Peter Schjeldahl, revered art critic for the New Yorker, dies at 80


Peter Schjeldahl, a college dropout from Minnesota who became one of New York’s most durable and revered art critics, writing with wit, humanity and lyrical precision about old masters like Velázquez (“If he were a rock singer, he would be Roy Orbison”) and 20th century giants like Lucian Freud (“hard to like and almost impossible not to admire”), died Oct. 21 at his home in Bovina, N.Y. He was 80.

The cause was lung cancer, said his daughter, author Ada Calhoun. Mr. Schjeldahl had written about his illness in “77 Sunset Me,” a typically good-humored New Yorker essay that was published in 2019, soon after he was diagnosed. He had been given six months to live, he wrote, but showed “marked improvement” through immunotherapy, which his daughter credited with extending his life.

“I always said that when my time came I’d want to go fast,” he wrote. “But where’s the fun in that?”

Mr. Schjeldahl (pronounced SHELL-doll) began writing criticism in 1965 while trying to support himself as a poet, and he continued writing reviews and essays with occasional breaks until his death. Passionate, knowledgeable and frequently incisive, he had a gift for conveying complex or surprising thoughts in melodious sentences, and for bringing works of art to life on the pages of the Village Voice and the New Yorker, where he had been a staff writer since 1998.

Describing Alexander Calder’s 1963 sculpture “Southern Cross” in a 2001 New Yorker essay, he sought to convey the work’s “bothered urgency,” writing: “Imagine someone using gestures to describe a tree to people who have never seen one: ‘This thing comes out of the ground and goes up, and there’s stuff above that spreads out and hangs down — aw, the hell with it.’ ” Calder’s “style,” he added, “touches something heroic and hapless in us all.”

Raised in small towns across North Dakota and Minnesota, Mr. Schjeldahl was fascinated by language ever since he was a boy — “At breakfast, I’d pore over every word on a cereal box as if it were holy writ,” he recalled — and dreamed of a bohemian, big-city life somewhere on the coasts. He found it in New York, where he wrote poetry, mingled with New York School writers John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, and learned art criticism on the job, keeping at it until, he said, “the art criticism ate the poetry.”

Over the years his career was buffeted by drug use and alcoholism (he got sober in the early 1990s), and by a tendency to alienate himself from longtime friends in and out of the art world. “I’m compulsively impolitic and tactless. … I can’t write about people, which is why I write about inanimate objects,” he told Interview magazine in 2014. Yet he remained a renowned and widely read critic for more than half a century, delighting generations of art lovers with reviews that often suggested the visceral impact of a great painting or sculpture.

“A voice is what he always had: distinct, clear, funny,” wrote the New Yorker’s top editor, David Remnick, in a tribute. “A poet’s voice — epigrammatic, nothing wasted.”

Writing about an exhibition of 16th-century Italian portraits mounted last year by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Mr. Schjeldahl observed that “a wall in the last room of the show, hung with five tip-top Bronzinos, staggered me like a sequence of Sunday punches.” A retrospective of painter Robert Colescott made him feel “delightfully knocked about like a sensitized pinball,” while the work of Edward Hopper left him with “a lonely sensation, a congestion of feeling incapable of articulation, like being tongue-tied with love.”

In a New York Times review of “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light” (2019), the most recent collection of Mr. Schjeldahl’s articles, author Charles Finch praised the “remarkable tensile beauty” of Mr. Schjeldahl’s writing, adding, “He has the ability to freeze an artist cold in a line, not through aphorism, which implies a slinking away from the specific, but with meticulous, writerly precision.”

At times he could be withering, cutting down the work of artists like Kaws, an auction-house favorite known for appropriating cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse. “Like a diet of only celery, which is said to consume more calories in the chewing than it provides to digestion, KAWS activates hallucinatory syndromes of spiritual starvation,” he wrote, using the artist’s stylized, all-caps name.

For him, Matisse and Kaws — as well as Basquiat and Rembrandt, Hopper and Koons — all existed in the same contemporary realm, and were all worthy of consideration. “I define contemporary art as every work of art that exists at the present moment, 5,000 years or five minutes old,” he told the journal Brooklyn Rail in 2015. “We look with contemporary eyes. What other eyes are there?”

The oldest of five children, Peter Charles Schjeldahl was born in Fargo, N.D., on March 20, 1942. His mother, Charlene (Hanson), was a voracious reader who worked as an office manager for his father, Gilmore, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and worked with plastics, adhesives and circuitry to build one of the world’s first communications satellites, Echo 1. His other inventions included the plastic-lined airsickness bag.

Mr. Schjeldahl said he acted out, sometimes driving his mother to tears, in an effort to attract the attention of his father, who was focused almost exclusively on his work. Decades later, Mr. Schjeldahl showed a similarly single-minded focus as an adult, throwing himself headfirst into writing at the expense of parenting his daughter, Calhoun. In June, she published a memoir, “Also a Poet,” that described him as a loving but neglectful parent who seldom showed interest in her life. (Mr. Schjeldahl told Calhoun that he loved the book, calling it “such a gift.”)

Ada Calhoun comes to terms with a neglectful father in ‘Also a Poet’

“Writing consumes writers,” he noted in his New Yorker essay about cancer. “No end of ones better than I am have said as much. The passion hurts relationships. I think off and on about people I love, but I think about writing all the time.”

After graduating from high school in Northfield, Minn., Mr. Schjeldahl studied English at nearby Carleton College. He dropped out in 1962, at age 20, and drove east, talking his way into a job as a newspaper reporter in Jersey City. He later returned to college for a year before dropping out for good.

Over the next decade, Mr. Schjeldahl got married (“unwisely,” he said) to a fellow writer, Linda O’Brien; traveled across Europe; wrote for ARTnews and the New York Times; got divorced in Mexico; and avoided military service in Vietnam by staying awake “for three days and nights on speed,” as he told it, before showing up at the induction center covered in dirt and looking like a madman.

Mentored by Seymour Peck, an arts and culture editor at the Times, he began to gain confidence as a critic in the 1970s. “Most of what I know in a scholarly way about art I learned on deadlines,” he recalled, “to sound as if I knew what I was talking about — as, little by little, I did. Educating yourself in public is painful, but the lessons stick.”

In 1974, Mr. Schjeldahl married Brooke Alderson, an actress and comic whom he met at a Whitney Museum opening. In the 1980s, they bought a country home in the Catskills town of Bovina, where for many years they hosted raucous, pyrotechnic Fourth of July celebrations, with Mr. Schjeldahl overseeing the elaborate fireworks show. Artists, writers, gallery owners and movie stars came to the event, which drew some 2,000 people in 2015 before the Schjeldahls decided to retire the event.

In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include a brother, three sisters and two grandsons.

Although Mr. Schjeldahl ultimately let poetry go by the wayside, he published several books of verse and briefly quit criticism to focus on poetry in the mid-1970s. He announced his decision in part through a cheeky poem called “Dear Profession of Art Writing,” in which he went after fellow critics such as Hilton Kramer (who “makes art sound as appealing / as a deodorant enema”) and Harold Rosenberg (a “honey-tongued blowhard”).

In the last stanza, he referred to art critics as “a tiny guild on the fringe of useful human endeavor” and then addressed the profession itself, reflecting modestly on his own contributions:

I neither enriched nor eroded you, as others have,

but I would hope I’ve done my bit for pleasure,

a fleeting kind that is sweet to the serious.

I intended no harm. May my sins be forgotten.



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