Jerry Saltz, New York magazine’s art critic since 2006, didn’t start writing reviews until 1990, when he was 40. “Dishearteningly, many critics have ideas but no eye,” he wrote in 2005, when he was a senior art critic at The Village Voice. He approaches criticism more as a fan than as an academic looking for the elements that, theoretically, make up “good” art.
Saltz, who won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism in 2018, has regularly contributed to magazines since the 90s, compiling his pieces into books—including Beyond Boundaries, Seeing Out Loud, and Seeing Out Louder. His latest, How to Be an Artist, out now, collects reviews, interviews, and essays he’s written in the past 20 years. Unlike most of the jaded gallerists, artists, and critics that make up the art world, Saltz paints a positive image of the industry. “I refuse to believe that … spirit has left the art world, even though I recognize that this exquisite internal essence can be buried under loads of external bullshit,” he writes in one essay.
Saltz spends much of his time on airplanes, flying to festivals, fairs, and lectures. Here, he answers our questionnaire about what he packs, eats, and buys while traveling.
What do you wear to the airport?
Comfortable clothes, adult enough to look like I am worth bumping up to business when I have the miles, and always with a long-sleeved shirt because it’s freezing in most airports. I ask others to maybe please not wear sandals and flip-flops.
Check bags, or carry-on only?
Eek! I can travel to Europe now for a week with only one carry-on. My wife can, too. We are workhorses, not show horses. This started in about 1988, the time my luggage got lost in Paris and I walked around that beautiful city and went to dinner for four days wearing shorts and sandals and a fanny pack. It was the last time I ever checked a bag.
What do you bring in your carry-on?
Since I only do carry-on, I pack clothes, no extra shoes, all electronics, meds, a book, and that’s pretty much it. I move through airports like a camouflaged octopus, blending into my surroundings, avoiding encounters, traveling as light as possible, always looking to move with ease and slip away into the day.
T.S.A. PreCheck, or regular?
Now, all T.S.A. [PreCheck] all the time—although, as a geezer, I often am unable to load it into my ticket and have to go through regular security, mumbling to myself about wishing I had tech help.
Because of the anonymity, people-watching, and the large spaces filled with people, I think I may like walking through all airports. I will often walk end to end; it’s like moving through an aquarium to me. My only motto is “Anyplace but J.F.K.” You land there feeling chill. You get off the plane and within 10 minutes you seem to be walking through the airport eating pizza with red sauce on your chin—like everyone else, cursing how messed up everything is. In a way, it is one of the most tremendous experiences in all of American life to go through this one. We New Yorkers go through it too often.
What do you buy in the airport terminal?
I secretly return to the diet of my 20s and 30s—eating big, old pre-made sandwiches or raw bagels and cookies. When I return home my wife always says, “You look different.” I say, “Who, me? No!”
What do you do while waiting to board?
I love people-watching. I often shell out for the business-class lounges, where there’s free food. And where else am I going to eat cereal in public?
First class or coach?
As a 71-year-old man who never travels on his own but only to give lectures, I now always ask for business class and say I will take much less speaker’s fee in return. Or I offer to kick in the difference out of my own pockets. Business class is better than real life!
Window, middle, or aisle seat?
Always, only, window. And since flying is still an absolute miracle to me I always keep the shade open no matter what. You do not want to sit next to me. I am one of those people who will say, “I need to stare out this window the entire flight to feel alive and grateful.” I grumble to myself about the vast numbers of people who now get on planes and slam the shade shut. But they probably grumble about me always having it open.
I have never lowered my back seat ever. So it’s good to sit in back of me, at least.
Do you eat plane food?
I love all plane food because, even though I pay a fortune for the ticket, the food still feels like it’s free, and free food is the best food.
Best drink to get on a flight?
I tend to get Diet Cokes and way too many club-soda cans. I never ask for a cup; it’s too annoying to the flight attendant to have to refill, etc.
I do drink but am amazed at how many people drink very early in the morning in airports and then all day on planes. Maybe it’s fear of flying. That, or there are a lot more high-functioning alcoholics than we imagine.
Do you talk to the people sitting next to you?
I will decloak my octopus self at the beginning of the flight. Then perhaps during food orders. Otherwise, I am rolling in my own happy deep. Being suspended between here and there is one of the most free feelings I get. If someone tries to speak to me too much, I go Larry David on them and say, “I’m not much of a talker on planes. I am going to turn away.”
Keep shoes on or off on the plane?
I want to take my shoes off, but it is so rude to do that, I don’t.
What do you do when turbulence hits?
Now you will know how nuts I am. First, I have no fear at all of flying. I think planes love to fly. I have been in a few incidents of very extreme turbulence. Each time I heard myself think, “I am ready to die quickly.” Without fear.
Worst part of the flight?
All the lateness, obviously. But even then, I am not working on my deadlines; I don’t have to lecture or speak to people, or be myself, the “art critic.” So these limbo fugue states are blessed for me. My hologram goes down, and I become nobody, happily.
First thing you do when the plane lands?
If I ever stand up and grab my bags and stand in the aisle for 22 minutes, please take away my T.S.A. number. I sit in my seat thinking of ways to delay what I have to do next, when I have to reboot my art critic–speaker–author’s hologram.
Advice for travelers?
You must love flight! It is a perfect invention—one of the four miracles of modern life: flying, electric light, photography, and birth control. People pine to live in ancient or olden timelines. None of us would last a day. As an Estonian Jewish immigrant’s son, I would not last an hour.
Jerry Saltz’s Art Is Life: Icons and Iconoclasts, Visionaries and Vigilantes, and Flashes of Hope in the Night is out now from Riverhead