A Man for All Seasons

When I read that the art critic Peter Schjeldahl had died on October 21, I was surprised that my eyes teared up. I knew from a New Yorker essay of his that he had advanced lung cancer. The obituaries said he was 80 and had smoked since he was 16. He was also a recovering alcoholic and apparently not the greatest father. Before 2019, I knew nothing about his personal life beyond his writing on art.

The tears, I realized, were for my own future life without the sensory crescendos of a new Peter Schjeldahl review. I could say unequivocally that he was my favorite living critic, and not having his sensibility in real time felt like a serious loss.

The tears were also for the sun’s setting on New Yorker voices like Schjeldahl’s. I’m thinking of the pre-Tina Brown writers, editors, and cartoonists whose personal lives you probably knew nothing about until they died—people who made the late midcentury the magazine’s golden age not despite but because of their lack of HR linearity, who took convoluted byways from flyover states and made it to Gotham on their own dime, eventually scoring a typewriter and desk on West 44th.

The editor John Bennet and the cartoonist George Booth, both of whom died this year, were part of this broader cohort. Yes, most were white and male, which makes the conversation stop here for many. But they entered the fold despite résumé gaps the width of craters—wrong turns and U-turns that messed with the magazine’s obsessive tendency to break WASP.

A physical composite of this seventies-era usurper would resemble the lighting guy in a circa-1973 production of Jesus Christ Superstar. His wife or partner would be another creative—usually in the tactile arts. Picture a black and white photo showing apartment space somewhere between kitchen and living room, a film-coated window looking out on the blinding glare of blight, the sills and the table in the foreground crammed with books, the snarling of under-watered philodendrons, and random papers left to pile up for endless news cycles. No one at the Times would want to know how this couple spent their Sundays.

Although Schjeldahl was an age peer of this New Yorker generation, by their standards he was a very late hire. He had worked for decades as an art critic in the city, cobbling together a modest income on various mastheads, before David Remnick overlooked his résumé gaps and hired him in 1998. In this sense, his New Yorker tenure was markedly different from colleagues of his generation, like that New Testament exhortation to “be in this world but not of it.”

Peter Schjeldahl certainly was not “of” the fine arts world. In a genre of criticism with elitism sewn into the lapels, his words welcomed everyone: “Rembrandt is a detective. When I look at his pictures, I feel like Dr. Watson bumbling along behind Holmes. Once exposed by the master, mysteries become as plain as day, but I know that, on my own, I would have missed the clues ten times out of ten.”

He often acknowledged aesthetic biases he could not change, but he rarely made these admissions central to the story. He was transparent but dwelled only on topics for which most people had a vested interest: “Looking at art may be the most unguarded action that we perform in public. We aren’t aware of performing, of course, nor do we openly watch one another doing so. A ghostly protocol—hushed, a bit churchy—governs the behavior of all except small children and the occasional yahoo.”

Even in a world where to be a writer is to always be performing the role of yourself, Schjeldahl never wavered from making every piece of writing an intact experience—an event in which his alluring descriptions of things make looking at things the most alluring thing the reader can imagine.

What has happened in our influencer culture reminds me of that moment in early development where the child learns to look at what the hand is pointing at and not the hand itself—something animals can’t master. With the focus on the teller over the tale, however, it’s like we’ve regressed in our development, unable to get beyond the pointer.

Every word Schjeldahl chose made you look away from his persona and toward the desirability of the thing: “My first Frick crush, some fifty-plus years ago, was Ingres’s Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845), the lady in blue satin who raises a finger to a pulse point on her throat as if her beauty were a self-charging battery.”

On the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson: “His portrait work is magnificent to a fault, marmoreally elegant. No one smiles—except [Robert] Capa, at a racetrack in 1953, infectiously gloating over betting slips held like a hand of cards.”

I have omitted the salient point that Schjeldahl was a poet. He put aside his initial go at poetry because his favorite thing to write about was art. Still, poetry pervades his prose like the swish of blue satin. He assembled words not to give you the “right” ones for an image but to lead you down avenues with vastly more to see.

Even when writing about poets ripe for takedown, his inventory of character warts did not dampen his excitement for the verse, as with Wallace Stevens, whose “poems precipitate rainstorms of sudden feelings, some of them hitting and others eluding a given reader’s comprehension. To savor the drenching effect, read him aloud, with attention to what [William Carlos] Williams called his ‘thrumming in four-beat time.’ The mind that can distinguish, in ‘The Snow Man,’ between the ‘nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is’ becomes your own. Stop when exhausted.”

Schjeldahl’s readers knew him in the best way you can know someone: through what he loved, his unabashed exuberance. His ability to capture a moment always had the same effect on me as this passage from Camus’s “Love of Life”: “In the sharp sound of wingbeats as the pigeons flew away, the sudden, snug silence in the middle of the garden, in the lonely squeaking of the chain on its well, I found a new and yet familiar flavor. I was lucid and smiling before this unique play of appearances. A single gesture, I felt, would be enough to shatter this crystal in which the world’s face was smiling.”

Peter Schjeldahl managed to stop the world long enough for us to glimpse that fleeting smile in crystal. When he pointed, we looked. §