Jerry Saltz Offers a First Look at His New Book “How to Be an Artist”

Alina Cohen
Jul 16, 2019 1:00PM

Portrait of Jerry Saltz by Celeste Sloman.

Cover design for Jerry Saltz’s upcoming book, “How to Be an Artist.”

After Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic Jerry Saltz published his cover story “How to Be An Artist,” for the November 2018 issue of New York Magazine, he received an outpouring of feedback from unexpected readers. Musicians, chefs, doctors, and even tennis champion Rennae Stubbs reached out to Saltz, telling him how applicable his 33 rules were to their fields. Any job done well, after all, requires creativity, a carefully titrated blend of vulnerability and self-confidence, and introspection—all topics Saltz covered.

Where there’s a popular article, there’s often a publishing deal. In March 2020, Riverhead will release a book by Saltz with the same title, How to Be an Artist. The self-described “folk critic” has expanded his rules from 33 to 70. Today, Riverhead reveals the cover design, which looks radically different from the three flamboyant New York Magazine covers that depicted Saltz dressed as Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí, and Andy Warhol. Instead, the new cover will feature a colorful, hard-edged, geometric design: bold, monochromatic rectangles across a black background.

“Everything I write is written in heat and published at once. And [the book] is a completely different beast. The heat stayed up weeks and then months,” Saltz explained. He’s almost certain the writing process gave him tendonitis. Everything Saltz writes, he said, “is written in terror.”

The new material for the book, according to Saltz, ranges from the broadly applicable to the technical. New “lessons” include “Make Art for Now, Not the Future;” “There Are No Wasted Days;” and “There’s No Such Thing As Fear of Success.” He delves into art historical narratives, such as the divergent ways that modernist giants Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse manipulated two-dimensional space. Picasso contained his figures within his canvases’ borders. “Legs don’t shoot out, nothing goes out off the side. Everything is in conversation with the four sides of the painting,” Saltz said. Matisse, on the other hand, preferred an “almost cosmic” sense of space, where body parts extend beyond the frame.

Regarding the cover design, Saltz said that upon first seeing it, he thought his impersonation of Dalí may have been a better option. “That was fun. That seemed to work for people,” he mused. At the same time, he acknowledged that while readers quickly discard magazines, a book becomes “part of the furniture, part of your life.” There’s a certain “mindfulness” to the pared down design.

One of the original magazine covers also incited angst online. New York Magazine received backlash for dressing and making up Saltz, a white man, as Kahlo, a Hispanic woman. Though Saltz says he understands the criticism, he also would like to think that “if you become famous enough to be a refrigerator magnet, like Vincent van Gogh, then that belongs to a wider culture. As opposed to appropriation.”

Saltz’s initial idea for “How to Be an Artist” stemmed from his much-lauded piece for a 2017 issue of New York Magazine about his own failed career as an artist. He doesn’t see himself as an expert on artistic success, and he says that’s not what the book is about at all. Instead, “it only has to do with having a life lived in art,” Saltz offered, “to experience the flow of creativity in your own life. And to banish the demons enough to be in touch with that.”

Alina Cohen