In the pantheon of art writers Peter Schjeldahl holds a special place near the top as one of our greatest living critics. He entered the New York scene in the ’60s, a poet and college dropout escaping a Lutheran upbringing in Minnesota. Over the decades his language has remained surprisingly fresh and unfailingly precise—the kind of effortless grace born of relentless practice, like a ballet dancer’s landing. Art critic for the New Yorker since 1998, he is alive to the nuanced movements of his own feelings, which he charts over the course of each review. This summer he met with the Rail’s Jarrett Earnest to discuss the interconnections between seeing, feeling, and writing.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): When you were growing up, how did you begin thinking of language as a “thing,” as material you could do something with?
Peter Schjeldahl: Thinking didn’t have much to do with it. I was one of those kids who was crazy about words. There’s a great Paul Valéry line I wrote down decades ago and just came across again: “All our language is composed of brief little dreams.” I love that. Every dictionary should be subtitled “The Interpretation of Dreams.” But okay, let’s see, the first poem I ever wrote: I was in sixth grade in a little town in Minnesota; the last day of school we had a picnic in a field. I was lying in the grass looking up and saw a hawk flying around, which wasn’t unusual but it gave me a funny feeling and I turned over and wrote a poem—I knew it was a poem because it looked like one. I don’t remember anything about it except the chorus: “Winged avenger from the skies!” I’m not sure I quite knew what “avenger” meant, but the sound of it appealed to me. When I finished I was dazed, and I took it to my teacher. She looked at it and said, “That’s nice, Peter, but what’s this about a ‘winged avenger’—that’s very unpleasant.” It was four or five years before I wrote another poem.
Rail: What is interesting about that story is that it starts with seeing, then feeling, and then come the words. One of the things that I admire is how your criticism foregrounds the way you feel in front of the work; in some ways it seems like that is your subject, as much as the artwork itself.
Schjeldahl: Katy Siegel called me “The Feeler” among critics, which sounds kind of creepy! But aren’t feelings the only things in the universe that we can really know? They’re the actual us. Thoughts are just lawyers for our feelings. Memory is a pile of stories determined by feelings and constantly revised to fit new feelings. I guess the emphasis in my writing has to do with my never having been educated in art. I saw and loved art before I knew anything about it. I lucked out of the problem of learning about art before you see it—because you will always be dealing with that information at the expense of what moves you first-hand. I discovered very quickly in the ’60s that I was the world’s leading expert in my experience. And then I got praised for making the most of that. I think Jasper Johns said one of my favorite lines, which I remember vaguely but goes something like “Style is only common sense. You figure out what people like about you, and you exaggerate it.”
Rail: Your criticism makes the 1980s art world seem very exciting.
Schjeldahl: The market showed its good side in the early ’80s. It soured later. After the ’70s, which I lived through, the art world was depressing and sort of airless, though there were some great people. I decided to quit writing art criticism in the mid-’70s. I went back when I found there was nothing else I did very well that they pay you for. Also, as a poet, I ran into writer’s block, which became permanent. For a while in the art world, the vulgarity of new money was refreshing. The grant-funded-curatorial cub-scout packs were broken up. And there was a new audience that liked to read what I liked to write.
Rail: The artists you were paying a lot of attention to coming up in the ’80s were painters like David Salle and Anselm Kiefer, but you were always writing on older art too. The thing that was so vital about your writing on an artist like Manet was that it was with eyes trained on contemporary painting.
Schjeldahl: If I’m functioning properly that should always be the case. Anyone with a live sensibility, an open mind, and an interest is going to be like that. I define contemporary art as every work of art that exists at the present moment—5,000 years or five minutes old. We look with contemporary eyes. What other eyes are there? And we are alert to Baudelairian beauty, which is the moment when something temporary sparks with something timeless.
Rail: It does seem increasingly your attention is turned to older art.
Schjeldahl: Partly that is the happenstance of the job. At the New Yorker they have more critics than they have pages; only the movies get covered every week, which is appropriate for the culture. This pretty much limits me to the big shows. I do some of the anonymous reviews in the front. Andrea Scott, who edits those and is terrific, will send me to galleries I’ve never heard of, showing artists I’ve never heard of. I go like a dutiful soldier, and it’s very good for me.
One of my mottos is: anything has a value if you know what it is. If you can say what the thing is, the value becomes apparent. It may be a very small value. It may be a negative one. I also swear by Gertrude Stein’s wisdom, “Description is explanation.”
Rail: Something you once wrote about sculpture: “The best modern sculpture always expresses some sort of existential gawkiness, capitalizing on the same intimacy of shared space that makes most sculpture irritating.” I think that is insightful; I’ve always thought there aren’t many gifted critics who write about sculpture as opposed to painting.
