What Schjeldahl put in place of Greenberg, whose writing had become progressively more single-minded and detached from everyday reality, is perhaps by design a kaleidoscopically various range of perceptions and opinions. Not to be “enslaved by any one idea,” he wrote in his 1994 introduction to Columns and Catalogues, “I try to have a thousand of them.” In trenchant essays from 1979 and 1980 on Munch, Dubuffet, Rothko, and Warhol, which were written when he returned to art reviewing, he also hit out against a prevailing critical approach of the time, which was to downplay an artist’s literal, or stated, subject matter and look primarily at the work’s formal or theoretical properties. In these pieces, he took very seriously Rothko’s desire for a religious response to his work, Munch’s emotional life, Warhol’s love of celebrityhood—all the while managing to keep his discussion from sounding like literary analysis.
More so than in recent years, the Schjeldahl of the earlier books saw the artist as, in his phrase, a “hero of ‘possibility,’” a figure who makes us, for our own good, uncomfortable and nervous with the liberties he or she has taken. In wanting, further, to write about art in a way that took into account its maker’s spiritual assumptions, say, or his relation to his society’s aspirations, Schjeldahl was inspired, no doubt, by Baudelaire, whom he has called “my hero.” Schjeldahl obviously isn’t the first writer to be spurred by the author of “The Painter of Modern Life” and other essays about art in Paris in the 1840s and 1850s. Yet Baudelaire’s sense that the art of one’s time must mirror the tempo of that time and his belief that significant art is about ideas, not techniques or matters of form, comes alive again in Schjeldahl’s criticism.
When Baudelaire comments, moreover (in a characteristic moment), that “the lover of universal life enters the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy,” he might be describing the Schjeldahl who was the art critic for the short-lived paper 7 Days—a writer whose feeling for art is inseparable from his love of communal excitements and urban life in itself. The 7 Days Art Columns isn’t Schjeldahl’s richest collection (The Hydrogen Jukebox is), but it is the most unified in tone of his books and as rereadable as art writing gets.
In a volume that might have been called A Walker in the City (to borrow an Alfred Kazin title), reviews of art shows sit easily in the company of pieces where Schjeldahl, speaking less in the voice of an art critic than a concerned, hip citizen, goes to the Guggenheim Museum, or a Christie’s auction, or thinks about galleries in general. He looks at city architecture, Battery Park City, fireworks, baseball, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Taking in these effervescent pieces—he says of the Guggenheim, for instance, that the “building’s indelible novelty may outlast even the building,” and calls baseball the “least onerous of the major religions”—you feel you would happily read Schjeldahl on anything.
When, in “Baseball,” you get to the line “A certain kind of home run, taking off like a rocket and then drifting pensively in the upper air before descending far away”—you may stop reading for a moment and smile, thinking that the wonderfully apt yet unexpected “pensively” has put you right in that ballpark. But then he goes on about the home run with the inexplicably perfect “Even opposing players watch it dreamily. It reminds them of something.” My favorite lines, however, are in a 1988 review of Dutch art that touches on Rembrandt. They exemplify Schjeldahl’s ability to scramble art and life and to do so with a magically economical verbal elegance. Rembrandt is painting his young wife, Saskia, and Schjeldahl, surveying the scene, writes, “She probably thinks he is the best painter in the world. He is.”
Yet even as Schjeldahl’s criticism is rooted in a conviction that an art that doesn’t confer a charged sense of life’s pleasures or dilemmas probably won’t be around for the ages, he takes us to a rather cool, colorless, and intangible place when he contemplates the artists who are most important to him. His key figures—chief among them probably Manet, Pollock, Gerhard Richter, Warhol, Velázquez, Munch, Picasso, Edward Hopper, de Kooning, Sigmar Polke—are shown to be neither expressionists nor formalists. Their work somehow has in it the textures and conflicts of their respective eras or cultures; but they never “say” much in particular. We rarely take away from a Schjeldahl review a firm sense of this or that artist’s relationship to his literal subject matter. Only small, merely “entertaining” artists, in Schjeldahl’s scheme, give us personal accounts of themselves.
