Sunday, February 7, 2021

Peter Schjeldahl ‘s Art of Words

I wrote about Peter Schjeldahl last year and I believe I could write about him every week without becoming boring.   Charles Finch in his review of Schjeldahl’s book “Hot Cold Heavy, Light” in the New York Times called him “a great artist”. He paints his pictures with words, giving the reader an intimate understanding of the art he has viewed or the music that he has heard.

A published poet before he became an art critic, he even taught at Harvard for four years. I wonder if the year he spent in Paris turned him onto the visual arts because, born in Fargo North Dakota and working as a reporter for local newspapers, he did not have this background.   He has certainly become over his lifetime a 20th and 21st century Renaissance Man!

In 21019 when Schjeldahl was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and was not expected to live long the New Yorker had asked him to write a memoir. He did it, in a way, calling it, “The Art of Dying” in which he reviewed his life chronologically but skipped his year in Paris.  Right off he said that he is glad he did not die at a young age because he would have been embarrassed if people said, “He. Smoked you know… “ Though he says there is no art to dying  as “everybody does it”, he described death as “like a painting rather than a sculpture because  it’s seen from only one side”. 

Outliving all expectations, I see that he wrote a review in the January 25th edition of the New Yorker, which proves him still to be at the top of his form, at least as far as his art criticism is concerned. His subject was an exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in New York, a show of two artists, the German Josef Albers and the Italian, Georgio Morandi.  I have a particular interest in the latter because my father’s best friend and my adopted “uncle”, Herman (Maenne) Goldsmith,  was his dealer.  Maenne took my parents to Morandi’s home in the mountains of Italy. The artist had the most beautiful view of the country side, but was fixated with the bottles and other objects in his studio which he painted for half a century.  Schjeldhl describes the work as “Often woozily drawn and always tenderly brushed in muted colors, the tableaux look but don’t feel repetitive."

He points out the “deeply poetic” Morandi  and the “academic and even pedantic” Albers “were brothers in perserverance”.  Albers “wedded himself to a format of three or four nested hard-edged squares on square supports – ‘Homage to the Square’ he called them – centered a bit below the pictures’ vertical midpoints.”  I shall illustrate it here though after that description you hardly need it.

Schjeldahl even describes the gallery in lyrical tones, “The Zwirner show is one of the best installed that I’ve ever seen. Its four large rooms host rhythmic arrays and alternations that induce that crackle: the soft cosmos of Morandi is both relieved and refreshed by the architectonics of Albers, and vice versa. The artists share an intensity of artistic vocation.”

A couple of months ago Schjeldahl wrote for the same magazine, “The Metropolitan Museum at a Hundred and Fifty”. He described the Met’s acknowledgement of its birthday as “celebrating in a pandemically muted manner”. As he pointed out “A hundred and fifty is a lot of years, though a mere flicker compared with the five millennia’s worth of objects from the permanent collections that are sampled in the show.” He criticized the Met particularly for it’s early blind spot to modern art and artists of color but conceded “Oh the other hand, and meanwhile, c’mon.  The Met is our Home Depot of the soul.”

I do hope that someday someone will write a comprehensive biography of this consummate artist of words.

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