Jerry Saltz

Young-Hoffman Gallery and N.A.M.E. Gallery

Jerry Saltz’s work, a “25-year project” inspired by The Divine Comedy, was begun on January 1, 1975, when he started to locate some 150 personalities living anywhere from 1321 to 1975 and, in a large conceptual piece, charted their potential position in the levels of Dante’s Hell according to their degree of evil. His subsequent explorations of Dante were more subtle. There followed his Ghost Sonatas, blueprint-type rubbings, and then the illustrations and altarpieces which are currently on display. At present, Saltz plans to make 100 illustrations and 33 polyptych altarpieces for Dante’s Prologue and each of the 99 Cantos, the altarpieces based on the most successful of the illustrations.

His recent exhibitions were of altarpieces, Canto One and Canto Two. These are small boxes, 10x10“ when both wings are closed, 10x20” when they are open, made of wood with small metal hinges and pasted over with the Craypas, pastel, graphite, and colored pencil illustrations. The outside design structures indicate the inside design structures, and iconographic imagery also recurs inside and outside with specific, meaningful changes. For example, plain, undecorated gold bars outside the wings in relatively the same position as calligraphically marked gold bars inside the piece are Saltz’s symbol for being on the inside and outside of knowledge.

In various ways, Saltz’s process and his laying out of our visual “journey” explore the Dantean theme of growth as the result of activity, experience, or events. A viewer must make a physical entry into each altarpiece by opening its wings. The designs on his Canto One are built over a grid interlaced with oblique lines, this geometric underpinning giving an angular, up-and-down motion to the brisk, chalky compositions and involving the viewing eye in symbols of a message not all at once, but in a sort of experiential, up-and-down, in-and-out, through-and-over fashion. In Dante’s Canto, after having “gone astray,” the author could not impulsively dash up the Mountain of Truth but had to follow Virgil first down to Purgatory and then up to Beatrice, the “down and up” experience alone able to lead to Ultimate Wisdom. Appropriately, even Saltz’s early Ghost Sonatas reflected experiential development: drawings were impressed one over the other into a sheet of 17x22" paper, the resulting linear imprints were rubbed with black pastel, and the final work was traceable as a growth from simple to complex.

Much of Saltz’s work is curiously didactic. To go through 100 illustrations and 33 altarpieces per Canto is evidently for him a kind of discipline to force the discovery of things he would not have found in a more naturally erratic way of working. (“My work becomes my teacher, and I in turn its instructor,”) He also attempts to inform the viewer. His Canto One includes a diagrammatic buildup of several iconographies: an arrangement signifying the Ptolemaic conception of the earth as the center of creation surrounded by nine heavenly spheres, a five-pointed star signifying Saltz’s belief that all people participate in what Dante had conceived to be a strictly Catholic order, quick short red or blue chalk marks to signify the presence of Dante or Virgil, and irregular small colorful configurations to signify medieval decoration, vital life, and organic growth.

Disappointingly, Saltz’s Canto Two is more straightforwardly illustrative of only one single incident. Little occurs that did not “occur” in another piece, and after the initial entry into the wings, one misses the provocative, complex levels of his Canto One iconography. Still and all, the incident Saltz explores is a rich one: Beatrice appearing to Virgil as Dante hangs back in dim shadow.

As a whole, Jerry Saltz’s project definitely reflects a traditional notion of quality. Indeed, Saltz seems to want to demonstrate that only what you work for is worthwhile and that impulsive movements lack wisdom. Therefore, it was puzzling that the “esthetic journey” from his Canto One to Canto Two was, as I saw it, toward less complexity and less strength. But Saltz is still earnest and is still pursuing Dante’s Third Canto. Perhaps his future work will reflect a more divine ascent toward Beatrice.

C. L. Morrison