Last February, New York magazine’s senior art critic Jerry Saltz expressed yet another strong opinion. Saltz, who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, is notoriously outspoken and attention seeking. His narcissistic antics already earned him the ire of this very magazine over a decade ago, the year he served as a judge on the Bravo television series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. By 2015 Saltz kicked up enough verbal dust in Facebook exchanges with fans and foes to have his account temporarily suspended. But this time the subject of Saltz’s review was not your regular Yale MFA painter, but the über-hot media-artist Refik Anadol (b. 1985), whose mandate, according to his X profile, is “embedding media arts into architecture with data and machine intelligence for public art.” Anadol ended up in the critic’s crosshairs because his twenty-four-foot-tall screen-based AI work Unsupervised was exhibited by MOMA and then acquired for its permanent collection. According to the museum’s webpage, Unsupervised “uses artificial intelligence to interpret and transform more than two hundred years of art at MOMA.” Drawing on the museum’s holdings, it creates billows of moving color, in the process giving the viewers glimpses of familiar art.
Saltz did not mince his words, skewering Anadol’s work with the heading: “MOMA’s Glorified Lava Lamp: Refik Anadol’s Unsupervised is a crowd-pleasing, like-generating mediocrity.” The critic acknowledged that the work is a “smash success” with the Instagram-loving public but dismissed it as a “relaxation exercise” enabled by a “narcotic pudding” of digital data translated into video. Proving that, as James Panero noted in 2010, he still remains “reasonably observant”, Saltz identified Unsupervised as devoid of substance, labeling Anadol’s efforts as a techno version of “Zombie Formalism,” art that looks like abstraction but is, for all intents and purposes, vacuous wall decor.
Saltz didn’t stop there, proceeding to rake the work’s predictability and its shedding of “art’s otherness,” comparing its pandering, art-like nature to that of immersive experiential installations. He did not go so far as to call it kitsch, but for all practical purposes the review exposed Anadol’s work as ersatz, a degraded simulacrum of the real thing. Despite assurances from the curators who hailed the work as “visionary” for its “alternate understanding of art-making itself,” Saltz did what a critic is supposed to do: he formulated his argument from his reaction to the artwork, not from the spin of artist statements, curatorial public-relations releases, or even from the imprimatur that is accession into MOMA. The topic of the MOMA collection is central here: the piece works by compiling and reassembling fragments of the collection’s artwork in a never-ending, formless loop. Of course, the pulverized avatars of genuine artworks do not add up to a molecular art bundle by default. One would have to suspend not only disbelief but also plain common sense to accept the curators’ premise that this one-pan Thanksgiving dinner might create an “alternate understanding of art-making itself.”
In October, the action moved onto X. Anadol humble-bragged about MOMA’s acquisition of Unsupervised before casually mentioning his recent masterclass for Vogue in Milan. In response, Saltz reiterated his original conclusions about the work (all the tweets that follow maintain their original grammar, spelling, and punctuation): “Refik Anadol’s mind-numbing multi-million dollar spectacle is a house of cards and hall of mirrors. Momentary diverting gimmick art. Take away the music and it’s just a banal screensaver.” Anadol countered by disparaging Saltz’s writing style: “ChatGPT writes better than you.” The fight escalated when Saltz decided to revisit the subject on Thanksgiving morning: “I do not like the work of [Anadol]. And I have said exactly why. I love AI art. I love all tools and technologies! I am merely criticizing an artist’s work for what [it] does with their material & tools. Good for you that you love it. I find it mediocre.” This proved too much for the artist, whose response sounded eerily similar to an old-fashioned challenge to a duel: “Your words has no meaning to me. You never talked to me, never visited my studio, no idea who I am, why and how I create art. But Let me tell you; I create my work from my heart!” (I cringed reading this, recalling Kazimir Malevich’s assertion that “Only dull and impotent artists veil their work with sincerity. Art requires truth, not sincerity.”) Anadol continued: “The world you coming from is changed! New world is bright, new world is inclusive, new world has no gates! I’m everyone! You are no one!” In response, Saltz reasonably, if condescendingly, pointed out that studio visits are no part of reviewing exhibitions: “Darling, I never ‘visit the artist’ before writing on them. I never ever speak to the artist before writing on them.”
That Anadol pushed back against Saltz’s criticism—and made it personal—is not unusual or new. When the journalist Morley Safer pressed the painter Julian Schnabel about his relationship with critics in a 2008 episode of 60 Minutes, reminding him of Robert Hughes’s famous slight that Schnabel’s work is to painting what Sylvester Stallone’s is to acting, the seething artist retorted: “He is a bum.” Schnabel’s resentment against Hughes dated back to the searing New Republic review of the artist’s memoir published in 1987. Hughes surmised that Schnabel’s rise to fame was the result of hype, which fulfilled the base cravings of the 1980s art world: “Everyone wanted a genius, and in Schnabel our time of insecure self-congratulation and bulimic vulgarity got the genius it deserved.” Lest anyone imagine that Hughes was picking on Schnabel unduly, he also quoted the art historian and critic Thomas McEvilley’s admiring catalogue essay for Schnabel’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum: “No one knew they wanted him. Yet somehow the age demanded him . . . there is nothing anyone can do about it.” Although they differed in their opinions on the merits of Schnabel’s work, the two critics concurred that it fit the 1980s like a glove.
Forty years on, Refik Anodal might turn out to be exactly what our era of museums as play spaces, “parasocial aesthetics,” and Instagrammable art installations deserves. Jerry Saltz, often derided as a “boomer” by his detractors, is still living in the old art world, imploring the artists to “do their research,” and “get their tools and materials in order.” Meanwhile, Anadol is consistently making the hot artist directories. He is number one on the Observer’s Digital Innovations Business of Art Power List and number sixty on the ArtReview Power 100, in which his self-important byline reads: “Prominent proponent [of] big data, machine learning, and immersive large-scale video.” Unlike Saltz, Anadol is firmly in the new art world, jetting from continent to continent to unveil his immersive largescale videos. Earlier this month he was in Dubai for the release of a piece accompanying the United Nation’s climate conference, COP28, and just the week before that he was at the Las Vegas Sphere to reveal Hallucinations, advertised on X with a playful caption reading “a whole lava love” and reposted by the artist himself with the comment: “That’s a beautiful lava lamp.”
So perhaps Saltz’s comparison of Unsupervised to a lava lamp was not the problem. The problem was that he called it a “glorified” lava lamp, suggesting that such an object was something less than deserving of a place in the canon of art history or, by extension, in MOMA. Anadol, like Schnabel, considers himself a great artist. He is convinced of this because he “create[s] work from the heart,” and the “new world has no gates.” Saltz’s so-called expert opinion carries no weight. And Saltz is still in character having started the war of tweets eight months after expressing his opinion in print. Perhaps he felt unheard the first time around, so this time he made sure that his judgment on Anadol’s cumulative masterpiece got the proper attention. His virtual brawl with Anadol was not only entertaining, it was also instructive as a warning to all: with the help of curators eager to keep up with the digital revolution, the world from which Anadol hails is already intruding into the bastions of old art.