Giovanni di Paolo, "The Beheading of St John the Baptist," (1450s). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
At New York mag, Jerry Saltz recounts the first time he was moved by a painting when he visited the Art Institute of Chicago as a kid. Memory being what it is, he gets some of the details wrong, but I think this is an image of the painting he remembers. "My culture-deprived, aspirational mother dragged me once a month from our northern suburb—where the word art never came up—to the Art Institute of Chicago. I hated it. Art seemed so old and boring and not baseball. Then one day, when I was about 9, we stumbled on a couple of small paintings. In the canvas on the left, a man’s head was stuck between the bars of a jail cell; a soldier outside the cell was raising an ax in the air. In the painting on the right, blood was spurting from the same man’s neck, and the soldier’s ax was at his side. Of course the blood and guts were cool. But something else happened. It suddenly dawned on me that these paintings were telling a story. To this day, the work that moves me most—that sweeps me up, even to the point of rapture—vibrates with that sense of storytelling."
Saltz spent the summer visiting the museums in NYC and put together a list of his favorite paintings.
UPDATE: The following is a recent post from Saltz's Facebook Wall asking for artists' contributions to a book he and Roberta Smith are writing about their favorite paintings:
Thanks for reading this column about my favorite paintings in New York museums.
Do you have an inner art-critic dying to get out and get published.? Maybe I can help. My wife and I are expanding this article into a book. Something like ‘Two Art-Critics Pick their 100 Favorite Paintings in New York Museums.’ We will write 100-word entries on 100 different paintings. We may also ask 100 ‘guest’ artists to each pick one painting and write their one 100 words on it. We’ll probably ask a number of other ‘guest’ critics, curators, dealers, etc.
If you’re up for it and understand that there’s no money in this for you whatsoever, no how-no way, take a crack at writing 100 words about a favorite painting of yours that is currently in a New York Museum.
1. No more than 100 words. No exceptions. Anything over will not be read.
2. Do not use the word “I.” This entry is not about you; it is about the work.
3. Keep it simple. Don’t use jargon. Write so your grandma or grandpa who knows nothing about art would understand what you’re trying to say.
4. Briefly describe what this work does; why it does this; and HOW IT LOOKS. (You’d be surprised at how many people forget to actually say anything about what they’re looking at.)
5. Don’t natter on about how “beautiful” or “scary” the painting is. Those words mean very different things to different people.
6. All entries must be signed.
7. You may write as many entries as you like.
8. You may write entries on paintings that other people have already written on.
9. All entries are subject to editing.
That’s it. If you’re in the mood, give it a go. You’d be surprised how once you’re in touch with your inner-art critic, how thrilling it is to try to CLEARLY impart to others WHY something turns you on. If your guest-entry is used in the book you’ll be given a by-line. Again, no money. But that’s the art-criticism business. It’ll take around 10 months to read your entries. Be patient. Or just read my piece and forget about writing anything of your own. I just always think artists have such great stuff to say about works of art.