When he gets closest to an artist he especially admires, Schjeldahl often finds a display of consciousness, and not that person’s distinctive psychological makeup but thought in itself. He could be talking about any number of important figures for him when he shrewdly notes that the video- and installation-maker Bruce Nauman presents in his work a “ready-to-wear narcissism—an acute self-awareness belonging to no one in particular.” Schjeldahl writes elsewhere that “only consciousness, in all its frailty, avails against the meaningless,” and one can feel that his own thinking—the twists and turns of his mind at work, registered in the way he shapes language—is the underlying subject of his writing. The possibility that this is so may explain why his pieces are generally short and appear to be in the thick of the argument from the first sentence—and convey, whether his subject is Raphael or Norman Rockwell, a sense of the moment, of sheer presentness.
Thus Schjeldahl’s writing can seem self-obsessed and yet vaguely anonymous, or about “no one in particular,” as he noted about Bruce Nauman’s work. By the same token, one finds that, for all the brilliantly formulated insights and quips which he has lavished on art over many decades, at the end there is little that anyone who follows general art world opinion would find personal, peculiar, or surprising about his set of heroes. Schjeldahl would probably say that this estimate is correct and is what he intends. Seeing art as a mirror of the wider culture, he is concerned with figures who epitomize, or battle with, their era, not artists who mosey along on no one’s turf but their own. Besides, in his many years of reviewing he has done full justice to innumerable artists (including Ralph Humphrey, Forrest Bess, and Bob Thompson) who are little known even to people who follow contemporary art.
But at times a reader (or this reader, anyway) wants Schjeldahl, if only on occasion, to go wildly against the opinions we all know well. Sometimes one feels, too, that in his determination to see art as a branch of life he sails over the purely artistic element completely. His writings on Warhol, for instance, are invigoratingly enthusiastic. Yet the actual artworks Warhol made are never really brought into focus, and the person we read about might as well be a journalist, a sociologist, or a magazine illustrator.
Schjeldahl’s sense of a huge shift that has taken place in the nature of art during the time he has been a critic has to do, as it happens, with consciousness. And although he doesn’t say this, it is a shift that, to a degree, marks the end of a way of looking at art that gave him some of his bearings as a critic. In a far-reaching 1984 essay entitled “Minimalism,” he describes how for him contemporary art changed when, in 1966, he encountered the work of Carl Andre. The show consisted of arrangements of bricks placed here and there in a gallery. Unable to see them as an illusion or symbol of anything—finding them merely bricks—Schjeldahl felt that his own “awkward self-consciousness,” as he puts it, was being made “the point of an experience.” He felt that he himself had become as much a participant in the show as the bricks.
Schjeldahl rightly makes the point that what Andre, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and other Minimalists were doing was different from what Marcel Duchamp had done long before. They weren’t saying, subversively, that anything could be art, or that art was about a process where the viewer was meant to fathom the artist’s intentions. What he took from their use of elemental box forms and materials such as plywood and fluorescent lighting was a sense, rather (as he wrote in another essay), that they were presenting works that weren’t emblems of ideas or emotions but things in themselves, “phenomena in real space and time.” He saw these artists ushering in an era where the gallery can often seem like a “performance zone in which people play at being viewers of things that play at being art.” (It is a perception that applies to changes taking place throughout the culture at the very moment, in the mid-1960s, when he was looking at those bricks—whether in Capote and Mailer’s attempts to break down differences between fiction and reporting, or in Godard’s movies, where we all became self-conscious watching films that felt like essays as much as narratives and seemed more playacted than acted.)
