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.

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