Apr/May 2008

Poetic Justice

A new book collects Peter Schjeldahl's New Yorker writings

Alan Gilbert


Accompanying the current art-market boom is a pervasive worry among critics as to whether their opinions really matter any longer. The fear is that collectors' tastes—more crudely, their money—will trump critics' judgments every time. In the face of this potential irrelevance, panels, symposia, blogs, and books have been conjured to discuss the matter; thankfully, this public hand-wringing is frequently leavened with a dose of self-reflective humor. Yet as the most cynical art critic will admit, galleries still closely monitor reviews of their exhibitions, and they continue to insert even the smallest published clip into that three-ring black binder used to gather information on an artist's career—a compendium usually featured at the front desk when it's her or his chance to show.

As staff art critic for the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl doesn't cover many gallery offerings. Only a handful of the seventy-three reviews collected in Let's See: Writings on Art from the New Yorker focus on nonmuseum exhibitions, and these exceptions are firmly blue-chip. Schjeldahl is after the biggest fish. And why not? Art critics should be as ambitious as artists, and Schjeldahl consciously inserts himself into a lineage where this isn't an absurd notion, name-checking Charles Baudelaire, Frank O'Hara, and out-of-fashion John Ruskin. Of course, one person's tradition is another's cul-de-sac. As nice as it is to see Schjeldahl quote Rosalind Krauss—and not completely negatively—in a piece on Dan Flavin's fluorescent-light installations, his reviewing approach and manner are a world apart from the theoretically and politically oriented criticism that originated partly in response to art writing's belletristic mode.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Big Sea #1), 1969, graphite and acrylic on paper.

Schjeldahl isn't simply a belletrist in art critic's clothing, however much contributing to the New Yorker has allowed him to explore—some might say indulge—this side. He's also a journalist to the core. His life-changing relocation from the Midwest of his childhood to New York City occurred when he accepted a newspaper job in New Jersey in the early '60s. He didn't last long, especially after intersecting with first- and second-generation New York School poets, among whom he wrote poetry until stopping circa 1980. For much of this period, he reviewed art regularly for the New York Times. The buoyant prose of Let's See is a lucidly flowing result of Schjeldahl's journalistic background and his ultimately more literary disposition. He's been trained to treat is and are as favored verbs, but he also likes to backload his sentences with a seemingly limit­less supply of impeccable adjectives. In this sense, the difference between the writings in Let's See and The Hydrogen Jukebox, his 1991 collection, is a matter of loosening the trot on his already-refined signature style.

What makes Schjeldahl a pleasure to read is that he loves language as much as art. "An utterance that sounds good isn't always right, but one that sounds bad is invariably wrong," he asserts in the book's introduction, which consists of his responses to twenty questions from various art-world luminaries. Sounding good in part means neither repeating yourself nor droning on and on. Schjeldahl's ability to coin unique, illuminating, and nonredundant descriptions of artworks after writing countless reviews for forty years is truly remarkable. It may be a holdover from his days as a poet, since nothing kills a poem more than being able to guess the next word. Schjeldahl's also very good—stylistically, at least—when the art he discusses appeals more to the emotions than to reason. To get an idea of where his sympathies, and passions, lie, one needs only compare his near swoon in the last two paragraphs of a review of Pablo Picasso's erotic art with his matter-of-fact, no-smelling-salts-required take on the Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich.

For Schjeldahl, beauty and its primal engine, lust, are amoral forces, which is why he doesn't particularly like art, or criticism, that subsumes personalities into programs: aesthetic, political, or ethical. He believes the initial response to an artwork should bypass the brain for the body. Hence, the only Conceptual artist in his pantheon is the always-physical Bruce Nauman. It's also why for someone so linguistically adept, Schjeldahl revels in declaring his verbal and mental inarticulateness when encountering what he considers great art: "Confronting a major photograph by Arbus, you lose your ability to know—or distinctly to think or feel, and certainly to judge—anything"; "Vermeer beggars any analysis" (the younger and brasher rhetoric of The Hydrogen Jukebox describes this experience as "dumb" and "stubborn"). At the conclusion of Let's See, he somewhat startlingly suggests that "modern art is over." By this he means its embrace of impersonality, its production according to ideological or formal schemata (he's not a fan of Raphael, for committing the latter sin), its brutish championing of faceless abstraction. While one might not be thrilled by what he's chosen to replace it—namely, artists such as John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage (glowing reviews of whom appear in Let's See)—Schjeldahl's proposal makes sense within his own trajectory as a critic. In retrospect, it's possible to watch his public voice periodically crest and decline in tandem with the fate of recent painting, particularly figurative painting.

