Sunday, June 28, 2020

Peter Schjeldahl, Art Critic

Peter Schjeldahl has been the art critic for the New Yorker Magazine for the past 22 years and he is one of the few art critics that I have enjoyed reading.  His writing is not a lot of art speak or trying to show off how learned he is.  He just tells it like it is, but lyrically.  

I had wanted to write about him for some time but have not felt quite up to the task. Then I read that he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer 6 months ago.  If I do not write now when will I do it? After his diagnosis, he wrote a long piece about his life which appeared in the New Yorker “The Art of Dying” December 23, 2019.

Peter Scheldahl Now

Having such a Dutch name I always thought Schjedahl was born in The Netherlands, so I was surprised that his birthplace was Fargo, North Dakota.  I found it equally surprising that he grew up in Minnesota, which is also not a hotbed of culture.  But in 1964, at the age of 21 he traveled to Paris for a year before settling in New York.  He worked as an art critic for ArtNews, the Village Voice and the New York Times, and a bunch of other magazines.  He attended college for a couple of years, dropped out went back, and dropped out again, but nonetheless taught for 4 years at Harvard University in the department of Visual and Environmental studies.

His experience as a cub reporter in a corruption-rife New Jersey town would stay with him for a lifetime. “I acquired the most useful writing discipline of my life from fat, cigar-chewing Jersey Journal copy editors—burned-out reporters—at desks in a half-circle facing the city editor. With No. 1 pencils, like black crayons, they’d eviscerate my copy. I’d rewrite, and they’d do it again. Finally, they sent it down to the Linotype—the old racketing, reeking contraption for setting type from molten lead. Those men still sit by as I write, pencils in their itching paws."

He confesses, “I grew up with a craving for and a resentment of authority. This bedevils me still.” I am sure it is a sentiment many can relate to. Maybe, that is something that helps drive people to accomplish, just to prove that they can.

Scheldahl owns up to being, a recovering alcoholic, after being sober for 27 years, and a heavy smoker since the age of 16.  I too smoked, Gauloise and Gitanes which were fashionable in my time in Paris, but I stopped with the cigarettes in 1965 and took up a pipe until 1994 when I stopped, cold turkey. Schjeldahl never gave it up.  Drink was destroying my life. Tobacco only shortens it, with the best parts over anyway.”  I can relate to that though I have no reason to believe I am leaving soon but life is full of surprises.   I heard recently that when you are born, God gives you an expiration date, he just doesn’t tell you when that is.  I find that somehow reassuring.

Peter Schjeldahl, Then, by Nick Sturm

I was not surprised to learn that the art critic was also a post-modern poet.  According to his memoir, for him poetry preceded the visual arts:

I was a kid crazy about language and an omnivorous reader. At breakfast, I’d pore over every word on a cereal box as if it were holy writ. The first poem I remember writing was at a class picnic on the last day of sixth grade. I lay back on the grass, looking up. A hawk soared overhead. This wasn’t unusual, but it gave me an odd feeling. I rolled over and wrote what I knew was a poem because it looked like one. All I recall of it is a chorus: “Winged avenger from the skies!” I’m not sure that I even knew what an avenger was. I took the poem to my teacher, who said, “Peter, this is very unpleasant.” That smothered my literary drive for some years.”

Even his art prose is poetic.  For instance, in a recent essay on Edward Hopper’s painting, “American Solitude”, he referred to that artist as, “the visual bard of solitude”. Further on he described Hopper’s work, “Though termed a realist, Hopper is more properly a Symbolist, investing objective appearance with clenched, melancholy subjectivity”.  


In this and so many of his essays, Peter Schjeldahl has made me see and better understand works of art through his words.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Lamy Train Station

Our son Hunter decided, despite the pandemic, he wanted to come and visit us with his wife, Mallory, and our 8-month-old granddaughter, Boroughs, to celebrate his birthday and Father’s Day. Investigating the various methods of coming from Los Aneles they decided that the best and safest would be to take the train, which leaves Los Angeles around 7pm and arrives at Lamy, New Mexico the next day around 1pm.

To make sure we would find Lamy, we did a dry run and missed the turnoff. Why? Because I could not believe that the road to such a historic place, named after the first Bishop of Santa Fe, Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888) was so non-descript. What was little more than the width of a horse path led to the station and as we approached the station, we saw these signs ...

