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…

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