Peter Schjeldahl, respected art critic for The New Yorker, has died at age 80 | Catch My Job


Peter Schjeldahl, a college dropout from Minnesota who became one of New York’s most enduring and respected art critics, wrote with wit, humanity and lyrical precision about old masters like Velazquez (“If he was a rock singer, he’d be Roy Orbison”) and 20 The century’s Lucian Freud-like giant (“difficult to like and almost impossible not to admire”), died on October 21 at his home in Bovina, NY, at the age of 80.

The cause was lung cancer, said his daughter, author Ada Calhoun. Mr. Schjeldahl wrote about his illness in “77 Sunset Me,” a typically good-humored New Yorker essay published in 2019, shortly after his diagnosis. He was given six months to live, she wrote, but has shown “significant improvement” with immunotherapy, which his daughter credits with prolonging his life.

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

Mr. Schjeldahl (pronounced shell-doll) began writing criticism 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, knowledgeable, and often sharp, she had a gift for expressing complex or surprising thoughts in sweet sentences and for bringing works of art to life in the pages of the Village Voice and the New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 1998. .

In a 2001 New Yorker article describing Alexander Calder’s 1963 sculpture “Southern Cross,” he noted the work’s “disturbing urgency”: “Imagine someone using gestures to describe a plant to someone who has never seen it: ‘This thing comes out of the ground. Goes and goes up, and stuff spills up and hangs down – oh, to hell with it.’ Calder’s “style,” he added, “touches something heroic and helpless in all of us.”

Growing up in small towns across North Dakota and Minnesota, Mr. Schjeldahl was fascinated by language from an early age — “At breakfast I would spit out every word on the cereal box as if it were scripture,” he recalls — and somewhere on the coast in a bohemian, big-city Dreamed of life. 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 marred by drug use and alcoholism (he got sober in the early 1990s) and a tendency to isolate himself from longtime friends in and outside the industry. “I am compulsively amoral and tactless. … I can’t write about people, that’s why I write about inanimate objects,” he told Interview magazine in 2014. Yet he remained a famous and widely read critic for more than half a century, whose reviews have delighted generations of art lovers. Often suggesting the visceral impact of a great painting or sculpture.

“A voice that he always had: distinct, articulate, funny,” New Yorker top editor David Remnick wrote in a tribute. “A Poet’s Voice – Epigrammatic, Nothing Wasted.”

Writing about an exhibition of 16th-century Italian portraits by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, Mr. Schjeldahl observed that “five tip-top Bronzinos hung on one wall in the last room of the show, striking me with a sequence of Sunday punches.” A foreshadowing by the painter Robert Colescott has her feeling “delightfully tumbled like a sentimental pinball”, while Edward Hopper’s work has her feeling “a lonely sensation, a rush of unutterable feelings, tongue-tied with love”.

In a New York Times review of “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light” (2019), Mr. Schjeldahl’s most recent collection of essays, writer Charles Finch praised the “remarkable tensile beauty” of Mr. Schjeldahl’s writing, adding, “He has the ability to chill an artist in a single line. There is, not by way of aphorism, which implies a departure from the specific, but subtly, with the writer’s precision.”

At times he can be dry, cutting down the work of artists like Cowes, an auction-house favorite known for cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse. “Just like celery, which is said to consume more calories than it chews and digests, KAWS activates hallucinatory syndromes of spiritual starvation,” he wrote, using the artist’s stylized, all-caps name.

For him, Matisse and Kaus – 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 every work of art that exists at the present moment, 5,000 years or five minutes old,” he told the Brooklyn Rail Journal in 2015. We see through contemporary eyes. What else do you have eyes for?”

The eldest of five children, Peter Charles Schjeldahl was born on March 20, 1942 in Fargo, ND. His mother, Charlene (Hanson), was a voracious reader who worked as an office manager for her father, Gilmore, who was fighting in the war. During World War II worked with plastics, adhesives and circuitry to build the Battle of the Bulge and the world’s first communications satellite, Echo 1. His other inventions included airsickness bags lined with plastic.

Mr. Schjeldahl said he acted out, sometimes making his mother cry, in an attempt to get the attention of his father, who focused almost exclusively on his work. Decades later, Mr. Schjeldahl showed the same single-mindedness as an adult, throwing himself headfirst into writing at the expense of his daughter Calhoun’s parents. In June, he published a memoir, “Also a Poet,” which described him as a loving but neglectful parent who rarely took an interest in his life. (Mr. Schjeldahl told Calhoun he loved the book, calling it “such a gift.”)

Ada Calhoun comes to terms with a neglectful father in ‘Also a Poet’

“Writing consumes writers,” he noted in his New Yorker essay about cancer. “There is no better ending than I have said. Emotions damage relationships. I think about the people I love, but I always think about writing.”

After graduating from high school in Northfield, Minn., Mr. Schjeldahl studied English at nearby Carleton College. He dropped out in 1962 at age 20 and headed east, taking a job as a newspaper reporter in Jersey City. He later returned to college for a year before dropping out for good.

Over the next decade, Mr. Schjeldahl married Linda O’Brien, a fellow writer (“unconsciously,” he said); travel across Europe; has written for ARTnews and the New York Times; Divorced in Mexico; And avoided military service in Vietnam by staying up “on the move for three days and nights,” as he put it, before showing up to an induction center covered in grime and looking like a lunatic.

On the advice of The Times’ arts and culture editor Seymour Peck, he began to gain credibility as a critic in the 1970s. “Most of what I know about art I learned on deadline,” he recalled, “as if I knew what I was talking about — like, slowly, I did. Educating yourself in public is painful, but the lessons stick.”

In 1974, Mr. Scheldahl married Brooke Alderson, an actress and comic, whom he met at the opening of the Whitney Museum. In the 1980s, they bought a country home in the Catskills town of Bovina, where for many years they hosted Fourth of July celebrations, with Mr. Scheldahl overseeing the fireworks display. Artists, writers, gallery owners and movie stars flocked to the event, which drew nearly 2,000 people in 2015 before the Sjeldahls decided to retire the event.

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

Although Mr. Schjeldahl eventually left poetry by the wayside, he published several books of poetry in the mid-1970s to focus on poetry and briefly gave up criticism. He announced his decision in part with a cheeky poem called “The Favorite Occupation of Art Writing”, in which he followed fellow critics such as Hilton Kramer (who “approaches art as a deodorant enema”) and Harold Rosenberg (a). “honey-tongued blowhard”).

In the final stanza, he refers to art critics as “a small guild at the fringes of useful human endeavour” and then addresses the profession, reflecting modestly on his own contribution:

I have neither enriched nor depleted you, like others,

But I hope I’ve done my bit for pleasure,

A ephemeral type that turns from serious to sweet.

I meant no harm. May my sins be forgotten.


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