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An Eye on the Tremors

Alex Remnick
Peter Schjeldahl, New York City, February 2007

Let’s See is the fourth and most reserved, or certainly least rambunctious, collection of essays and reviews by our best—our most perspicacious and wittiest—art critic. It brings together a selection of the writing Peter Schjeldahl has done since 1998, when, at fifty-six and with decades of work for numerous publications behind him, he became the art critic of The New Yorker. Let’s See may turn out to be the most widely known of Schjeldahl’s books simply because of where its contents first appeared. And the trim volume in many ways is formidable. Comprised of seventy-odd (almost uniformly) concise reviews of primarily important museum shows of the past decade, it offers a feast of rounded and brilliantly phrased critical estimations of the subjects at hand.

Here are pieces on old masters (Fra Angelico, Vermeer, Chardin, and Tintoretto, among others) and artists of the early modern era and the twentieth century (including Manet, Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Pollock, and de Kooning). Taking off from particular exhibitions, Schjeldahl writes about the role of beauty in art, the airy hubbub of art fairs, the art of past cultures (Byzantium, the Aztecs, the Victorians), and how the individual character of art museums impinges on our experience of what is in them. We hear about such distinctly American figures as Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, and Marsden Hartley, and also some of the more widely and consistently exhibited artists of the last decades: Andy Warhol, the Germans Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, Lucian Freud, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, called “the essential American Neo-Expressionist painter of the early 1980s.”

About these diverse topics Schjeldahl addresses us in a conversational prose that moves from point to point with the speed and ease of some high-tech instrument. He is a writer whose colloquial approach masks both a rather uncolloquial feeling for the tautest way of getting his point across and a word connoisseur’s desire to show off his collection. He will drop into sentences “mystagogic,” say, or “beamish,” or present us with “accessory japes,” “conjuries of tiny freehand strokes,” or “forms of concerted indulgence.” At the Venice Biennale he encounters “jet-lagged, hectic miens,” while El Greco is called “a pictorial rhapsode of militant piety.”

Schjeldahl’s voice is equally layered. It is one in which the teasing insouciance of the class wit—the writer who can note that Rubens’s nudes have “the erotic appeal of a mud slide”—is threaded together with a born ombudsman’s need to mediate between the issues of the moment (artists and what they are up to) and the community in his care (principally the art world but with a nod to anybody who might be tempted by a visit to a gallery or museum). Running alongside these Schjeldahls, and making him, confoundingly, as much an elitist as an egalitarian, is a less temperate writer whose quest is to pinpoint the highest artistic achievement, a subject he looks at aesthetically and morally.

Schjeldahl can penetratingly conjure up the sensuous life of an artwork, but he is most engaged when he can feel an artist pushing his audience beyond merely formal delights. “Beauty isn’t beauty,” he writes, “if it doesn’t inspire awe for a specific proposition about reality.” We infer from his writing that the vast majority of artists who have lived do not expand our consciousness. And artists or artworks that are, as he says, merely “likable,” or don’t have bite, are, in a phrase heard more than once, “more trouble than they are worth.”

In Let’s See, insights into an artist’s character or an art movement and passages held together by an unexpectedly illuminating verb, noun, or metaphor can be found no matter what the subject. It would be hard to top, as a one-sentence summation of Ingres, Schjeldahl’s saying, “There is no light in Ingres, only radiant effulgence, and no space, only material presence”—or his describing the ephemerality of certain artworks with his image of their having “the shelf life of fish.” His noting that Bonnard “housebroke” modern aesthetics is telling about the artist and reanimates the very word; and when we read about the style-crazed Whistler, in an article that otherwise puts little emphasis on his psychology or inner life, that he “was his own ideal audience,” we are deftly made to see a pathos that had to have been an aspect of his famous egoism.

Reading about the paintings of the Russian Suprematist Malevich that their “weightless formal relationships would make kinesthetic sense only in outer space” gave me, at least, a physical and palpable way to grasp these works that I had always lacked. When we read about El Greco that “Picasso took him as a formative influence and thereby installed him in the boiler room of modern painting,” a familiar bit of art history sounds as if it is being stated for the first time. Meanwhile, sprinkled throughout these reviews are aphorisms that aren’t solely about art and have the same stimulating immediacy as the image of El Greco in the boiler room—as when we encounter “Gossip economizes mental energy to a fault” or “If you don’t consent to understand a little, on its own terms, what you dislike, your love loses muscle tone.”

