The New Yorker’s Respected Art Critic Peter Schjerdahl dies at 80

Peter Schjeldahl, a University of Minnesota dropout who went on to become one of New York’s most enduring and respected art critics, wrote about old masters like Velázquez with wit, humanity, and accurate lyricism (“If He Was rocker, he’s Roy Orbison”) and 20th-century giants like Lucian Floyd (“hard to like, almost impossible not to admire”), on October 21 at his New York Died at his home in Bovina, California, at the age of 80.

His daughter, author Ida Calhoun, said the cause was lung cancer. Mr. Schjeldahl wrote about his condition in “77 Sunset Me,” a typically humorous New Yorker article published in 2019 shortly after his diagnosis. He had only six months left to live, but showed “significant improvement” with immunotherapy, which his daughter believes extended his life, he wrote.

“I always say that when my time comes, I want to hurry up,” he wrote. “But what’s the fun in that?”

Mr. Schjeldahl (pronounced SHELL-doll) began writing criticism in 1965, and while trying to support himself as a poet, he continued to write reviews and essays, with occasional breaks, until his death. Passionate, knowledgeable and often incisive, he has a flair for conveying complex or surprising ideas in melodious sentences and bringing artworks to the pages of The Village Voice and The New Yorker, where he has been writing since 1998. Has been a staff writer.

In a 2001 New Yorker article describing Alexander Calder’s 1963 sculpture “The Southern Cross,” he sought to convey the work’s “sense of urgency”, writing: “Imagine someone gesturing to People who have never seen a tree describe a tree: ‘It came in Calder’s style’, he added, ‘touching both heroism and misfortune in all of us. “

Growing up in small towns in North Dakota and Minnesota, Mr. Schjeldahl was fascinated by languages ​​from an early age—“I would read every word on a cereal box at breakfast as if it were the Bible,” he recalls— Dreaming of a bohemian big city life somewhere on the coast. He found it in New York, where he wrote poetry, socialized with New York School writers John Ashbury and Frank O’Hara, and studied art criticism on the job, until, he said, “art criticism engulfed poetry.”

Over the years, his career was hit by drug and alcohol abuse (he became sober in the early 1990s), and a tendency to distance himself from old friends inside and outside the art world. “I’m compulsively apolitical and tactful. … I can’t write about people, which is why I write about inanimate objects,” he told The Interview in 2014. Yet, for more than half a century, he remains a well-known and widely read critic whose reviews have delighted generations of art lovers. Often hints at the inner influence of a great painting or sculpture.

“He’s always had a voice: unique, clear, funny,” David Remnick, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, wrote in the tribute. “The poet’s voice – epigram, no waste.”

Speaking of last year’s exhibition of 16th-century Italian portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Mr. Schjeldahl observed, “I was amazed by the five pointy Bronzinos hanging on one wall in the last room of the exhibition. A series of Sunday’s Fist.” Painter Robert Cole Scott’s retrospective left him feeling “happily pounded like a sensitive pinball”, while Edward Hopper’s work left him with “a sense of loneliness” , an inexpressible feeling, like being entangled in love.”

In a New York Times review of Mr. Schjeldahl’s latest collection of articles, “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light” (2019), author Charles Finch praised Mr. Schjeldahl’s work’s “extraordinary beauty of tension,” adding, ” He has the ability to freeze the artist icy in a straight line, not through aphorisms, which means slipping away from the concrete, but meticulous, precise writing.”

At times he may wither, cutting the work of artists like Kaws, an auction house favorite known for appropriating cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse. “Like a celery-only diet, where chewing is said to consume more calories than digestion provides, KAWS activates hallucination syndrome of mental hunger,” he wrote, using the artist’s stylized all-caps name.

For him, Matisse and Cowes—as well as Basquiat and Rembrandt, Hopper and Koons—exist in the same contemporary realm and are all worthy of consideration. He told Brooklyn Rail Journal in 2015, “I define contemporary art as every piece of art that exists now, 5,000 years or 5 minutes of history.” We look at it with a contemporary eye. What other eyes? “

Peter Charles Schjeldahl, the eldest of five children, was born on March 20, 1942, in Fargo, North Dakota. His mother, Charlene (Hanson), was a voracious reader who worked as an office manager for his father, Gilmore, who fought in the uplift during World War II and used plastic, adhesives and circuits to make the world’s Echo 1, the first communications satellite. His other inventions include plastic-lined airsickness bags.

Mr. Schjeldahl said he was brilliant, sometimes bringing his mother to tears to get the attention of his father, who was almost exclusively focused on his work. Decades later, Mr. Schjeldahl displayed an adult-like single-mindedness, diving headfirst into writing at the expense of raising his daughter Calhoun. In June, she published a memoir, “A Poet Too,” in which she described him as a loving but neglectful parent who showed little interest in her life. (Mr. Schjeldahl told Calhoun that he liked the book, calling it “such a gift.”)

Ida Calhoun strikes a deal with a negligent father in ‘A Poet Too’

“Writing consumes writers,” he noted in his New Yorker article on cancer. “No one better than me has said this much. Passion hurts relationships. I think on and off the people I love, but I keep thinking about writing.”

After graduating from high school in Northfield, Minnesota, Mr. Schjeldahl studied English at nearby Carleton College. In 1962, when he was 20, he dropped out of school and drove east to get a job as a newspaper reporter in Jersey City. Later, he went back to university to study for a year before dropping out permanently.

Over the next decade, Mr. Schjeldahl (“unwise,” he said) married a fellow writer, Linda O’Brien. Traveled across Europe; wrote for ARTnews and The New York Times; got divorced in Mexico; and avoided military service in Vietnam, as he put it, “three days and three nights at high speed to stay awake” before appearing in the dirt-filled induction center looking like a madman.

Under the tutelage of The Times arts and culture editor Seymour Peck, he began to gain confidence as a critic in the 1970s. He recalled: “Most of what I learned about art in an academic way was learned by deadlines, and it sounded like I knew what I was talking about — like I did it bit by bit. Occasional self-study is painful, but the lessons are lasting.”

In 1974, Mr. Schjeldahl married actress and cartoonist Brooke Alderson, whom he met at the opening of the Whitney Museum. In the 1980s, they bought a country home in Bovina, the town of Catskill, where they held raucous fireworks celebrations over the years, while Mr. Schjeldahl oversaw the elaborate fireworks display. Artists, writers, gallerists and movie stars attended the event, which drew around 2,000 people in 2015, before Schjeldahls decided to withdraw from the event.

In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include a brother, three sisters and two grandchildren.

In the mid-1970s, although Mr. Schjerdahl eventually put poetry aside, he published several collections of poetry and briefly withdrew from criticism to focus on poetry. He announced his decision through a cheeky poem titled “Dear Art Writing Major,” in which he pressed Hilton Kramer (who “made art sound as appealing as a deodorant enema”) ”) and Harold Rosenberg (a “sweet talker”).

In the final section, he refers to art critics as “a little guild on the brink of beneficial human endeavours,” before addressing the industry itself, reflecting modestly on his own contributions:

I have neither enriched nor eroded you as others,

But I hope I’ve done my part for happiness,

A fleeting one that is sweet to serious people.

I don’t mean to hurt. May my sins be forgotten.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: