‘The Dutiful Soldier’: A Tribute to Peter Schjeldahl (1942–2022)
Will Fenstermaker looks back on the acclaimed critic’s life and career
Will Fenstermaker looks back on the acclaimed critic’s life and career
Peter Schjeldahl was the first art critic I read. That was the case for a lot of us, I imagine, since he wrote voraciously and with a dedicated readership for more than 50 years. ‘He was a beautiful writer,’ his daughter, Ada Calhoun, told me when we spoke recently. ‘People grew up reading him and were inspired by him, and I’m really happy for him that that was the case.’ The marvel of his highly personal writing is that it can speak to so many, in and outside of the art world, and give them a sense of commonality and shared experience.
In the busy weeks before his peaceful death at his home in upstate New York on 21 October, Schjeldahl led a tour of the Frick Madison – the temporary outpost of his favourite museum – as part of The New Yorker Festival and visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Brooke Alderson, his wife, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with critic Jarrett Earnest, who edited Schjeldahl’s latest and largest book of selected writings (Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 2019). His final essay, a review of Wolfgang Tillmans’s current retrospective at MoMA, published in The New Yorker just two weeks before his death, is complex and wracked with doubt but, as always, there is gratification in watching him think. ‘The whole point of Peter’s project was that you didn’t have to take his word for it,’ Earnest told me over the phone. ‘He tested his assumptions against the object and wrote so that people could do the same for themselves.’
Schjeldahl remained willing to change his mind until the end. He was not a peddler of a particular theory; his only agenda was pleasure – the pleasures of art, of looking, of language. There are critics who know just as much about art history and writers who share his remarkable capacity for language, but few married the two so pleasingly. Schjeldahl’s writing lives in a state of rapture: ‘Peter was available to fall in love as a way of gaining access to the art,’ said Earnest.
As a young writer, Schjeldahl modelled himself after the poet, critic and curator Frank O’Hara, and later briefly became his official biographer. Though Schjeldahl abandoned verse decades ago, he retained a poetic vocabulary, cadence and colour-language; he was one of our final threads to the New York School and its on-the-ground sensibility. Schjeldahl’s prose bursts with such joy and technical precision that the publication of one of his reviews often became a minor literary event. ‘Schjeldahl’ even became a verb among my circle, meaning ‘to rhapsodize profusely, publicly and without embarrassment’. I tried to ‘Schjeldahl’ often in my writing, but felt self-conscious channelling his form of autobiographical criticism, the revelation of a life divulged in fragments and refracted through art. Schjeldahl was unafraid to disclose his personal shortcomings. He wrote about dropping out of high school, his destructive drug use, coping with alcoholism (he got sober in 1992), his often-fraught relationship with family and, most memorably, his terminal diagnosis in an essay titled ‘The Art of Dying’ (2019) in which he admits: ‘I thought I’d braid my life into cultural history.’ Honest and heartfelt, the essay, which preceded a surprising recovery, snapped the art world to attention like an umbrella in a storm.
Despite his volubility on the page, by all accounts Schjeldahl disliked touring galleries with artists and curators, preferring the company of a notebook, in which he’d jot phrases and descriptions as they came to mind. (‘I write for readers and not for artists, who can buy the magazine and read me like anyone else if they’re interested,’ he wrote in ‘The Art of Dying’.) Learning this surprised me because it stood in such stark contrast to the magnanimous personality of O’Hara, who, as John Ashbery noted in a 1966 article for The Village Voice, ‘gave you the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club with him, as if you had hooked into some big, secret continuum of life’. But Schjeldahl crafted a similar sense of fellowship in his criticism, in his relationship with his readers and in the way he modelled communion with art. In Calhoun’s recent memoir, Also a Poet (2022), in which the writer seeks to complete her father’s failed attempt at O’Hara’s biography, she reveals: ‘He’s always been more comfortable being judged on the basis of his work than on his personality.’
Schjeldahl saw tremendous value in the work of a daily critic, a job he approached, by his own admission in a 2015 interview with Earnest for The Brooklyn Rail, as a ‘dutiful soldier’. Sebastian Smee, an art critic for The Washington Post, grew up reading Schjeldahl; in 2011, when Smee won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism – an award that inexplicably eluded the older writer – Schjeldahl sent a note of congratulations and invited him to the Frick Collection, initiating a decade of close correspondence. ‘He could be surprisingly unguarded and open-hearted,’ Smee recently told me. ‘In a way that was very lovely for me, things could get very intense quickly.’ Schjeldahl often replied within hours, and his emails could be as erudite and disarming as his public writing. He ‘believed profoundly’ in diaristic correspondence, Smee said. ‘Peter talked about journalism’s roots in journaling, where you’re committing private, on-the-fly thoughts to the page. He saw value in the immediacy of that.’
This value was a recourse to the shifting winds and prevailing currents of art criticism – and critics’ tendencies to privilege work that validates inherited criteria at the expense of art and artists that may be enigmatic or new or simply unvetted. Like many critics of his generation, Schjeldahl felt a need early on to define his writing in opposition to Clement Greenberg’s dictatorial formalism; nevertheless, he couldn’t square himself against Harold Rosenberg’s alternative influence. The warm tone of Schjeldahl’s confessional mode offset the cold, capital-driven and theory-dense criticism of the 1980s and ’90s. His receptiveness exposed him to accusations of unprincipled aestheticism – in November 1991, The New Criterion dubbed him ‘a barometer of chic taste’ – but Schjeldahl was devout in his belief that every object had value, which it was his responsibility to ascertain and describe. He had an eye for emerging talent and, in his final decades, he was one of very few magazine critics who regularly sliced through the new language of public relations, with its proffered wisdoms and market-tested narratives.
Schjeldahl’s position at The New Yorker, where he became an art critic in 1998, afforded him a certain privilege. The consummate outsider had infiltrated the media’s innermost sanctum, yet he retained his bite, wit and fighter’s good grace. He was forthcoming about his secret: ‘There is a recurrent moment, for lovers of art, when we shift from looking at a work to actively seeing it,’ Schjeldahl wrote in a 2017 text on Louise Lawler. Truly looking is difficult; it takes a lot of time. It’s hard to remain open, day after day, to the kind of unqualified devotion that Schjeldahl found, again and again. And it’s harder still to express that dumb sensation in language. Reading Schjeldahl’s writing after his passing can feel as though he is still here, reflected in the art that he cherished. Now, we can only access him as he preferred it: through his writing – a fitting rest for someone who approached his work with metaphysical curiosity. Schjeldahl saw every object as an answer to an unknown set of questions, which he set out to probe and provoke until, as he told Earnest in 2015, ‘eventually you come to a point of irreducible mystery’.
Main image: The New Yorker Festival: In Conversation With Steve Martin, 2011. Courtesy: Neilson Barnard / Stringer and Getty Images