By Schjeldahl’s own standards, however, Let’s See is a little smooth-edged and lacking in friction. The chief impression it leaves is of his roaming among and finding new ways to see and praise renowned old and modern masters—a description that doesn’t fully encompass or do justice to his writing as a whole. Not that they are markedly different from Let’s See, but in his earlier books—The 7 Days Art Columns, 1988–1990 (1990), The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978–1990 (1991), and Columns and Catalogues (1994)—there is an urgency and a sense of jubilation as he antically swoons over or crosses swords with this artist or that museum show that (to my ear) have been missing in his voice of late.

Schjeldahl’s earlier, pre– New Yorker writing, which covers material from as much as thirty years ago, may be even more fun to read than his recent work in part because he writes with a closer relationship to contemporary art and the art world itself, which he sees, in split-second shifts of mood, as glamorous, shark-infested, glory-driven, and wildly uncertain of its identity. To read him on as silly and yet memorable a detail as the difficulty people always had figuring out how to use the doors at the Mary Boone Gallery when, back in the 1980s, it was on West Broadway is to understand that there is no aspect of everyone’s experience of the art life that Schjeldahl misses or can’t enhance. He somehow reports on this world as an outsider and embodies it at the same time. Along the way, he gives as sharply detailed and enlivening an account of the fortunes of contemporary art over the past number of decades as probably exists anywhere.

Schjeldahl began writing about art in 1965, first for ArtNews, then the Village Voice, and for many years at the Sunday New York Times. He was a college dropout from the Midwest (which he has called “that vast center of all that is periphery”) whose goal initially was to establish himself as a poet and who published a fair amount of poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. He got into art reviewing because, as he said, “It was a New York tradition for poets to write art criticism.” By 1976, however, he had had enough. He dramatically signed off as a reviewer with a wry, long farewell poem addressed to the art world, and left for Los Angeles with his wife, actress Brooke Alderson. By the late 1970s, though, Schjeldahl was reviewing art again, and he has said that his serious criticism dates from this time. He has not in fact reprinted any essays or reviews done before 1978.

Yet in these reprinted pieces he manages to impart a full and breathing sense of art in New York from the 1960s on. The values of that decade, moreover, seem to have permeated his thinking. He has called the New York art scene of the time “militantly democratic” and one marked by “liberating candor and humane values.” He has also labeled the scene—where de Kooning, Rothko, or Barnett Newman, increasingly considered world-class masters, might rub shoulders at an exhibition opening with emerging Pop artists, Minimalists, or makers of happenings and earthworks—“overbearing,” “brutally pragmatic,” and “savagely competitive.” As Schjeldahl presents it, the art world was as freeing and frightening a place as society in general in those tumultuous years. And while his work isn’t merely a mirror of that time, his criticism contains a similar tension.

To read Schjeldahl’s earlier books is to encounter a missionary’s feeling that there are no bounds to what constitutes vital art, coupled with a realistic and often persuasive, yet also at times chilling, wish to separate out art’s winners from its losers. It is hard to believe that this two-sidedness doesn’t connect in some way with Clement Greenberg. By the 1960s, Greenberg was no longer the one commentator determining the direction younger artists would take, and he cared little for most of the newly arriving movements. But he was a more eminent, and debated, figure than ever before, whether for artists, the museum sphere, or writers about art.

In his criticism over the years, Greenberg created, as much as anybody, the New York art world’s almost arrogantly self-confident sense of itself as the place where the tradition of modern art remained secure—where the disturbing audacities offered Parisian audiences by Courbet, Manet, and the artists in their wake a hundred years earlier could be perpetuated. His very language, with his calm, dry dismissals of “minor” artists and way of giving “major” artists a stature in the wider culture, even as he described their achievements largely in art terms, fed a climate where the stakes were high and a single gallery show could alter art history. So while he was out of sync with developments in the 1960s, Greenberg’s ideas, specifically his sense that art was first and last about art itself—about the literal materials and processes that went into the making of an artwork—carried a definite weight. The Olympian certainty underlying his writing, moreover, especially if you weren’t on his wavelength, could feel tyrannical.

As a bouncer at the doors of art’s pantheon—as a critic capable of referring to Bonnard and Vuillard as “relatively minor” painters—Schjeldahl is surely Greenberg’s heir. But Schjeldahl also very much said “no” to Greenberg, about whom he has written a number of spot-on and deeply ambivalent essays. Plenty of other writers (and artists), of course, rejected the older critic at one time or another. But Schjeldahl, who has written about being “devoted to the habit of freedom,” and has noted that “nearly all the best American art and literature is about departing, setting off, getting rid of entanglements, breaking loyalties, killing the father,” was by temperament ideally suited to striking out in a different direction—to believing, specifically, that too much in the way of “liberating candor and humane values” was being sacrificed in a quest to make a more perfectible artwork.

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