Editor’s note: Though I was a big fan, I never met Peter Schjehldahl in person. We only crossed paths on the pages of the Voice, in the 1990s, with him writing the lead, full-page art review most weeks while I was turning out the occasional Jockbeat article. Some years ago, though, after he’d been the New Yorker’s art critic for decades, we connected through our mutual admiration for, and writings about, the photographer Mark Morrisroe, who died of AIDS in 1989.
Then, in 2018, Schjeldahl wrote an essay about one of the Voice’s periodic deaths, and I pointed out to him that the New Yorker’s vaunted fact-checkers had made an error about the location of the Voice’s offices. His reply, characteristically witty and channeling a bit of William Blake, instantly went into my wish-I’d-written-that folder: “The NYer checkers are as superhumanly anal as ever—on the print side, as very much opposed to the crazy berserk online mill.”
The following spring, I was talking to a grad student at NYU and baseball came up, as she is both a hardcore painter and a Cubs fan. I mentioned an astonishing baseball-art mashup I remembered Scheldahl writing back in the day, and later that afternoon I found it in one of the Voice’s bound archive volumes. I thought, “I should put this up for opening day.”
I sent the link to Schjeldahl, noting that I much admired the formal/conceptual heft of his “Clemente to Marden to Kiefer” piece and always lol’d at his description of the German painter Anselm Kiefer as a “two-ton Teuton.”
A few hours later, he replied, “Takes me back. I loved the VV. Where else could conceivably have published this?”
Where else indeed?
It’s fall once again, and postseason baseball and the art world are in full swing, but, unfortunately, we must say goodbye to one of the giants. —R.C. Baker
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Peter Schjeldahl: March 20, 1942 – October 21, 2022
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Art lovers in New York and baseball fans everywhere get weird in October. For the former, it is the season of undulled appetite, when an unleashed flood of new objects and images temporarily scintillates with interest and promise. For the latter, it is the ferociously accelerating climax to long languorous months of foreplay. What, then, of those of us for whom both art and baseball are chronic passions? Pity us! Each addiction being, in its own way, total, we are besides ourselves.
A tendency is noted around dinner tables to discuss the aesthetics of baseball at very great length, as the sane and the innocent tiptoe from the room.
Another tendency suggests itself as a heretofore neglected possibility: view the world of October art through the lambent October mists of baseball. A method for such madness happens to be ready-made in a brilliant little book of several years back by poet Charles North, Lineups (reprinted in his Leap Year, Kulchur Foundation, 1978). North proved by example that any quantitative category of qualitatively diverse units — movies, colors, diseases, etc. — can be subjected to the subtle yet ineluctable analysis of talent and temperament that determines a baseball player’s optimum position in the field and place in the batting order. For instance:
San Francisco ss
New York p
Isn’t that great? My only trouble with this lineup is North’s National League purism, which deprives him of the delicious wild card of the designated hitter. (Havana, batting seventh.)
So. With collaboration from art journalist and hardball fancier Gerald Marzorati, I recently set about compiling a roster of present art stars according to the Northian Paradigm. Carried away, I have embellished it with analytic descriptions in that important American folk-poetic form, the scouting report. Marzorati and I set certain rules — that all named artists should be roughly of baseball-playing age, that all should be coming off hot seasons, etc. — and broke them repeatedly. For the relative absence of abstract painters, performance artists, realists, sculptors, and women I have no defense. For the presence of Europeans, presumably good only for belaboring balls with their feet, I have no explanation. This is just the way, in the frenzy of free association, it turned out.
Please note that a batting order is not an order of preference. Actually, if you can’t interpret one, don’t guess; ask a friend who can. With that, the lineup:
Francesco Clemente, shortstop: smooth, great range and hands, great off-balance arm…switch hitter, weak bat but outstanding on-base knack, good eye, will bunt for hit…threat to steal.
Cindy Sherman, third base: middling range but super quickness, Gold Glove, hasn’t missed a ball hit her way in two seasons…disciplined hitter, pulls inside pitch for distance…selfless player, cinch to sac bunt or hit behind runner.
David Salle, center field: uncanny range and glove, fluid speed, [Roberto] Clemente type, makes it look easy…line-drive hitter all fields, league-leader doubles and triples, rally-maker…temperamental, injury prone.
