The Brilliant Art Of Being A Critic: Peter Schjeldahl

Peter Schjeldahl wrote things that made you put down the magazine or shut the laptop or slowly slip the phone back in your pocket. Things that were so good you needed to take a minute. He was the leading art critic of his generation — first at the Village Voice and then, starting in 1998, the New Yorker — but he was better than that. You could adore art or not be especially interested in it. You could concur or passionately disagree. It didn’t matter: You would read Schjeldahl just to read sentences by him.

For 10 years, we were friends. But the pieces in his new posthumous collection, “The Art of Dying,” were all written after our once-intense correspondence dwindled almost to nothing. They were also written after Peter was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in 2019. The doctors told him he had six months to live. But he undertook experimental treatment, and, miraculously, it worked. He lived three more years.

The collection, then, is haloed by a quality of grace, almost of intercession. It is filled with terrific examples of Peter doing what he did best. The writing is not sharply different from anything he wrote before the diagnosis. But I think these pieces are gently warmed by new, heart-expanding levels of humility and humor. Anchored by the title piece, which confronts his illness and was published in late 2019, the collection also includes 46 pieces he subsequently wrote on artists from Matisse to Mondrian and subjects like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and (inspired by the pandemic) “The Melancholy Gestalt of Isolation.”

Urgency, though it doesn’t necessarily wane, changes in quality as you age. So there’s a ripeness in these pieces as Peter became less invested in hotly describing the zeitgeist and more eager to make private passions public. (He wrote with naked emotion about the Old Masters.)

Peter’s prose was always ruthlessly concentrated. His wit had a bubbling, organic quality: The line punched, but you never heard the clanking windup machinery. He had ready opinions on everything. You rarely felt him hedging (an exception was his befuddled, tepid response to the postponement of a Philip Guston retrospective in 2020 over concerns about Guston’s repurposing of racist symbology). And the rhythms of his sentences were inimitable. No one else’s words wormed their way through the wrinkles of your brain in quite the same way. Reading Peter, you felt how beguiled he was by the language’s flexibility and amplitude, its precision and beauty, and by the sheer, shivering, just-hatched surprise of its sound.

Some of these late pieces are soaked in an awareness of mortality; others not at all. Peter had always, I think, been conscious of death. A speech he once shared with me by email included a close, loving reading of “The Day Lady Died,” a famous poem by his hero Frank O’Hara, which ends with the poet inside a nightclub listening to Billie Holiday whispering “a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”

“What happens when you stop breathing?” Peter asked in his speech. “You may start again,” he answered himself, “after the tiny preview of when you won’t.” Peter took these previews very seriously. He let them shape his writing, and his love of life.

Friendships between writers can be complicated. I was 30 years younger than Peter. I thought I was good at handling the pitfalls of mentor-protégé dynamics. (I’d had plenty of experience.) But at a certain point — it’s hard to locate precisely — things took an awkward turn. The schism was subtle, like a hairline crack in a tooth, but for a few years I felt a slight ache.

Peter was a wonderful person: warm, generous, fundamentally good. Was he complicated? Sure. Interesting people are. But his virtues — kindness, enthusiasm, wisdom, courage — had a flooding quality. To be in his company was to be constantly on the cusp of laughter.

He was not always an ideal listener. But I think that was because his mind was always busy searching for a rhetoric suitable to the moment’s special tenor — some sparkling string of words that would lift the conversation out of banality. At exactly the point when he found those words — not, for instance, when you had finished your own sentence — they had to come out.

“I think off and on about people I love,” he wrote in “The Art of Dying,” “but I think about writing all the time.”

He cared deeply about other people. He was always raving about his wife, Brooke, and about his daughter, Ada Calhoun, whose own literary achievements stirred tremendous pride. Yet, as Calhoun wrote in her brilliant memoir, “Also a Poet,” he was often distracted. What distracted him, I think, was his gift, which was also his addiction. It was writing.

Some writers wait until they are at their desk. They turn on a tap and if they’re lucky, and sufficiently caffeinated, something begins to flow. With Peter, the tap was always on. He was a geyser of ideas and impressions constantly seeking crystallization in words. Both his reviews and his occasional speeches crackled with aphorisms.

He knew there was a difference between real relationships and the imaginary relationships that writers and readers froth into being. But it was as if he didn’t want to — or couldn’t — think of the two things separately. “Writing,” he once wrote to me, “I’m compulsively rhetorical, suppressing the actual chaos of my thoughts and feelings. That’s OK for readers of a magazine but stupid with someone I like so much and want to be liked by.”

We were strangers until, out of the blue, in 2011, he wrote me a lovely note. We met in person soon after — at the Frick, his favorite museum — after which we talked and strolled down Fifth Avenue.

This was an unforgettable day in my life — except, of course, I have forgotten all the best bits, all the things Peter said, because I was in state of rolling disbelief. To understand what it felt like, you would have to be a very specific kind of person: an aspiring art critic, recently relocated from Australia to the United States, who had spent half his life reading Schjeldahl dispatches from New York, always with electrified excitement and provincial envy.

