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November 20th, 2013
06:06 PM ET

Art critic's take on former President George W. Bush's paintings

(CNN) - Former President George W. Bush is proving to be a bona fide painter, gifting big time celebrities with portraits, and now garnering mixed praise - just like real artists! - from critics like New York Magazine's Jerry Saltz.

"I loved the kind of oddity of it, the eccentricity, the feeling that this guy was just trying to paint this very private world," Saltz said in an interview with CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper."

Saltz is not politically aligned with the former president, saying he "always thought of him as a gremlin on the wing of America."

But "then I went into shock, because I actually like some of these paintings," said Saltz.

And while Saltz calls some of Bush's earlier work "simple" and "awkward," and questions his most recent painting, the art critic supports ex-presidents – from any era – making paintings.

"Imagine if we had seen Abe Lincoln paint himself naked in the bathtub," Saltz said.

Or imagine paying for one of Bush's paintings, which Saltz values at a few hundred dollars.

"Celebrity art sometimes costs in the realm of tens of thousands of dollars. Sylvester Stallone, Frank Sinatra, a lot of others," said Saltz.

Bush's Jay Leno portrait is a double whammy – a celebrity painting a celebrity. But Saltz is not a fan of it.

"Before he was painting things that the camera could not see, the way a camera can't take a picture of heaven or hell," said Saltz.

"Now he's just giving us a much more conventional photographic realism, and there's kind of no insight," Saltz said of the Leno portrait.

The art critic said he wishes he could stage something of an creative intervention.

"I really wish I could talk to him and say, 'Look, we're not going to see eye-to-eye on anything, but I can help you. You're no Rembrandt, but now you're just becoming a hack.' And I don't want any painter to be a hack, even George W. Bush," said Saltz.

Saltz said he would buy a Bush painting, and donate it to the Whitney Museum of American Art.

"Any American museum would be well served to have paintings by an ex-president. Imagine that, seeing into the mind of Thomas Jefferson or Martin van Buren," said Saltz.

The New York City art world might even embrace Bush's work.

"If he continues making the better early work, I would love to write about his work, if he would just keep making it," said Saltz.

"He said the thing that everybody in the art world agrees with - art changed my life," said Saltz. "Again, I sort of went into shock when I heard him say it, but I agree with George W. Bush."

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