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An Eye on the Tremors

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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.

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.

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