A Look Back at Peter Schjeldahl’s Visionary Criticism

Peter Schjeldahl.Photograph courtesy Ada Calhoun

Peter Schjeldahl, who died on Friday, at the age of eighty, was a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than two decades, following a storied run as an art critic for the Village Voice. It’s hard to imagine the New York art world without Schjeldahl’s voice commenting on it. There was a kind of syntactical genius to his work. Few other writers packed quite so much into one sentence—Schjeldahl was somehow able to juggle two or three complementary (or competing) ideas at once, making his pieces densely layered and endlessly rewarding. His readers valued him for his knowledge, his passion, and his trenchant opinions. He never wrote from a position of defensiveness. He was willing to be disagreed with and ready to be disliked. Still, more than anything, he desired a kind of communion. “We look at paintings, which are specific objects in specific places, as individuals, alone,” he wrote last year, in a piece about his love for the Frick Collection. “We may then turn, with excitement or anxiety, to others in the hope of having our responses confirmed. Those conversations are the test of any art’s cultural vitality—commonplace regarding books and movies but rarer, and a mite self-consciously special, in cases of visual art, where undertones of rarity and brute expensiveness intrude.”

That sense of excitement—and occasional anxiety—was always present in his criticism. It could be found in the thrill he felt about the vibrant implacability of Niki de Saint Phalle’s vision: “Art was a place in her. Any work by her is like a destination that, once reached, lets you go elsewhere only by retracing the way you came.” And it was there in the distinct lack of thrill he felt about the work of KAWS: the artist’s pieces “all partake in one predilection—not kitsch, which debases artistic conventions, but a promiscuity that sails beyond kitsch into a wild blue yonder of self-cannibalizing motifs.” Always, Schjeldahl wanted to drill down into his response, and then turn and share it with the reader.

Collected below are some of his signature pieces.

The author and his wife.

I always said that when my time came I’d want to go fast. But where’s the fun in that?

Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas.”

Once we are again free to wander museums, the objects won’t have altered, but we will have, and the casualties of the coronavirus will accompany us spectrally.

Peter Schjeldahl

Dorothy Wickenden talks to The New Yorker’s longtime art critic to discuss his diagnosis of terminal cancer, and what we miss when we get wrapped up in the news cycle.

The Ghent Altarpiece, painted on oak panels, is a touchstone of Western art, and has survived six centuries of tumultuous history.

The secrets of conserving the wood behind an early masterpiece.

Photo by Wolfgang Tillmans titled "window/Caravaggio" from 1997.

The German photographer, the subject of an immense, flabbergasting retrospective at MOMA, has redefined the terms of art photography.

Cézanne still life

Some of us don’t like the inarguably great artist as much as we know we should.

Image may contain: Art, Human, Person, and Painting

The painter, who died at the age of thirty-one, vivified his Native American heritage with inspirations from modern art.

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