Peter Schjeldahl's Terror, Narcissism and Art
A flaws-and-all reappraisal of the late New York art critic
A flaws-and-all reappraisal of the late New York art critic
Back in 2017, I tried to lure the luminous critic Peter Schjeldahl into a conversation about art and politics, and in return received a fuck off wrapped in a maybe. ‘I don't believe that contemporary art has any role in politics,’ he replied. ‘That leaves us what to talk about?’
We’d met at Rutgers University where he was a guest critic and I an MFA student. Having long admired his ability to reanimate experiences of art, in reviews restlessly woven from feeling and thought, lyricism and street chatter, I’d been wrestling with his star-spangled boomer liberalism and conservative tastes, concerns that really started itching after the 2016 US presidential election. After naming Walt Whitman, the poet of emergent American democracy, as his ‘chief political theorist’ he demurred: ‘I’m not going to argue with your generation. The world is yours now’. When Peter died in October at 80, it felt like the lights had gone out on an irreplaceable and very complicated device for conveying art’s divisive potential.
His early political views were disturbingly neoliberal. In the 1978 tirade ‘Terror, Narcissism, and Art’ he railed against structures for government support of art as a feature of the nanny state and charged that ‘alternative [cultural] institutions flatter the narcissistic delusion that the world owes everybody a living and hearing.’ (Margaret Thatcher nods in her grave.) When his youthful arrogance eventually faded, he posed more subtle, heartfelt questions about the relationship between art, the individual and the collective. ‘Of Ourselves and of Our Origins: Subjects of Art’, a 2010 lecture he delivered at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and then revised for publication in frieze, asked: how can art function in a culture whose ‘bridges between individual experience and shared meaning are pretty thoroughly blown up’?
By way of an answer to this question, he waged a four-decade-long campaign against the gaucherie-phobic torpor which pervades contemporary art criticism. Cultural experiences – including the disappointing ones – were amplified with brilliantly engineered turns of extravagance and candour. The work of Yanktonai Dakota painter Oscar Howe, to pick one example from a review published in The New Yorker this year, was a ‘channelling of sheer, visionary imagination, as if the artist were taking dictation from an unseen demiurge’.
Out of context, it’s easy to wince at this histrionic belletrism. But there was a method to it. Such phrases were effective because they were part of an elaborate rhetorical mechanism, whose high notes carried dreams of art’s potential that most of us ditch in adolescence. Peter’s ability to surf linguistic registers produced an uncannily present voice – a postmodern subjectivity split between the dialects of multiple eras and cultural milieus. In the Howe review, he downshifts from an almost preacherly tone into a childlike appeal to the reader – 'Really, go see.’ His final review for The New Yorker showed off his knack for romantic metaphysics; photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’s party scenes became ‘panes of glass dropped through the middle of symbioses.’ It was probably not lost on Peter that this description could equally describe the experience of reading his own words.
Speaking of narcissism – if not terror – he had a crafty way of lacing words with a power rivalling their subjects. Thus, we were reminded that criticism can be art. Consider closely his exaltation of Jasper Johns: ‘I guess I wanted him, great as he is, to be greater still. Now, amid his art’s abounding glories, I declare unconditional surrender.’ This sounds like modesty until you notice that the surrender is articulated with so much maudlin razzle-dazzle that it’s less a surrender than a rhetorical gambit. Here was Peter using his adoration for Johns as a battery to power his own artistic method – to liven up the deadened corridors of criticism with controlled detonations of reverie. (He also liked real explosions. His and wife Brooke Alderson's Fourth of July parties, I can testify, would make Jay Gatsby blush.)
To understand Peter’s purpleness it helps to dwell on the camp dimension of his writing, and his affection for the ‘burlesque’. This word, which he used repeatedly as a compliment in his later writing, describes reverential caricature: a relationship between artist and influence defined by a charged combination of intense sympathy and knowing distance. Repeatedly praising artists who burlesqued their forebears, he did the same with his: Charles Baudelaire, Frank O’Hara, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. In ‘The Art of Dying’, the epic 2019 farewell note Peter wrote for The New Yorker after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he had no choice but to embrace the reality of voice as bricolage. ‘Do you imagine that writers speak as themselves?’, he asked before answering his own question: ‘No such selves exist’. Reading those four words, I couldn’t tell if my heart was sinking or jumping out of my chest.
Peter’s near-religious aestheticism, his early habit of focusing on the work of his white, male counterparts, and lack of interest in art not rooted in classical technique, put a reactionary tarnish on his dazzling words. Still, those words strained with what the art historian Robert Storr, in the introduction to Peter’s 1991 essay collection The Hydrogen Jukebox, called ‘a deep desire for closeness’. Peter’s later essay 'Notes on Beauty’ (1998) confirmed that this ethos applied especially to the unfamiliar. ‘The object of beauty’ was for him ‘bizarre, with an aspect I initially consider odd or even ugly.’
Reading ‘Of Ourselves and of Our Origins’, a person could fairly conclude that his reverence for sympathetic contact with art modelled an ideal of sympathy between people. As his own sympathies evolved, he admitted his mistakes. Years after participating in a conservative pile-on of the socially engaged 1993 Whitney Biennial, he conceded in a 2016 interview with New York Magazine to having ‘resisted the truth that [the show] embodied a necessary force of history.’ After his death, I tried to square his anti-art-in-politics position with his gushing New Yorker review of ‘Women at War’, 2022, an exhibition at New York’s Fridman Gallery, of imminently political Ukrainian art. The inevitable conclusion: people are unsquarable.
As for the shape of his words, Peter’s hunger for greater greatness compelled a crafting of sentences and paragraphs whose structures and internal vocal contrasts seemed never to repeat, always custom-fitted to the experience of art that they were in that moment tracing. Requiring obsessive attention, art this rigorous exacts a cost. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, his daughter Ada Calhoun made clear that their relationship picked up the tab. ‘He is […] unreliable,’ she wrote, ‘and prefers smoking cigarettes in his office to playing with his grandchildren.’ Which naturally provokes the question: is devoting oneself so wholly to art really worth it? To his credit, Peter sometimes used his razor wit to prod this question. In 1981, given the unenviable task of writing a Village Voice column at the height of summer, he expressed that he ‘wouldn’t dream of disturbing […] the voluptuous calm and lonesomeness that the solstice can bring’ before whipping a sardonic U-turn: ‘So let’s all go to the Frick’.
He almost certainly nabbed this idea from a line in O’Hara’s heart-melting poem Having a Coke With You (1960). Peter replaced O’Hara’s whimsy with the melancholy of a critic questioning his reason for being. Who’d want to spend a beautiful summer day in a stuffy museum? Not me, that’s for sure. Well, maybe if it were with him. Maybe on the other side.
Main image: Peter Schjeldahl with his wife, Brooke Alderson, 1981. Courtesy: Sheree Rose
Thumbnail image: Portrait of Peter Schjeldahl, 2000. Courtesy: Getty; photograph: Chris Felver