Twenty Years of Peter Schjeldahl

Has there ever been another art writer quite like Peter Schjeldahl? Addictively quotable, great when writing about the art he loves (and he loves a great deal), he is also challenging when discussing the art he hates. When he describes Charles Baudelaire as his hero, you see right away where he is coming from.

Just as Baudelaire summarizes the characters of Rubens, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Goya, and others, each in a self-contained four-line stanza, in his poem “Les Phares” (“The Beacons,” from Fleurs du mal, 1857), so Schjeldahl offers these marvelously condensed accounts, among many others:

Of Anselm Kiefer: “Amid ruins he reared the fragile symbol of a palette, an emblem of the artist as a survivor determined to forget nothing.”

Of Giorgio Morandi: “In my ideal world, the home of everyone who loves art would come equipped with a painting by Giorgio Morandi, as exercise equipment for the daily toning up of the eye, mind, and soul.”

And of Leo Castelli, a sweet account whose last line seems to come straight from some unpublished text by Walter Pater: “Perhaps art was the mode in which he assessed everything and everybody, himself included, as if fitting each passing sensation, personality, and event into an evolving composition.”

If you want to see how good Schjeldahl is, set his new book, Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018 (Abrams Books, 2019) alongside a collection of Arthur Danto’s art criticism or, even, the four volumes of Clement Greenberg’s art writing (which Schjeldahl praises in a surprisingly generous account). The difference is that Schjeldhal moves more quickly than either of these masterful writers, like a cat pouncing on his prey.

“[Christopher] Wool’s grim shutter bugging,” he writes, “suggests a peculiar creative psychology. When he feels bad, it would seem, he perks up. And when he feels worse, he’s golden” If I were an artist, I wouldn’t want to cross Schjeldahl. In a ferocious takedown of Lucian Freud, he says: “every brushstroke cops a feel.”

Peter Schjeldahl (images courtesy Abrams Books)

But when he discerns that “the relation of [Agnes] Martin’s mental illness to her art seems twofold, combining a need for concealment and for control — the grid as screen and as shield — with an urge to distill positive content from the oceanic states of mind that she couldn’t help experiencing,” then I am firmly resolved never ever to write again about her.

As he himself emphasizes, Schjeldahl is a connoisseur, that is to say, an aesthete: “To judge a work of art involves self-surrender. You are something other than your own person when in art’s spell” [emphasis his].

At his best, which is much of the time, he tells you about his response to the art. Occasionally, when he falters, he tells you mostly about himself. That, I believe, is why his essays on Piero della Francesca, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer are relatively unsuccessful, judged by the very high standard he sets for himself. No scholar (I mean that as praise!), he lives in the here-and-now, like a true aesthete; the long New Yorker essays on Martin Luther and the Ghent altarpiece, and the reports about studio visits with Rachel Harrison and Laura Owens, could have done by any gifted reporter.

This volume includes 21 essays that have been previously published in his books, an unnecessary redundancy when there is plenty of material at hand. And in several essays in which he discusses art and money, Schjeldahl seems to refuse to take this subject seriously.

Schjeldahl is a lover of fine painterly art in an era that is often hostile to that concern. And so, for me, his greatest achievement is that he didn’t become a curmudgeon like Hilton Kramer, or beat a retreat to focus on the past; instead, he continued to review prolifically even as much contemporary art becomes obviously alien to his sensibility.

His really strange essay “Jeff Koons: Sympathy for the Devil,” an over-the-top making of lemonade from lemons, demonstrates how to respond to art you simultaneously admire and despise. But his generosity can be surprising, as when he allows: “[Luc] Tuyman’s grayish daubs announce that the war against mass media and minimalist skepticism is truly over, because truly lost.”

When he sends me to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens statue of General Sherman, in Central Park, a sculpture I have never bothered to look at, or when he bravely defends the removal of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, “with the result that I got screamed at by people who deemed it treason to impugn an artist’s carte blanche by implying that the public should have a say in public art,” then he wins my critical heart. And I love his essay on fireworks.

Schjeldahl’s self-confidence is awesome. “A couple of weeks ago, I visited two mothers in Massachusetts. One was my own,” and the other was the lady portrayed in “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (1871), otherwise known as “Whistler’s Mother,” on loan to the Clark Art Institute. Who else could carry off anything like that account? “Art often serves us by exposing conflicts among our values,” he writes in a surprisingly sympathetic account of Louise Lawler, “not to propose solutions but to tap energies of truth, however partial, and beauty, however fugitive, and the service is greatest when our worlds feel most in crisis” (134).

Schjeldahl is a journalist, a practitioner of a form of writing under siege; it’s not clear whether he will have any successors. But perhaps that is unduly pessimistic. Anyway, right now everyone, it seems, loves Schjeldahl’s writing. Certainly I do.

Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018 (2019) by Peter Schjeldahl is published by Abrams Books.

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