to print in one lifetime. No real holes in his swing save for a mild obsession with being up-to-date. Spouse Roberta Smith is also an art critic (New York Times), so when Saltz ain’t at the ballpark, he’s in the gym.

STRENGTHS : A Steady-Eddie type, Saltz almost never strikes out, frequently walks, and usually manages to get on base somehow. Had a nice streak going with his column featuring a single work of art at Arts magazine before the franchise folded in 1993 (it’s unlikely the Voice would go for anything that patrician). Bottom line: Saltz never hurts a team.

WEAKNESSES: Will a utility infielder really help? Few fans can recall a specific Saltz at-bat. He needs to work on power and going to the opposite field, especially against the new cute ’n’ clever slacker artists.

WORD FROM THE LOCKER ROOM (Steve Mannheimer, Indianapolis Star): “He’s no Dave Hickey, but who is? Actually the relevance of the internecine art wars taking place within a 100-square-block area of Manhattan is something that’s not much on my horizon.”

COME CRUNCH TIME: One view has it that, while Schjeldahl will almost certainly finish out his playing days at The New Yorker, Saltz could only be at the Voice for a cup of coffee. The others say that this is still the ’90s that consolidation and moderation are the orders of the day, and that the middle of the road looks good even at the Voice. We’ll hang with the safety-firsters on this one: Saltz toughs it out for at least five seasons.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.