Peter Schjeldahl is the only currently practicing art critic whose style I envy. He can do things with words on which other critics can only look with wonder–though he sometimes does them too often or too flashily, so that reading seventy-five of his pieces at a go can be too much of a good thing. Still, the very title of his collection of reviews from over the last decade shows his finesse: what lightness of touch! Just two little monosyllables–contracted from three, admittedly–yet how much they tell us about the writing they somehow summarize. They take the form of an invitation, one without condescension or formality, for they assume an “us” that includes writer and reader as equals. And the invitation, mind you, is to see, not just to look, which is to say that they assume we can not only search but find. But as to what there is to be found, there is no foregone conclusion: “I don’t know–let’s see.” Schjeldahl never writes as an authority, just as a particularly energetic, quick-thinking and vocal member of a club of art lovers of which the reader is also assumed to be a member.
Schjeldahl’s band of aesthetes is hardly an embattled remnant, but neither, surprisingly, is the art world, with its institutions entirely dedicated to fulfilling its needs. “Art lovers are a disorganized minority constituency in the conduct of the art culture,” Schjeldahl once told an interviewer. “We are like selfish children; all we’re interested in is art. And we learn to… we have our improvised guerrilla tactics. Getting in, getting past all the gorgons, and educators, and labels, and getting what we want and then going home.” Schjeldahl’s generation of art critics, now in their mid-60s, mostly created bases for themselves as art historians working in universities–among them Rosalind Krauss and Michael Fried. But Schjeldahl was “one of those sixties college dropouts you hear about,” he admitted, and, without having a chip on his shoulder about it, he makes his autodidacticism a point of pride and of solidarity with readers who are assumed to be smart if not erudite.
An aspiring poet when he arrived in New York City in the mid-’60s, Schjeldahl got his start as a critic in publications like Art in America and ARTnews but eventually found his real niche writing for a broader public when he became the critic for the short-lived weekly Seven Days and then for the Village Voice. His move in 1998 to The New Yorker, however, may have been an even bigger leap. The Voice shares with the specialized art press a premium on contemporaneity, whereas The New Yorker has licensed Schjeldahl to turn his eye toward the cultural summits; yes, you can read about painters of the moment like John Currin, Neo Rauch and Lisa Yuskavage in Let’s See, but more of it is devoted to classics like Vermeer, El Greco and Rubens–the blockbusters for whom crowds have lined up at the Met.
Meanwhile, what ever happened to Schjeldahl the poet? Poetry “gave up on me in the early 1980s,” he explains. “I never had a real subject, only a desperate wish to be somehow glorious.” Feelings one suspects are much rawer find a socially acceptable form in the guise of humility; “subject” may be another way to say “the will to persist in the face of indifference.” But poetry lurks within Schjeldahl’s prose, and when poetry is lacking there’s still something nearly as good: the bracingly dialectical rhetoric of epigram. Speaking of a sculpture by Alexander Calder, Schjeldahl notes that it’s “grand but so affable you forget to be awed.” One of his great talents as a critic is that he also consistently forgets to be awed by artists even grander and much less affable than Calder–the “congenitally aggrieved” Cézanne; the “glowering” Jackson Pollock, “whose ruling emotion was fear”; the “truly barbarous” Ingres. Even when Schjeldahl advises that “it is good to be on amicable terms with Chardin,” one suspects a hidden threat. “I’ve discovered a rewarding way of looking at sculptures by Alberto Giacometti,” he announces at the beginning of one piece, inconspicuously acknowledging that he might not have found them very rewarding before. What makes Schjeldahl a good writer on the classics is that, without pretending not to recognize them as such, he likes to bring out the awkwardness, irritability and riskiness in their work.