Let’s See, the new collection of Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker columns published by Thames and Hudson, demonstrates that looking at art can mirror the uncertainties and frailties of the viewer.
Few critics are as vulnerable when encountering art as Mr. Schjeldahl, a quality that endears him to his fans and often irritates his fellow critics, including Peter Plagens in the current Art News magazine, where Plagens describes Schjeldahl as just falling short of being a great critic.
Following Schjeldahl into the gallery can be painful. . . for Schjeldahl! Thus, viewing Lisa Yuskavage’s zaftig nudes is like "turning the volume way up on the radio" and Neo Rauch’s figures are nothing but "objects" of uniform "cheerlessness." Nevertheless, Let’s See is a satisfying beach read, because its reviews, arranged non-chronologically, can be dipped into at random, and because the breadth of Schjeldahl’s art-historical curiosity is as wide as the horizon.
Schjeldahl constantly rearranges his feelings about the best artists, often within a single paragraph. He allows his initial contempt for the superficiality of Winslow Homer to morph into spiritual admiration. He drags Vermeer from a kind of mysterious misery to the edge of "a necessary happiness," and he rescues Diane Arbus from Susan Sontag’s withering caricature of her as a manipulator by granting Arbus and her subjects "the gift of randomness."
Those who first read Schjeldahl 25 years ago in the groundbreaking weekly 7 Days may remember him as a strong advocate for certain then-difficult paintings, such as Susan Rothenberg’s horses and Gerhard Richter’s expressos. Now older and plumbed by doubt, Schjeldahl allows his palette to drift between ambiguity and laments of despair. Thus, Raphael’s paintings "lack the element of reverent awe that informs beauty." Richter’s whole body of work travels, in the space of two sentences, from "elegiac admissions of loss" to "a state of abounding joy." The straitjacket of Schjeldahl’s melancholy is encapsulated in his summary of Philip Guston’s career: "the royal road to the heights leads down."
Schjeldahl is not afraid to make dry fun of his predicament, particularly in his introduction to Let’s See, a kind of 20 Questions with his fellow art-world luminaries. When the art collector, comedian and all around consummate phony Steve Martin asks Schjeldahl about his "process," Peter answers, Martin style, "Nothing ruins a critic like pretending to care."
Schjeldahl would ruefully admit that critics ruin themselves, slowly and torturously, by what (as K.D. Laing might warble) is a state of "constant caring." That thing on the wall is, after all, just a thing, so why does it move me so? Ultimately, Schjeldahl sighs, "In the best instances, I am reduced to alert, reflective, inarticulate stupidity." And to requiting the love of the art he sees with words of tender mourning.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).