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'Work of Art,' and Ardor

June 3, 2010 By:
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Critic/judge Jerry Saltz makes a point in "Work of Art"

Would Rothko have survived Bravo?

Don't know, but it would have been a bruising brush with greatness -- the artist who couldn't be painted into a corner, and the bravura network that has cornered some of the best of reality TV.

Premiering on June 9, at 11 p.m., on the cable network, "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" works as artful entertainment splashed with colorful intrigue, creating a canvas that is a picture of reality programming at its most surreal.

Must-Cézanne TV?

More a case of American impressionism, as a group of artists try to impress upon a powerful panel of judges that their art speaks for itself -- in shouts, whispers, screams or silence -- in a voice all its own.

An abstract idea with real payoffs: The winner takes home a $100,000 prize, plus a plum personal triumph of a one-person show, at the Brooklyn Museum, bridging the commercial and the aesthetic.

And, on occasion, the incredible. Some of the work created and shown on the series is watercooler-watercolor talk-worthy as the 14 artists are set to arrive at the big time -- even as one is set to depart, beret and brush in hand, from the series each week.

Struggling artists strapped with sudden fame? It's the big picture that Bravo proffers with a hue and cry of relief from those shows featuring contestants consuming crushed bugs, rather than using carmine bug pigments to devour a canvas.

It all makes its point -- not with Georges -- but with an estimable panel of judges juicing a panoply of artists and media with their comments and evaluations.

None is valued more than those of Jerry Saltz, the salt of the earth/sophisticate whose criticisms for New York magazine are informed with an artistry of their own: wit welded with brilliant wedges of authorial and authoritative power, which helps explain why his columns have been collected into must-have hardcover books of acclaim.

A Natural Fit
The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in criticism is a find for the series -- and a natural fit: In a recent column, Saltz sowed the seeds of what could be the future shock of shared artistry: "Maybe museums have merged with the age of reality TV, where everyone's life is art," he wrote in reference to the recent Marina Abramovic interactive exhibit sharing attention at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Get real, says Saltz; Nielsen ratings rate attention and Saltz "loves reality TV."

"There is no reason art shows should be closed, [expressed] like secret handshakes," he says of the oft-shut-off world of art and artist in which mystery is mixed with enigmatic aloofness and a sniff of snobbishness.

Thinking outside the paintbox: "It doesn't have to be secretive, elitist; it can be quite open without dumbing down" the field.

He is one smart reason why "Work of Art" works well this way, illuminating while illustrating without reducing the art or artists to global globules of the least common denominator.

Indeed, true talent dominates the show -- possible Moshe Safdie savants; contestants with Mondrian modus operandi -- and informs Saltz's appraisals, honed over the years from hard work and honest insight.

Art is a game changer, and this critic is game to play by its rules.

"Art changes my life every day; the process opens you up to ask questions over and over," inciting an "alienated majesty," he says, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson's conceit from Self-Reliance that "in every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

Purple prose of majesty is not Saltz's style; he is poetically to the point, helping an artist with constructive criticism, not hemming and hawing with abstract opinions. A magic word from Saltz can elevate a wannabe to a wanton warrior, risking rejection from others to prove his art.

Ironically, the critic's critical attraction to what would become his field had more to do with ardor than art. A self-described "assimilated first-generation Jew," whose parents immigrated from Estonia, the young Saltz didn't salivate at the mere mention of Monet or consider Picasso his Cubist Pied Piper.

"I really never cared about art," he recalls.

Until it changed his frame of reference. "In high school, I saw all the students who were having sex were either in theater or in art. I said, 'I'm going into one of those things.' "

Acrylics as aphrodisiac?

"It became a turn-on," he says with a chuckle.

But can art turn the world onto itself?

"Art can change the world, but only in increments," opines the critic.

Making a masterpiece -- instead of a mess -- out of the Mideast? Don't confuse painting with puzzles.

"It won't make Hamas accept the legitimacy of Israel. But wouldn't it be great if it could?"

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