The Feeler

A life in art—the Voice chats with Peter Schjeldahl, art critic and pleasure addict

"What Turns Shy Boy Into Sex Killer?" A fantastic headline concocted by 20-year-old cub reporter Peter Schjeldahl for the Jersey City Journal circa 1963, the unlikely phrase tumbled through my skull's traps and chutes as I sat down to a season-opening lunch with The New Yorker's ace art critic. "Killer turns into shy boy?" Nope. "Art critic turns into sex killer?" Plausible, but not here. "Shy boy turns into killer art critic?" Now we're getting somewhere!

While the cliché of a killer from the wheat-growing hinterlands is standard Hollywood fare (cue picture of Robert Blake), few stories are as improbable as Schjeldahl's real-world transformation from small-town literary hick into major-league aesthete. A North Dakota–born, Minnesota-raised book nerd besotted with poetry—as youths eternally were before the Beatles—Schjeldahl dropped out of college, weighed his meager options, then literally drew lots to decide which of four major U.S. cities would host his budding, taciturn genius. New York won out—thankfully for generations of readers who've been weaned on his generous insights, capacious taste, and sparklingly clean prose.

Landing in Hoboken, Schjeldahl first applied himself to beat journalism while writing poetry. Admittedly "too self-conscious to be a good reporter," he soon learned from folks he fell in with—Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara—that art writing was something else poets could do to earn money. This led him, legend goes, to place a pay-phone call to Thomas Hess, then crackerjack editor of ARTnews magazine. Schjeldahl breathlessly pumped his nonexistent qualifications. "Never mind all that," Schjeldahl says Hess shot back. "Just write me a letter telling me what makes you think you're qualified to walk into a gallery where some poor bastard has his paintings and tell him they are no good."

This, in a nutshell, is how Peter Schjeldahl, America's most important living art critic, came to write about art. The unacknowledged dean of a bastard profession, Schjeldahl—far more than most people—has racked up a life brimming with fortuitous accidents, awkward encounters, and roads taken, then reversed. One such encounter took place in 1976 when he wrote out a public valedictory, chucking in art criticism for poetry. Read in front of a paying audience in Chicago, Schjeldahl's ax-grinder of a poem named art-world names, a fact that probably still makes its author cringe. Years later—after a Tinseltown sojourn with his current wife, the actress Brooke Alderson—Schjeldahl did an about-face, and dropped poetry for art criticism. In the introduction to his upcoming book, Let's See: Writings on Art From The New Yorker (due in April), Schjeldahl avoids reference to this change of heart, except where he credits luck—the peculiar, face-reddening, insomnia-tamping luck experienced when he "discovered that what you had been doing for money is what you were meant to do."

"A great critic," according to Oscar Wilde, "is susceptible to beauty, and to the various impressions that beauty gives us." So it is with Schjeldahl, a man burdened with the kind of sensibility that in others turns crippling. "Give me a Rembrandt in a subway station toilet and a flashlight and I'm happy," he told me over a diner hamburger. The owner of a contrarian, prickly personality a friend described as "aggressively shy," the 65-year-old critic has seen his share of difficulties: a bit of hard-earned penury, a divorce, problems with booze, a lifetime spent nursing his olympically formed doubt. About the latter, Schjeldahl quotes De Kooning: "No fear but a lot of trembling." Incredibly for a veteran of the trenches, his "trembling" extends to writing at length. "I'm a river navigator," he told me later over a walk in Central Park. "I need the bank behind me and one in front. Over 2,000 words and I'm toast."

The only national chronicler of the expanding circus of art, Schjeldahl has spent four decades writing for publications like ARTnews, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and The Village Voice. At The New Yorker since 1998, Schjeldahl transitioned from writing weekly to bimonthly copy, while zeroing in on his favorite subjects. There is painting, on which he has had a schoolboy crush since ogling Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto in Italy (he describes a second life-changing epiphany, seeing Warhol's flower paintings in Paris, as "someone kicking open the doors of a blast furnace"), and beauty, a concept he describes as "the A-bomb of art criticism." "Paintings are the longest, most important vacations from myself," Schjeldahl volunteers with characteristic frankness. On aesthetics, he can be just as personal: "Beauty is as important to the organism as digestion."

A writer whose reviews have, on occasion, been scathing enough to peel the bark off a tree, Schjeldahl is a critic best known for his enthusiasms. A carrier of a sharply calibrated style of compression—"two ideas per sentence," he has said—Schjeldahl's writing acquires special probity when it turns to subjects dear to his heart. A Velázquez portrait ("The textures are an express elevator to heaven"), Cindy Sherman's photographs ("This is photography as one-frame moviemaking"), fireworks ("an everlasting miracle of human invention")—these and other favorite things are capable of moving him to some of the highest expressions of pleasure on record. Self-exposures as much as pointed raves, Schjeldahl's staunchly intelligible passions constitute the most immediate, articulate, unapologetically delightful takes on contemporary art we have.

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