New Mexico became a State in 1912 and the 1920 Census shows Lamy’s population at 289 and in the last recorded census a population of 218 so Lamy was never a large town. We passed a scattering of well-tended adobe houses but little to indicate a town beyond an old boarded-up church and newly repainted 1880’s The Legal Tender Saloon. The small railroad depot was built in 1909 with the red tile roof and shady arcaded porch of the Spanish Mission Style then popular in California and the Southwest. 

Lamy was no more than a waystation for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line that was key to westward expansion. It originated in Kansas City, later extending to Chicago, and ran to Los Angeles.  The Harvey Company started building eateries and hotels along the route, but nothing remains of the Harvey hotel in Lamy, called El Otiz, which closed in 1938 and was torn down in 1943. Despite the name of the line, the railroad never made it to Santa Fe because engineers considered the grade to Santa Fe too steep. Eventually, an 18-mile spur line was constructed from Lamy to Santa Fe.

In 1943 Lamy figured in the recruitment of scientists by J. Robert Oppenheimer, charismatic head of the Manhattan Project, to live in the top-secret facility of Los Alamos. They were let off the train with their families in the little village of Lamy. From there they were driven up to Santa Fe where they expected to live and work. In the office at 109 Palace Avenue, they were told they had another 35 miles to go before reaching the Atomic Labs. This short video will give you an idea of the Lamy station at the time.  The actual distance to Los Alamos is often quoted differently!

Today, Amtrak would like to cancel the stop at Lamy altogether but there is push back. In 2018 Allan Affelt acquired the Legal Tender Saloon and it had just re-opened when the Covid-19 hit. It will surely open again as it looks like Lamy has a future.  For more on Allan Affelt and his preservation of the Harvey Hotels ...

Just weeks ago, it was announced that three investors from Santa Fe lead by George R. R. Martin, known for the Game of Thrones series, have bought the bankrupt spur line. They plan to restore the track and the historic railroad cars making the line a center for entertainment with live music on the trip and a brewpub at the depot.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Looking Back to the Future

I am 75 years old having lived, to put in historic terms, ¾ of a century, from the 20th into the 21st. I no longer have the physical abilities I once had, nor the memory, but I do have many stories to tell of the past.

Have you ever thought that just a few decades ago if you told someone what life would be like today, they would have shaken their heads and dismissed it as total fantasy or even science fiction?

Although the Wright Brothers achieved flight in the first decade of the 20th century, the first milestone of space travel, according to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, took place on a New England farm field, where on March 16, 1926,  when a flimsy, liquid fuel-driven rocket lifted off and flew 41 feet into the sky.  Then in 1969, my 2-year-old daughter stood between my wife and me on the sofa to watch the first landing of a man on the moon. I don’t believe she was particularly interested!  Now we have a space-station and our quest continues.

I remember a flight with my parents from New York to Los Angeles on a prop plane with 5 stops in between.  I threw up on every single leg of that flight.  Then in 1959, I flew to Europe on my own on one of the early commercial jets.  Pan Am had inaugurated jet travel to Europe in the fall of 1958. My mother took me to the airport and was so happy that Archbishop Fulton Sheen was on the flight.  I guess she thought that God would be with me.  We did have to land twice to refuel but my stomach was fine … a very smooth trip!

When I was born in 1944 not only space travel, but things that are now part of our everyday life, belonged to science fiction.  My parents got their first TV in 1951 to watch the McCarthy hearings. Of course, I was more interested in the Howdy Doody Show.  When I became friendly with the son of Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, I got see the first TV show in color.  I remember it well because it looked like watercolor to me.

In England, which was one of the countries my parents fled to from Germany, the radio was known as the wireless.  My father’s favorite joke was, “how do we know that they had the radio in ancient Egypt”.  Answer, “because they did not find any wires.” Today we can tell the television what we want: no need to turn a dial or push a button to switch the channel.  Here is a Native American Cartoonist’s take.

Ricardo Caté, Santa Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo

I remember very well the old dial phones which were metal, and your finger could get sore if you made a number of phone calls.  Then came the push button phone. What a relief! Around 1983 we went to Buenos Aires, Argentina to stay with a major art collector.  As I sat on the couch opposite her, I saw her suddenly start reaching into the crevices of the sofa and between her legs … I thought to myself, most strange behavior, until she finally pulled out what looked like a small black box that she put to her ear.  I realized it was a wireless telephone.  Then there were cell phones that weighed several pounds at first.  Later they became more easily portable and we no longer needed a phone booth to make a call from the street. Further you did not need to memorize phone numbers as your phone stored the numbers you frequently used and had a way of looking up any you might not have.  The last number I remember was CIrcle-6-2417 the home phone in the apartment I left at the end of my teens.