Anselm Kiefer, first base: two-ton Teuton, just adequate at position, can be bunted on…fearsome slugger, aggressive, bad-ball hitter, can take anything downtown…slow but intimidating on bases, catcher advised not to block plate.
Julian Schnabel, right field: Reggie Jackson clone…erratic glove, grandstand catches may follow initial misjudgment, arm strong but wild…picture swing, strikeouts and homers in bunches, scary in clutch…Mr. October.
Ken Price, designated hitter: pure hitter, great bat control, strokes the ball, consistent .300…no threat on bases.
Brice Marden, second base: keystone pro, range limited but good jump, unreal pivot…tough out, sometime power…knows the game, team captain.
Susan Rothenberg, left field: medium glove, unstylish but determined, body-blocks short hop…strict pull hitter, streak power…consistent effort, hometown favorite.
Joel Shapiro, catcher: solid, smart, calls a good game, good arm but release has lost snap…contact hitter, rarely strikes out, longball infrequent…slow but wily on bases.
And on the mound:
Frank Stella, starting pitcher: ageless vet, owns the ball…heat diminished but sneaky with awesome pitch assortment, super control, mixes speeds, throws changeup for strike…competitor, will brushback.
Ed Ruscha, short relief: submarine delivery…indifferent heat but slider and screwball sparkle, keeps everything low.
Jonathan Borofsky, long relief: every kind of slow, junk exclusively…jughandle curve, great knuckler, confusing windup…control doubtful.
Keith Haring, pinch runner: rabbit speed, incautious but known to outrun pickoff, first to third on anything.
So there’s the team a formidable one (with a payroll to match ). Will I stop here? Would you?
General Managers: Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns.
Manager: Leo Castelli
Coaching Staff: Louise Bourgeois, Ellsworth Kelly, Malcolm Morley, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol.
Scouts: Betsy Baker, Mary Boone, Paula Cooper, Holly Solomon.
Batboy: Scott Burton.
Trainer: Chris Burden.
Ground Crew: Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer.
Statistician: Lawrence Alloway.
Umpiring Crew: Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. (Krauss Crimp Owens Buchloh — they even sound like umpires.) Rulebook deconstructionists, they tend to award first base on foul balls and to throw everybody out of the game.
National Anthem: Laurie Anderson.
Bird Mascot: Rene Ricard.
Howard Cosell: Hilton Kramer.
And so on. (Additions and alternatives invited.)
Some might object to the above on the grounds that art is not a game. But then neither is baseball.
It occurs to me that two years ago most of my lineup would have been different. The next two years undoubtedly will make another wholesale revision. At any given moment, certain individuals seem invested with the drama of urgent issues, tastes, and yearnings, but of course it’s not all their doing. These individuals slip into and then out of focus as cultural attention shifts between near and far, surface and depth, center and periphery. Energy and quality do count, but always in context. A home run is just a lost ball if no one who cares is watching. Knowledge of art prepares you for what you feel on seeing a genuinely new work: that you have been waiting and waiting for only this thing. The meaning of ritual events is, being always the same, to hone the edge of the unique present, the instant that will never repeat and never be forgotten.
Think of the way baseball balances its star system with long, long rhythms of life and time. Each season begins in careless spring and ends in darkening autumn, and baseball’s present is absolutely continuous with the ever-renewed memory of stars and seasons gone before any of us were born. Each baseball star’s career mounts through classical stages, from rough youth to honored old age (usually before 40) — a standard trajectory indelibly imbued with the individual’s legend. In the beginning is the end, and vice versa. It’s something fans savor in October.
Art is crueler. At least in modern times, the rhythms are short and broken. The unflagging, continually compelling career is a rarity. There is no rulebook. Art’s very premises can seem to change overnight. (They don’t, really, but the shape of art’s continuity is so vast and dim that it is apprehended only in the best moments of the best minds.) “Stardom ” is chancy in the long as well as the short run: it can be conferred or snatched away posthumously. The culture’s uses for art alter constantly. Treasures become white elephants, and the other way around, in a twinkling. Great art returns, but in ways and for reasons that would amaze its makers.
Isn’t there a softening poignance in all this contingency? Such vicious temporality — the still-operating syndrome of 15-minute fame — may represent some harsh, necessary wisdom of democracy, as I’m sure Tocqueville (that smart aleck ) once said somewhere. We’ll permit all sorts of people to dominate, if only for the fun of knocking them down. This is so much part of us that complaining about it is probably a waste of breath. On to Halloween. ❖