After that, although we intermittently met up in person, we mostly corresponded by email. Embarrassment colors my recent attempts to re-read these exchanges. I am touched by their sudden, lurching intimacies. But I can also feel an anxious, strenuous quality on my side of the exchange and a comparative ease and unguardedness on his.

Peter and I were at very different stages of life. I had small children, a busy life in Boston, another life back in Australia. Our tastes were similar, but not too similar. “I’d be happy to receive further contrary opinions from you,” he wrote when I defended Degas, an artist who left him cold. “Complete agreement between us would be too weird, given our different generational, national, and whatnot perspectives. We do seem temperamentally akin; but that doesn’t make for a lot of zippedy-doo-dah in criticism.”

You couldn’t be an Australian interested in art in those days and not feel conscious of the influence of Peter’s Australian, New York-based rival, the art critic and polymath Robert Hughes. I loved Hughes and his robust, energetic prose. (Grouchy as he became late in life, after a car accident that wrecked his body, there is nevertheless a sense in which he was too good for the New York art world, which can be depressingly provincial.) But it’s fair to say that Peter’s example was the main reason I persisted with art criticism.

An artist friend used to print out his Village Voice columns (that era’s version of sharing links) and furtively hand them to me when we met at a Sydney pub. I read every word of his 1991 collection, “The Hydrogen Jukebox.” A few years later, when I succumbed to varieties of doubt and self-loathing, another Australian artist said (more or less): “Okay, but art criticism doesn’t have to suck. Just think of Peter Schjeldahl.”

He was right. A world expert (as he once said) in nothing except his own responses to art, Peter nonetheless gave art criticism dignity.

I was astonished to register that his emails were as beautifully written as his columns. “My fancy writing is neither a pour nor an effort, but a compulsion,” he wrote by way of explanation. “I’m a rhetoric junkie.”

Over time, however, what began to distinguish his emails to me from his published columns was not their rhetorical brilliance but Peter’s increasing frankness about his deteriorating mood. Again and again — always (disconcertingly) in superb prose — he communicated depression, sometimes edging toward despair. When I go back over our correspondence, these expressions of vulnerability, more than my own mortifying lapses and blurts, are the hardest to read.

In the summer of 2016, he seemed especially down. “My gloomy spirits persist,” he wrote,

even amid abounding familial and natural sweetness…So many reasons to be happy besiege my discontent, which now extends to more or less total writer’s block. I deeply do not want to write. It seems that all the emotional reasons I’ve had for doing it — the joys and vengeances — are stagnant. That leaves fear of losing my job: we need the money. Why shouldn’t that be motive enough? It’s not. Even, it stirs a babyish recalcitrance.

By early winter, Peter’s mood was no better. Reading Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” — which he’d decided was “just about the best concentration of words-to-live-by wisdom I know” — he’d found the book uncannily in tune with his own malaise. He had also grown obsessed with Abraham Lincoln’s (uncharacteristic) complaint: “Nothing touches the tired spot.”

“Since burdening you with my summertime complaining,” he wrote, “I’ve discovered a trick: when blocked, bowing my head and closing my eyes and concentrating on my pain and fear — letting them crescendo — until a sense arises, seeping through, of a force, deeper than the ‘tired spot,’ that isn’t mine but can use me. Then I’m momentarily in the clear. Whatever works …”

Reading this, I worried. The writing was characteristically brilliant. But what Peter described was clearly no fleeting period of gloom.

“Woe woe woe,” he had written in an earlier email, trying to make light of it. “All in the nature of What’s the Point? Being beyond or beneath or off to the side of caring. Yes, OK, this will probably pass. But meanwhile I’m in it up to my eyebrows.”

When Peter was diagnosed with cancer three years later, I assumed, with hindsight, that something had already been happening in his body that affected his emotional state. But of course, at the time, I had no way of knowing this (and still don’t). So how was I to respond? In one email, I speculated about the inherently performative nature of writing and how exhausting it can become. “Performance, yes,” he replied. “But never satisfaction. Finishing anything and applause both affect me in only one way: as relief at having dodged another bullet.” The deeper problem, he thought, was a “psychic static” that came from “incurable insecurity.” “The solution is simple. Have work to do, and do it. Meanwhile try to keep in mind that I am fantastically lucky. No tears for me!”

Peter may have been plagued by insecurity (what writer isn’t?), but that last sentence captured something essential about him. He was a writer, yes — anxious, inconstant, less than dependable (all of which probably goes with the territory) — but he was not self-pitying.

Funny, raw, wise and clipped, “The Art of Dying” is an astonishingly brave piece of writing, hard-packed with tough truths. “I’ve never kept a diary or a journal,” Peter confessed in it, “because I get spooked by addressing no one. When I write, it’s to connect.”

But by this time, our own connection had faltered. He and I hadn’t exactly fallen out, but both of us had recoiled, I think, from the intensity generated by our earlier exchanges.

