Peter Schjeldahl,1982 photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Collection
Collection MFA Houston, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Neil E. Kelley
Writing Art Criticism
An Appreciation of Peter Schjeldahl
by Peter Frank
Peter Schjeldah (1942-2022) was an art critic, poet, and educator. Born in Fargo, North Dakota, he grew up in small towns throughout Minnesota and attended Carleton College and The New School. He began his professional writing career as a reporter in Minnesota, Iowa, and New Jersey before moving to New York, where he worked as an art critic for ARTnews, The New York Times, the Village Voice, and 7 Days (the Cooper Union). In 1998 he joined the New Yorker, where he is currently head art critic. His writings have also appeared in Artforum, Art in America, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. Schjeldahl taught in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University for four years. Over the course of his career, he has written several books of poetry as well as art criticism.
—Peter Schjeldah's bio courtesy The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
The passing of my colleague Peter Schjeldahl prompts some thoughts on writing art criticism and/or being an art critic. These Peter did with joy, conviction, and aplomb. Agree or disagree with him, praise him or take him to task for his apolitical, Epicurean response to the art before his eyes, you could not deny his devotion -- bordering on addiction -- to looking at the stuff, and his plain-spoken virtuosity writing about it.
Peter was a writer first and foremost. I first knew him as a poet, and only later as a writer on visual art. The New York milieu, to which the North Dakotan readily gravitated, brought many poets to visual art, but Peter was one of the few to cross over without ambivalence. (One of his last poems was a long, gossipy paean-cum-putdown to/of his fellow New York art writers. Yeah, I got mentioned, with what I now accept as arch fondness.) He was my editor at Art in America for a hot minute, the only editor I recall ever questioning my opinions rather than just my word usage. (He relented, if mostly to save time.) We were never buddies, and Peter was never one to assuage anyone's insecurities, but I was always glad he was writing, because his writing helped me over and over again to look at and think about art (I regretted only his abandonment of poetry -- even as I saw how his poetics remained in his art writing, indeed, drove it.) Importantly, he wrote vivaciously and persuasively enough to carve out a long career writing for non-art outlets like The Village Voice, Seven Days, the New York Times, and ultimately The New Yorker.
Peter's passion for his subject matter (if not always his subjects) was fervent and unyielding. He loved and honored art, but wasn't deferent to its makers, much less its gatekeepers (himself not least). Peter was no rebel, he sought to burst no bubbles or change the course of art history. Rather, he simply shared his insights with his readers and --- crucially -- did so in some of the supplest prose expended on the subject since the Second World War. Schjeldahl left the predictions and proclamations to more rhetorical compeers such as Dave Hickey (whose contrarian outlook and devotion to art as a source of pleasure tickled him) and Lucy Lippard (whose ideological embrace of aesthetics and politics discomfited him). His critical role was responsive, even reactive, discovering for himself and thus us the secret sauce in everything he chose or was assigned to write about.
When you're that much about the encounter, when gut response is the raison de faire and providing context an at-best secondary task, you have by implication a lot of justifying to do. Who appointed you, you diffident straight white guy, the expert? Why do you get to sound off in The New Yorker, yes The New Yorker, and someone else perhaps more appropriate to the era doesn't? You'd better be better than good at what you do. Peter was. He was a captivating writer, even -- perhaps especially -- when you didn't agree with him. He wrote about the experience of encountering art, examining the sources of the sensations he was feeling and connecting them to broader frameworks, rarely academic but rarely self-indulgent, either. Schjeldahl relied on his prose to ingratiate himself and his ideas -- well, his method of having ideas -- to us, and he succeeded because his eloquence drew us to the art and not to him per se.
