Jerry Saltz

Jerry thinks this week's decision may have been the hardest yet.

on Dec 16, 2011

For anyone who’s never been a judge on an American reality-TV game show about art — which is about everyone who ever lived in the history of the world except maybe a dozen dodos like me — the penultimate episode presents the hardest decision of the season. By far. You’ve pretty much weeded through contestants who, while good, probably never had a shot. And this is a double elimination. Plus, it becomes harder if, like me, you don’t separate yourself well from situations and get overinvested, which leads to an inability to appreciate the irony, wrongness, absurdity of your impressions; in short, if you’re an inner drama queen and hysteric. This week that part of my psyche got caught in the built-in schism between art on a reality-TV show and art in reality, and I fell into my own burning ring of fire. Which is fine. What isn’t fine is that this impinged on an undeserving artist in my opinion.

More on my weaknesses later. I really like this week’s challenge, a lot. On a rainy day, the artists arrive by train in Cold Spring, New York, about 60 miles north of the city. China tells them they have two hours to find someone in town and “make a portrait of them.” I love watching the artists trying to meet people, size them up, ask to do their portraits. I watch doors slammed on artist’s faces, irked explanations, brush-offs. Eventually, however, they all hit pay dirt. Sara’s I-love-a-man-in-uniform fetish kicks in (straight women, please explain). She walks in front of the fire station and starts talking to the firemen (I notice my wife does this, too). Soon she’s arranged to do a portrait of Jackie, a 58-year veteran of the fire department. Over the weeks, I’ve come to respect Sara’s work. It helps that she does the best Simon impression of any artist so far. Her portrait starts as an enlarged picture of Jackie. Then she makes it better by connecting painting and sculpture, hammering the portrait in metal with little holes. It’s cool. Then she makes it hokey and ugly by adding 58 aluminum rectangles that tumble out of one side of the image. In my mind, Sara has just become the first of my two losers.