In a sweeping essay from 2004 in Let’s See entitled “Minimalisms,” Schjeldahl updates his thoughts on what he calls “the dominant idea in art of the past forty years.” He writes that “we may never get past Minimalism, in the sense of developing a new big idea of what art can and should do in the world.” Yet even as he admires Andre and Flavin, and sees Judd, with his “loyalty to simple beauty,” as one of the considerable artists of our period, Schjeldahl eyes this situation glumly. His lack of enthusiasm seems traceable to mixed feelings about many of the stripped-down, object-like works the movement in general created. But he also wants to note that Minimalism’s arrival in the 1960s “corresponded with the rise of a new” and, as he sees it, hardly improved art world. Among other things, it brought forth “waves of academically trained artists, curators, and critics,” and signaled, maybe more significantly, the end of “bohemian geniuses like Picasso and Pollock.”
Besides being “bohemian geniuses,” Picasso and Pollock were also, of course, painters; and surely one of the key aspects of the altered art terrain of these last four decades is the collapse of painting as art’s preeminent form. Schjeldahl doesn’t deal with the subject in “Minimalisms,” but over the years he has been as mindful of it, and as eloquent about it, as any critic. For some five centuries, and continuing through the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, painting and art could often be thought of as the same thing. Especially from the nineteenth century on, to talk about a new movement in art automatically meant talking about a new way to paint. For many people who go to museums and galleries, looking at paintings probably remains, furthermore, their chief goal. Extraordinary and merely ravishing paintings continue to be made as well, and they are still the items that keep auction houses happiest. Yet anyone involved in contemporary art understands that painting, in part because artists, in effect, experimented the life out of it, is today merely an option for a young artist, and not one full of possibilities.
Schjeldahl has nailed the situation, writing in 2004 that painting “survives on a case-by-case basis, its successes amounting to special exemptions from a verdict of history.” He has written, moreover, scintillating appreciations of artists, particularly Nauman and to a lesser extent Joseph Beuys, who aren’t painters (or photographers or sculptors in any traditional sense). He says, too, in an interview in Let’s See, that he welcomes the “recent sprawl of plural styles.” By this he means current art’s free-for-all spirit, where, besides paintings or photographs, viewers might encounter videos (seen in every kind of format), or find themselves walking through rooms of changing ambient light, or through theater-set-like installations resembling bunkers, say, or work sites where all the details are subtly, or wildly, ambiguous.
But Schjeldahl more often seems dubious, writing in 2001 (to take one of many examples) that “all the cocksure movements of the last century have collapsed into a bewildering, trackless here and now.” And the demise of the art of painting, which has coincided with Schjeldahl’s career as a critic, may play a part in a note heard in his reviews over the years: his sense that, for all that he continues to believe in the value to culture of taking the art world’s temperature, that world is not the wildly promising one he believed it was when he started out. He certainly remains aroused when the subject is painting. The most important artists to have emerged for him in these last decades are painters (and German): Polke, Richter, and, in the 1980s, Anselm Kiefer. Of the handful of younger artists we read about in Let’s See—Neo Rauch, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Mona Hatoum—only the installation artist Hatoum is not a painter.
And thinking of art as being about the centuries-old fortunes of painting has surely given Schjeldahl (as it gave Clement Greenberg) a way to see a rhythm and a unity in, and maintain a ranking for, an endeavor that might otherwise seem like one unconnected thing after another. When art is thought about as one continuous chronicle of painters, the effect is that the pastness of past art can disappear and the canvas that is still wet can have a larger historical significance. Seeing all painters as players in the same game is what enables Schjeldahl, in Let’s See, to describe Manet, Pollock, and Velázquez, artists of three different centuries, as if they were the hottest members of the team.
Schjeldahl wrote in 1994 that “greatness in or about art has little to do with being right. It has most to do with telling a story that imprints itself on the eyes and brains of your contemporaries.” His own story has to do with the phenomenally sensitive instrument that is his feeling for language. It is geared to quickening our senses and making us see the “certain kind of home run” that takes off “like a rocket.” But he has also kept watch during an era when art has been in a long phase of transition. It is an era that, depending on your age, spells a certain loss, and an awareness of this loss forms an undercurrent in his work—and makes his story only more resonant.