Also, I had overstepped a mark. Many of Peter’s emails had read as cries for help. At the time, all I could think to offer in response was the ego boost of acclamation. So I told him how much his writing had always meant to me. “I suppose I could tire of being praised,” he once told me, “but I’ve yet to sense my limit — leastwise from someone whose mind I so respect.”

This was good manners. But on a deeper level, Peter didn’t want praise for his writing. I think what he wanted (what we all want?) was something closer to balm for his soul. “My demons are not only unimpressed by praise for my work but able to turn it into a torture device,” he later admitted. “The one dramatic effect of accepting that I’m esteemed is the loss of an old reliably motivating drive to prove myself. As with the dog chasing a car: what does he do when he catches it?”

I was in my 40s by now — too old to be playing protégé to older mentors and certainly ill-equipped to provide balm for anyone’s soul. So we stopped corresponding. When, after a long gap, I got in touch again and tried, clumsily, to touch on something deeper, he replied that he liked me but was no longer interested in this kind of self-examination. My cheeks briefly burned. But that was that, and fair enough, so I moved on.

Peter knew, of course, that he could be prickly. Once, after I told him of my plan to return to Australia for a year, he paused to let the news sink in, then said: “That’s the trouble with you Australians. You’re doomed to cosmopolitanism.” Ouch.

Another time, he advised me to “advertise [my] humility a mite less.” This, I think he meant kindly. But the idea that I “advertised” my humility, that it was some kind of ploy, hit a nerve. I pushed back and he was quick to apologize. “It’s an old perverse habit,” he told me, “often costing me friends. Brooke once said I should hand out a card imprinted ‘Peter Schjeldahl, Bridge Burner.’”

Still, the occasional instances of mild snark Peter aimed at others were like scented candles compared with the blowtorch of honesty he turned on himself. “I am beset,” he wrote in “The Art of Dying,” “by obsessively remembered thudding guilts and scalding shames. Small potatoes, as traumas go, but intensified by my aversion to facing them.”

Peter had known great writers and artists in the formative stages of his career. So he was, as he told me, well familiar with the mixed emotions of hero-worship and competitive envy. When he met John Ashbery and Andy Warhol, he recalled, “I felt intensely anxious while emitting, quite unconsciously, an air of hostility.” In response, Ashbery recoiled (“Peter, I have always found you rather malignant,” Peter remembered him saying) while Warhol assumed Peter hated him. (Funny, because he loved him — or his work, anyway.) Responses like these, Peter said, “shocked and bewildered me until I wised up.”

We once compared notes about getting to know artists we revered. For me, it was Lucian Freud, whom I’d befriended in London in my late 20s. (Peter loathed Freud — slightly hysterically, I thought.) For him, it was Willem de Kooning, who once gave him a small but beautiful painting on newsprint, with a personal dedication.

But later friendships with artists, including Anselm Kiefer, “fell apart,” as he noted in “The Art of Dying,” making him conclude that “closeness is impossible between an artist and a critic. … It’s like two vacuum cleaners sucking at each other.”

There’s wisdom in this, but it’s a little extreme (it has not been my experience anyway) and a case, perhaps, of Peter’s rhetorical gift (what a great image!) overwhelming more complicated truths. When I once mentioned an even earlier experience of being under an artist’s spell, he told me that he, too, had come to know certain artists when he was “rawly naive”: “They let me worship them, to my derangement and, as I wasn’t aware until later, their discredit. Good artists, no matter how self-involved, don’t or, really, can’t allow that.” This was a warning, I realized.

But I forgot it. Or I put it aside. The mistake I had made, during Peter’s depression, was to try to boost him with praise — precisely what he didn’t want.

When, after a long gap, I wrote to check that there was no bad feeling between us, he thanked me and said: “No, I have no negative feelings toward you except by rebound from myself. I got sick of identifying with my writing. It’s a trap for me. I won’t go into the whys and wherefores — I’ve lost appetite for going-into-stuff as well. I regret that the change in me — one of those things that happen at first slowly and then all at once — blindsided you, through no fault of yours… I want to think of you as a friend and to be a friend to you. Peter.”

Almost a year later, one month into the covid crisis, he wrote again: “I have a sadness about our truncated contact, which was due to a peculiar hysteria of mine. Tell me how’s with you?”

These late connections made me happy. By then, life had moved on, and any awkwardness had entirely dispersed.

Knowing Peter over 10 years enlivened me in so many ways. It wasn’t just art we talked about. He was an early fan of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and I’ll always be grateful for the way he pushed “My Struggle” onto me, knowing it would speak to me. Peter also kindled in me a greater sensitivity to the gap (a big theme in Knausgaard) between who we writers work so hard at being on the page and who we are in life — especially in our relationships with others. What, exactly, are we playing at?

If it’s connection we want, with whom, or what, do we seek to connect? It’s too easy, I think, to say that writers are evading realities in our own lives when we write (although something like that is often true). What, then, is it that we want?

Nabokov wrote of our yearning for “a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” That feels closer to it, to me. It’s what Peter’s letters reliably gave me, and it’s what his writing still gives all of us.

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