The marvels we all deal with every day are the smart phone and the computer.  The closest thing to a computer my father had in his early career was a secretary who could take shorthand.  To keep a copy of the letters she then typed either with carbon paper or retyped the letter.  When I came full time to the gallery in the mid-sixties, I bought the first copier which took two passes through the machine with an intermediary piece of paper.  Then with each new copier I expected it to be faster and the printer today still seems slow. Here is an image of the 1940’s typewriter of the kind that I was told I had wrecked by banging on the keys as a little boy!

We have become so spoiled. 

What else can you think of that would have been science fiction in your youth but that we now take for granted.


NB: In my last Missive I wrote that the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian would be the first museum in Santa Fe to open its doors.  This was based on an email to that effect from the museum.

On reading my Missive an individual close to the museum wrote me the following:  “The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian opened briefly on June 3rd, in accordance with its interpretation of New Mexico’s pandemic policies for businesses, with all the precautions it could manage (masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, reduced number of visitors, etc.)   The Museum was immediately notified that it was in violation of the Public Health Ordinance in that museums are considered “recreational activities,” not “businesses,” and had to remain closed until July.  The Museum immediately had to close again, reluctantly.  It remains so.”

Sunday, June 7, 2020

What Now?

As if the pandemic were not bad enough, we have great civil unrest in this country, for legitimate reasons, and no centralized response.  Therefore, it has lasted far longer than need be.  At this writing, while the Rodney King riots lasted 6 days while we are into our 9th.  This is when we need the balm of the arts more than ever.

As has been discussed, every cultural organization is trying to maintain a presence with virtual applications, but we are dying for the real thing.  Our 800-seat Lensic Performing Arts Center is waiting for the Governor to allow the theater to reopen. As a board member, I know of their work on plans to make people feel safe opening with 25% capacity and spaced seating. Initial events will be smaller scale, avoiding performers crowding on a stage. By eliminating intermissions, they will also eliminate the long lines for the toilet.

The Lensic View from the Stage

On June 1 we received a notice that the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian would reopen June 3.  But it is for members only and the rules are strict.  You will have to book in advance and have a specific time slot.  Anyone, not wearing a mask will be given one or shown the door.  There will also be hand sanitizer that will be required.  The most onerous rule as far as I am concerned is that the bathrooms will be off-limits, so you better go before you come!  The rumor has been that the New Mexico State Museums will open on July 1, but those rules have not yet been announced.

Looking around the country, my daughter has a bookstore, Main Point Books, in Wayne, Pennsylvania a few miles from Philadelphia.  There the Governor has instituted a Red, Yellow, Green system.  They are entering their yellow phase which I gather is pretty much what is happening in many other places.  It is an in-between stage where curbside shopping is still preferred but people will be allowed into the bookstore by appointment requiring the use of Hand Sanitizer and masks upon entry.  

Everyone understands that a declaration from a Mayor or Governor is not enough.  To venture out people have to feel personally safe, as well so here is how her email ended:

Our COVID 19 Policies:

  • Everyone who comes into the store will be required to wear a mask and maintain proper social distancing.
  • All shoppers will need to use hand sanitizer upon entering the store.
  • Restrooms will be closed to the public until further notice.
  • We have updated our credit card machines to be hands-free and accept Apple Pay and Google Pay.
  • We will be cleaning frequently touched surfaces, including books, at the beginning and end of the day, and between each customer.
  • All employees will wear masks.
  • No one will come to work if they have any symptoms.
  • All employees will frequently wash their hands.
  • If anyone in the store tests positive we will let our customers know immediately via email and on social media. 

Main Point Books in Normal Times

Looking abroad, on June 3 the Uffizi Gallery became one of the first major museums to reopen after a government lockdown that it’s Director Eike Schmidt said cost the institutions of Italy over 1 million visitors and 12 million euros in revenue. Only 450 people at a time are allowed into the Uffizi galleries. Since international tourism is virtually non-existent, Italians have a rare opportunity to see the Uffizi’s great masterpieces without jostling crowds.

Primavera (Spring) by Sandro Botticelli

The Louvre has announced that it plans to open on July 6 with 70% reduction in visitors.  75% of their public come from foreigners who now cannot travel so their 10-15,000 daily visitors will be cut by at least two thirds.

This is no return to normal but rather a great adventure into the unknown and I guess we have to all make-believe we are pioneers on a new road to who knows where.  One thing is for sure; the adventure will continue.