All criticism is quasi-autobiographical—or at least the most interesting is. So it's no coincidence that Schjeldahl's reviewing pen went silent during American painting's nadir in the late '70s, or that the publication of The Hydrogen Jukebox and now Let's See leaves much of his criticism from the '90s uncollected. After 1990, Schjeldahl notoriously began to loathe political art—and lots of other contemporaneous work as well. It's not that he thinks art is disconnected from politics. Instead, he dislikes recent political art for its emphasis on identity and social atomization. Yet would anyone be unable immediately to decipher Schjeldahl's identity from a casual perusal of Let's See's table of contents? Is an implicit affirmation of identity, along with an assumption that your identity is a universal one, all that preferable to its candid expression? True to his populist roots, Schjeldahl's writing and the art he prefers are amalgams of cosmopolitanism, nationalism, and provincialism; of high and low; of elite and plebeian; of free-market principles and social responsibility; of reaction and liberalism; of "aristocrats at a tractor pull." He makes commendable efforts to defend high-modernism rejects Norman Rockwell and Fairfield Porter, but he somehow winds up hectoring the only nonwhite female artist (Mona Hatoum) included in the book.

Schjeldahl is most engaging when he's ambivalent. His reviews' typical format of first impressions, biographical capsule, smattering of social history, detailed analysis of the exhibited work, and general evaluation of the artist's career leaves plenty of room for information and interpretations at cross-purposes. His mixed opinion of Paul Gauguin's art combines a careful examination of Gauguin's paintings with compact discussions of the artist's life, colonialism, the early avant-garde, and the role of museums and collectors. Schjeldahl's feel for living with contradictions provides his writing with both its depth and its surface appeal—that and its seductively pellucid phrasing. It involves his ability to admit mistakes and change his mind, whether from negative to positive (overturning prior dismissals of Philip Guston's "hood" paintings and of Currin's work) or from enthusiastic to worshipful (Velázquez). While the politics underlying his opinions can get murky, his aesthetic likes and dislikes are easy enough to discern along a spectrum ranging from the gush (Vija Celmins) to the sneer (Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central Park public-art project The Gates).

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates, 1979–2005, Central Park, New York, 2005.

Nonchronological in order, Let's See begins with musings on the idea of "Americanness," circa 1999; it ends with a review of nineteenth-century British fairy paintings. Which of the two entails the greater investment of fantasy? To what extent does the book point backward more than just historically? Readers will debate and disagree, a clear sign of Schjeldahl's substantial influence. Gracing the book's cover is a detail from a 2003 Currin painting titled Thanksgiving, which loosely depicts the artist's wife during three stages of her life. Schjeldahl (or the marketing department at Thames & Hudson) must have had tongue-in-cheek fun choosing this image of a figure being spoon-fed her own image, albeit reluctantly. At one level, it's a visual metaphor for the contracted Us in the book's title. It's also an image of self-confirming—and, yes, identity-validating—aesthetic pleasure being given the final word. "I think that our renewed enthusiasm for Vermeer confirms a trend in current taste away from art as a field of educational improvement and toward aesthetic experience as an end in itself," Schjeldahl opines, fully showing his hand. This willful embrace of art for art's sake might seem as if he's playing with three cards when the game calls for five. Nevertheless, Schjeldahl's criticism both makes and breaks the rules in ways that keep the art of reviewing vital, effective, and necessary.

Alan Gilbert is a New York–based critic and poet.

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