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

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Peter Schjeldahl, a college dropout from Minnesota who became one of New York’s most enduring 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 love and almost impossible not to admire”), died October 21 at his home in Bovina, NY. He was 80 years old.

The cause was lung cancer, said her daughter, author Ada Calhoun. Mr. Schjeldahl had written about his illness in “77 Sunset Over Me”, a quintessentially New York good-humored essay that was published in 2019, shortly after his diagnosis. He had been given six months to live, he wrote, but showed “marked improvement” with immunotherapy, which his daughter credits with prolonging his life.

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

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

Describing Alexander Calder sculpture from 1963 “Southern Cross” in a 2001 New Yorker essay, he tried to convey the “deranged urgency” of the work, writing: “Imagine someone using gestures to describe a tree to people who have never seen one: ‘This thing comes out of the ground and up, and there are stuff above that stretches and hangs — aw, too bad.’ Calder’s ‘style’, he added, ‘touches something heroic and unhappy in all of us’.

Raised in small towns in North Dakota and Minnesota, Mr Schjeldahl had been fascinated by language since he was a boy – “At breakfast, I pored over every word on a cereal box as if it was about holy scriptures,” he recalls – and dreamed of a bohemian, big-city life somewhere on the coast. 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, until, he said, “art criticism ate poetry”.

Over the years, his career was rocked by drug use and alcoholism (he got sober in the early 1990s) and a tendency to drift away from longtime friends in and out of the world of art. “I am compulsively impolitic and tactless. … I can’t write about people, that’s why I write about inanimate objects,” he said. told Interview magazine in 2014. Yet he remained a renowned and widely read critic for over 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 New Yorker editor David Remnick in a tribute. “The voice of a poet – epigrammatic, nothing wasted.”

Writing about an exhibition of 16th-century Italian portraits held 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, stunned me like a Sunday punching streak.” A retrospective of painter Robert Colescott made him feel “delightfully hit like sensitized pinball”, while Edward Hopper’s work left him with “a feeling of loneliness, a congestion of feeling unable to articulate, like being dumb with love”.

In a New York Times Review of “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light” (2019), Mr. Schjeldahl’s most recent collection of articles, author Charles Finch praised the “remarkable pulling beauty” of Mr. Schjeldahl’s writing, adding: “He has the ability to freeze a cold artist into a line, not aphoristically, which implies a move away from the specific, but with meticulous, written precision.

Sometimes it could wilt, slashing the work of artists like Kaws, an auction house favorite known for appropriating cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse. “Like a diet consisting solely of celery, which is said to consume more calories when chewed than provide for digestion, KAWS activates hallucinatory spiritual starvation syndromes,” he wrote. , using the artist’s stylized capitalized 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 any work of art that exists today, 5,000 years old or five minutes old,” he told the Brooklyn Rail newspaper. in 2015. “We look with contemporary eyes. What other eyes are there?

The eldest of five children, Peter Charles Schjeldahl was born in Fargo, ND on March 20, 1942. His mother, Charlene (Hanson)was a voracious reader who worked as an office manager for his father, Gilmorewho fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 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 anti-evil bag air lined with plastic.

Mr. Schjeldahl said he acted, sometimes bringing his mother to tears, in order to get the attention of his father, who was almost exclusively focused on his work. Decades later, Mr. Schjeldahl showed a similar focus as an adult, throwing himself headlong into writing at the expense of parenting his daughter, Calhoun. In June, she released a memoir, “Also a Poet,” which portrayed him as a loving but neglectful parent who rarely showed interest in her life. (Mr. Schjeldahl told Calhoun he liked the book, calling it “such a gift.”)

Ada Calhoun reconciles with neglectful father in ‘Also a Poet’

“Writing consumes writers,” he noted in his New Yorker essay on cancer. “No one better than me has said that. Passion damages relationships. I think intermittently about the people I love, but I think about writing all the time.

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

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

Mentored by Seymour Peck, arts and culture editor at The Times, he began to gain confidence as a critic in the 1970s. “Most of what I know scholarly about art, I learned in time,” he recalls, “to give the impression that I knew what I was talking about – like, bit by bit, I did. Educating yourself in public is painful, but the lessons remain.

In 1974, Mr. Schjeldahl married Brooke Alderson, an actress and comedian whom he met at an opening at the Whitney Museum. In the 1980s, they purchased a country home in the Catskills town of Bovina, where they hosted loud fireworks displays for many years. 4th 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 pull the event.

Besides his wife and daughter, survivors include a brother, three sisters and two grandsons.

Although Mr. Schjeldahl eventually left poetry behind, he published several books of verse and briefly gave up criticism to focus on poetry in the mid-1970s. He announced his decision partly through a cheeky poem titled “Dear Profession of Art Writing”, in which he lashed out at fellow critics such as Hilton Kramer (who “makes art as appealing / as a deodorant enema”) and Harold Rosenberg (a “hit honey-tongued hard”).

In the final stanza, he called art critics “a little guild on the fringes of useful human endeavour”, then addressed the profession itself, modestly reflecting on his own contributions:

I have neither enriched nor eroded you, as others have done,

but i hope i did my part for fun,

a fleeting genre that’s seriously sweet.

I meant no harm. May my sins be forgotten.

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