Detective Stories about Feelings: The Driving Force of Peter Schjeldahl

Peter Schjeldahl looking at Joan Mitchell’s "Hemlock" (1956) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, November 2019. Photo credit: Jarrett Earnest.
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Most of us have never known an art world without Peter Schjeldahl in it. We count on him being part of New York like Central Park, a living monument to the pleasures of city life in a democracy. Like that grassy haven, Schjeldahl’s writing pulls off being both accessible and complex – elegant, iconic, fun. He has published regularly since the 1960s, often on a weekly or monthly basis. Familiarity may inure us to how unusual his writerly gifts are and distract us from their spectacular sweep – he chronicles a half-century of timely, always nuanced human feeling. The mode is called “art criticism,” but, taken in quantity, Schjeldahl’s performance of it reads more like experimental first-person literature, without pretension, and revelatory aesthetic philosophy, without pedantry.

Today Schjeldahl is best known as the authoritative art critic of the New Yorker, a post he’s held for two decades. Many readers consider his previous work for the Village Voice to be criticism at its most electric; those columns have languished undigitized in library basements since the nineties. The writing in his recent collection Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light (ABRAMS, 2019), which I edited, opens new vistas onto Schjeldahl’s achievement, with texts of the last thirty years from the Voice (1990-1998), its short-lived sister 7 Days (1988-1990), exhibition catalogues, and the New Yorker.

I first met Peter Schjeldahl in 2015, when I interviewed him for my book What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics. As a critic myself, I undertook the project to understand the thinking of our best writers on art and to gain insights into how to do it. During our conversation, I said off-handedly that if I edited a collection of his criticism it would focus on love as the driving force. This observation came from reading the whole of his work together, which, beyond the topicality of any given argument, revealed the emotional, aesthetic, and philosophical underpinnings of a worldview. Soon after, he suggested I do just that. As a result, I’m to blame for the idiosyncratic organization of that collection’s four sections” “Hot,” “Cold,” “Heavy,” and “Light,” expanding beyond affection to accommodate the full spectrum of tone and attitude. I scrambled the hundred items chronologically, as befits a critic who defines “contemporary art” as “every work of art that exists at the present moment – five thousand years or five minutes old.”

The book begins hot, for sure, with the rapturous lament, “There aren’t enough Flowers,” opening a review of Andy Warhol’s 1989 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. It tells the story of Schjeldahl’s first decisive encounter with contemporary art: seeing Warhol’s Flowers while an aimless poet in Paris in 1965. The piece develops an analysis of what makes Warhol so important to American art, a discussion of the exhibition at hand, and above all, an account of the rush of experiencing great art. It’s a marvelous essay, demonstrating how works of art, which are always both embedded in and slightly apart from the broad culture that we share, become meaningful in our personal lives.

Schjeldahl’s primary mode is that of a lover, and you can read many of his pieces as impassioned love letters, often involving his favorite art: painting. His deep devotion to the medium continued throughout the decades painting was supposed to be dead. Every painter I know would give a couple fingers off their non-painting hand for a good long review by Peter Schjeldahl – not only for the recognition, but because he unfailingly brings something new into the discourse, getting to the very heart of the medium that he succinctly describes as “engaging our strongest sense, eyesight, and our finest physical aptitude, that of the hand – it’s about the hand and eye in concert.”

Schjeldahl attends closely to the often contradictory ideas, emotions, and associations that arise when we look at art, thereby clearing away any pre-existing opinions, and stays responsive to the specificity of each encounter. He reminds us near the end of his review of Anselm Kiefer at MoMA: “It’s only art. Remember that. I know people who take vocal price in remaining unmoved by Kiefer’s work, as if this evinced integrity. The fact is that communion with Kiefer comes only with his willingness to be as respectful of his sincerity as he is of yours. Otherwise the work is just brown decor.” A major champion of the German painter throughout the eighties, his writing ten years later, in 1998, “Anselm Kiefer at Gagosian,” exhibits a shift in tone. After an account of a Felliniesque dinner party Kiefer hosted in 1993, Schjeldahl observes that the painter “has rung no major changes in a decade” and concludes, “For all I know, his genius, once subject to torments that no one suspected, has succumbed to late-blooming health and happiness. But I know from experience not to understand him too confidently.” Even as he senses that the world has shifted away from Kiefer, or Kiefer from it, Schjeldahl doesn’t issue a definitive judgment, but rather a report on what the artist’s situation is like right now, leaving future possibilities open.

