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An eminent critic and a boundary-breaking artist convene for a rare tête-à-tête—and demonstrate that sometimes the most powerful insiders enter from the outside

“Ready…one, two, three!” It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and JR and Jerry Saltz are jumping. The French artist and the Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic bend their knees and bounce, striking a running-man pose mid-flight. Behind them is The Chronicles of New York City, a 32-foot-wide, 21-foot-tall black-and-white mural featuring 1,128 New Yorkers of every age and ilk, from movie stars to cops. JR spent a year photographing and interviewing each of them before digitally collaging their portraits into a single, sweeping New York cityscape. Click-click-click-click. A camera flashes, and their landing thuds echo through the Brooklyn Museum’s Great Hall.

“Exactly,” JR nods approvingly.

“Wait—I have moobs!” exclaims Saltz, clutching his chest in mock distress. Laughter erupts from the smattering of people on Playboy’s makeshift set.

Today marks the first time the two men have met, but they have much in common. In addition to being New Yorkers, both are self-taught outsiders — Saltz was a truck driver until the age of 41, and JR usually prefers open spaces to white walls — who have become powerful insiders by insisting that art is for everyone, not just the people who flock to museums and auctions.

We’re here for a private preview of JR: Chronicles, the artist’s first major museum show in North America and his largest exhibit to date. Now 36 years old, he is best known for wheat-pasting colossal black-and-white portraits onto buildings, bridges and the surfaces of geopolitical hot spots around the world. From favela matriarchs in Brazil to a toddler peering over a U.S.-Mexico border fence, his subjects are usually people whose portraits you wouldn’t expect to see exhibited publicly, let alone at skyscraper scale.

The artist goes exclusively by his initials and usually dons shades and a fedora in public—an effort at semi-anonymity that ensures smooth passage across international borders. He also reasons that disclosing his identity would pull focus away from his subjects and the conversations their portraits can spark. (Saltz calls him an “inclusive version of Banksy.”)

The year 2019 was a big one for JR. In addition to unveiling the largest show of his career, the self-described “wallpaper artist” photographed Madonna for the cover of The New York Times Magazine and, in an astounding feat of tromp l’oeil, submerged the Louvre’s glass pyramid in a moat of paper and glue. JR: Chronicles, a 20,000-square-foot survey on view in Brooklyn until May 2020, spans 15 years of his career and marks the first time the museum has dedicated its Great Hall to a single artist. The aforementioned Chronicles of New York City, which includes an audio recording of each subject, is arguably JR’s most ambitious project yet. (You can hear each interview via the QR code that appears below.) Part love letter to New York and part Diego Rivera mural for the digital age, the artist calls his creation “a mirror of the city.”

However you characterize it, the piece brings to life one of the most resonant qualities of JR’s work: a multilayered expression of democratized art.

The day after a star-studded reception, during which the artist spent more time catching up with a local butcher than he did side-hugging Jake Gyllenhaal, JR and Saltz stroll the museum, going deep on the work and their unlikely paths to the upper echelons of the art world. Read on for a sliver of that hour-plus conversation, which touches on teenage arrests, the notion of “radical vulnerability,” grandmothers, Robert De Niro, the power of failure and much more. — Elizabeth Suman

SALTZ: Last night there were thousands of people here, from every walk of life. I saw Chris Rock. I saw Jake Gyllenhaal. But then I saw hundreds of people I never see in a museum — street artists, neighborhood people — and they were taking pictures and pointing at each other. And here we are, surrounded by a gigantic mural of the people and places of New York City that you’ve arranged. What is going on here?

JR: Like you said, it’s people. And actually, even if last night you saw some people who might be more famous than others — well, if they’re in this mural, they’re not bigger than anyone else. It’s not a group photo; it’s a group of photos, where no one person is more important than another. So Robert De Niro, who was there last night, he’s sitting on a stoop with other people, just blending in. And every single person here decided to represent themselves the way they wanted. I didn’t decide how they were going to be represented. They decided.

SALTZ: It’s like a mural of modern life for future historians. There are spectacular Renaissance murals in Venice and Rome, where painters were painting huge crowd scenes like this. Do you think of these as gigantic frescoes of a time and a place? It’s a living encyclopedia.

JR: Definitely. This is exactly the same thing, but the contemporary version of it, which is that you can listen to every single person and hear what they have to say. And those interviews are not conducted. It’s not like “How do you define yourself?” It’s “Here’s a mike; you say whatever you want to say. One day your grandchildren will hear it. What would you want to say?”

SALTZ: As a viewer, I can read or hear those interviews. But first is the optical impact. It’s almost beyond real — overwhelming, breathtaking, incomprehensible. It’s almost inhuman, like an insect-eye view of the world. How was this made?

JR: Well, it’s a collage, so actually it’s in the line of work I’ve been doing, because I’m a wallpaper artist at the end.

SALTZ: What’s a wallpaper artist? Is that bad?

JR: No! I unroll strips on walls. People think I’m a photographer. I’m not. Photography is just part of my process. I’m an artist who uses paper as my main subject, and I paste it.

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February 2020