Peter had been a leading figure in the second generation of New York School Poets, a network of writers whose urbanism and ready, casual ekphrasis prompted them to embrace all the arts in a classic high-low conflation. They manifested their particular love of art and artists -- painters and painting, especially -- by writing art criticism. Apollinaire (along with contemporaries such as Gertrude Stein and Blaise Cendrars) was among their loftiest models, but they eschewed the Frenchman's influential ism-hawking and emulated instead his tendency to mirror the vitality of the art in question with similarly vivid and mercurial prose, offering words themselves as reactions to and reflections of visual phenomena. Many poets associated with the New York School, from Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery to John Perreault and Carter Ratcliff, were among the city's most active "insider" art critics, filling at least two decades of Art News and Art In America with their articles and short reviews. Of all of them -- of all of us -- who kept the New York art world lyrical, Peter was the one who got so deeply into the art writing that he gave up poetry itself. The joke among all of us was that writing about art was where the money was, but Peter never made us feel as if he had sold out, or even given in. He found in art criticism a genial outlet for his poetic impulse, and he gave the criticism his all.
Peter Frank is Associate Editor for Visual Art Sourc. He is former critic for Angeleno magazine and L. A. Weekly, served as Editor for THE magazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and contributes to publications around the world. Frank received a B.A. and M.A. in art history from Columbia University and was art critic for The Village Voice and the SoHo Weekly News before he moved to Los Angeles. He has served as Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum and has organized shows for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museo Reina Sofia, the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and others. His published works include Something Else Press: An Annotated Bibliography; The Travelogues; and New, Used & Improved. Frank has written many artist monographs and catalogues, and has taught and lectured extensively throughout North America and Europe.
School of Visual Arts Contemporary Perspectives Lecture Series: Arts Critic Peter Schjeldahl, October 4, 2007
From the writings of Peter Schjeldah:
From his article Dutch Magus published October 3, 2022 in The New Yorker
"Mondrian fully justifies heterodox analysis of his famous abstract paintings of sparse black lines or bands and of blocks of primary color, his predominant repertoire after the early nineteen-twenties. There's obdurate mystery in his powerful combinations of hermetic sensibility and formal clarity, which dumbfound even as they command attention. Mondrian's character as a man is enigmatic, too: cognizant of his times, but, with rare exceptions, living and working stubbornly alone. He never married. He and Picasso cohabit no world except the whole one. Picasso's sphere is Dionysian, saturated with his personality. That of Mondrian is Apollonian, evacuated of anyone's. People will have things to say about Picasso forever. I expect that Janssen's book will remain sui generis for Mondrian."
On Wolfgang Timmons from The Polymorphous Genius of Wolfgang Tillmans October 10, 2022 in The New Yorker
"To look without fear,” the immense, flabbergastingly installed retrospective of the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, at the Museum of Modern Art, persuades me that the man is a genius. There’s a downside to the concession—it dampens my quarrels of taste with certain items, among the show’s predominantly brilliant several hundred, that I do not like. Geniuses alter the basic terms of the fields of art or science which happen to engage them. Criteria that once applied no longer compel. The ground zero at moma is “art photography,” its former autonomy diluted in a tsunami of images from Tillmans, in wildly varying sizes, mediums, and formats, which are often mounted from floor to ceiling, and may less risk than exalt banality. Almost violently sociable, the work retroactively mainstreams such precedents as the stark intimacies of love and loss in photographs by Nan Goldin—though the irrepressibly positive-minded Tillmans is never as downbeat as Goldin."
On "The Immersive Thrill of Matisse’s “The Red Studio” May 16, 2022 in The New Yorker
"There’s no possibility of entering the portrayed corner space, even by way of imagination. Only certain subtle contrasts of warm and cool hues, pushing and pulling at a viewer’s gaze, hint at anything like pictorial depth. Not for Matisse the retention of visually advancing and receding forms, as in the contemporaneous Cubism of his towering frenemy Picasso. (Who wins their lifelong agon? The question is moot. They are like boxing champions who can’t tag each other because they’re in separate rings.) Even the vaguely Cézanne-esque “Bathers” (1907), picturing a nude couple in a grassy landscape—one of the paintings in “The Red Studio” whose original is on hand for the show—reads democratically. Swift strokes jostle forward in a single, albeit rumpled, optical plane. See if this isn’t so, as your gaze segues smoothly across black outlines among greenery, blue water and sky, and orangish flesh."