Public art emerges as a particularly charged subject, as in his writing around the removal of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza in New York in 1989. Schjeldahl’s had been a lone serious artworld voice supporting those who wanted the work gone, believing that the public should have some say in how public spaces are arranged. “I never stopped hating the placement of Tilted Arc. That it was a good sculpture in Serra’s obstreperous manner made it all the worse for an already cheerless setting,” he wrote. “Did Tilted Arc, which walled off a rare open space in the area, make people feel every kind of oppressed? Some mandarins thought that was fine. ‘It’ll do them good’, a famous artist said to me of the thirteen-hundred office workers who had petitioned for the work’s removal. ‘They’ll quit and get new jobs. It will change their lives’.” Schjeldahl is ever vigilant against such snobbery, because of his own commitment to American democracy. He believes that people have more complex senses of their own needs and desires than is presumed by those who make decisions for them.

By contrast, consider his writing about Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded bronze of General William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback, sited at the corner of Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. “For generations now, we have lacked the mental means for taking it seriously, even when we notice it. But this work moves me,” he wrote. “Sherman’s ravaged, ornery visage convinces utterly, crowning Saint-Gaudens’s signature feat of investing idealist art with realist grit,” and the angel conducting him is “a wonderment of alacrity.” He cites Henry James’s distaste for the celebration of a ruthless warrior but concludes, “The sculpture’s metaphorical conflation of grisly war and blooming hope is precisely what enthrals me. It addressed a contemporaneous national yearning, most vivid in the cult of Abraham Lincoln, to wring a heart’s comfort from the awfulness of the Civil War. The work is at once vulgar and sublime, in ways that invoke a common term: American.” In two seemingly effortless paragraphs he changes the way you’ll see this sculpture forever.

The Sherman monument recurs in a profile of Rachel Harrison, when Schjeldahl took the protean sculptor there to discuss it: “I had promised to alert the skeptical Harrison to the work’s virtue, but we found that it is now hidden in a huge beige box, for a restoration of the site. She was thrilled. The box and the picturesquely jumbled rubble and machinery around it looked like an outsized version of one of her own works-in-progress. Later, noting that repairs to the statue will entail entering it through a trapdoor concealed behind the horse’s saddle, she mused that ‘every sculpture should have a trapdoor’.” The piece on Harrison, whose work he describes as “both the zestiest and least digestible in contemporary art,” is one of two profiles in this book. The other grapples with the mercurial, hugely influential painter Laura Owens.

Schjeldahl has enriched the sensibilities of several generations by narrating his own process of looking, thinking, and feeling – making it seem like something that anyone with a pair of eyes and an open heart can do. He captures the excitement of art, as when he says that a Matisse “stimulates the mind to analysis, then slaps it silly with audacities,” or recounts having been “beaten to a pulp of joy” by a de Kooning show. For Schjeldahl, seeing is a contact sport that demands a precision of language. You never forget his background as a poet – every word hits its mark, one after the other, in a small miracle of a sentence. Sheer writing virtuosity sets him apart.

Peter Schjeldahl writes detective stories about feelings. “Looking at art is like, ‘Here are the answers. What were the questions?’” he once told me. “I think of it like espionage, ‘walking the cat back’ – why did that happen, and that? – until eventually you come to a point of irreducible mystery.” Often personal anecdote or memoir frames an analysis, providing a way into a subject, a path through it, and an exit from it. This book teems with marvelous stories, finding the twenty-three-year-old Schjeldahl riding through Tuscany on the back of a Vespa in quest of Piero della Francescas, recounting a slapstick robbery of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or conveying an up-close encounter with the backside of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece as it was being restored. Writing on a still life by Francisco de Zurbarán, he describes a frequent effect of looking at art in a private collection: “It helps when the specter of a particular person, who particularly loved particular things, stands at your shoulder, urging attention, inviting argument, and marveling at the shared good luck at being so entertained.” It’s easy to read this as a description of Schjeldahl’s own critical endeavor, showing us how to love art works, urging our attention, and inviting our arguments. The effect of reading him in depth, over time, is like that of great literature. You come away not only with new insights and ideas, but with a feeling of having been granted an extra life.

 

This text was originally published under the title “Seeing as Contact Sport,” the introduction to Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 by Peter Schjeldahl, which was edited by Jarrett Earnest and published in 2019 by Abrams Books, New York. Copyright © 2019 Peter Schjeldahl. Used by permission.