Schjeldahl: Sculpture is a learned medium for me, and I’ve come to love it. It is far and away the hardest art. The demands on it are crushing, especially since it came off pedestals. A painting is an imaginary world, and it hangs on the wall out of our way. There is room in the real world for an infinity of imaginary worlds, which you can deal with or not. The conditions that apply to anything actually in the world apply to sculpture, with the added challenge of blatant uselessness. Three questions we might ask of a sculpture that we unexpectedly encounter are: “What is that?” “Why is it there?” and “When will it go away?” If those questions take hold, the sculpture is sunk. There has to be some immediate emotional response that skates past them. It can be dislike. The sculpture has to excite your feelings immediately to have a chance of working for you.
Rail: What you’ve just said makes me understand something about why Jeff Koons had to be sculpture, and not paintings.
Schjeldahl: That’s right. His paintings make no sense at all—I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing with them.
Rail: From your writing it seems like the domain of art is for understanding our sensations of being in the shared world.
Schjeldahl: The arts are a great little laboratory, of absolutely free play of ideas and emotions which normal social space can’t cope with: you can play war and nobody dies, and play love and nobody has their heart broken. It’s also an education in physiology: the mechanisms and functioning and limits of consciousness.
Rail: When did that interest start?
Schjeldahl: In the ’60s, the drugs had a role. I dropped acid maybe five times. The first time was kind of great, the second was iffy, the other times were nightmares. That wasn’t a good enough excuse not to do it, because if you had a bad trip that was a character flaw—you had failed the drug. But it gave me a lot of information. It’s hard to describe, of course. It’s as if every bit of the mind is active and being seen, but by nobody—phenomena without a witness. Which may freak a person seriously out.
Rail: You described that Hopper painting Sun in an Empty Room (1963) that way: nobody has ever truly been in an empty room.
Schjeldahl: Well that’s Hopper in general. People talk about “voyeurism” in Hopper. But there’s no voyeur. Look at Night Windows (1928), there is no possible place for a viewer to be, or Office at Night (1940), unless you’re hung by a hook on the wall. It is pure envisioning.
Rail: Something you wrote about Hopper I really loved: “I think the effect is this: the arousal of more emotion than can be explained or contained by its evident cause. It is a lonely sensation, incapable of articulation, like being tongue-tied with love. “If I were to edit a collection of your criticism I’d tie it all together with love—it’s there. But, back to amateur physiology, aside from drugs—
Schjeldahl: I think it’s just hyper-sensitivity. More than one teacher I had in elementary school wrote on my report card “Peter is too sensitive.” Have you read Karl Ove Knausgaard?
Rail: I haven’t. He seems overly sensitive too.
Schjeldahl: He maintains his innocence. We all have a core of innocence, battered and buried. I don’t mean immunity to guilt and shame, but the capacity to be endlessly surprised by the specificity of everything, without recourse to anything general. The funny thing is that he’s a middle-class family man with normal morals and ethics, but that becomes as much a subject of wonder as anything else. Reading him is like living an extra life. Pick up the first volume, give it twenty pages and see what you think. It’s a lot about love. And hate.
Rail: I have a lot of feelings but sometimes I think “Come on! Get over it, these are just feelings!”
Schjeldahl: Me too. I had my last drink twenty-two years ago. I had the usual mode of help. One of our watchwords is “feelings aren’t facts.”
Rail: Feelings are not facts?!
Schjeldahl: They’re realities. But a fact is a reality with consequences. If you act on a feeling, that’s not the feeling’s fault. It’s a choice—maybe a compulsive one, if you’re an addict and buy into the spectacularly stupid feeling that you need the drug, or the behavior. You never stop having that feeling when you get sober. You just pat it on the head—so cute, so dumb—and proceed sensibly.
Rail: In those terms, is an artwork a fact or a feeling?
Schjeldahl: A fact. It has consequences, however trivial. At best, it detaches from whoever made it and can somewhat change the world. There are so many ways for art to fail. One of them is for the maker to enjoy it too much. That’s treason. I compare it to a chef eating his own cooking and then proudly handing you an empty plate. The proper chef barely tastes the food, and gives it all to you.
Rail: Which explains why you’ve written relatively few profiles of art world personalities.
Schjeldahl: I can’t. It’s horrible. In sixteen years at the New Yorker I’ve attempted half a dozen profiles and completed two—Marian Goodman and Rachel Harrison—with a lot of handholding help from my great editor Virginia Cannon. People won’t shut up and they won’t stand still. I can’t get any distance on them. I’m hopeless with anything animate. Including pigeons and squirrels.
Rail: I’m committed to dealing with the artwork formally, but in a profound way it only matters to me because a human being made it, and there is great complexity to that.
Schjeldahl: “One of us did that”—that’s a constant point of identification. There’s a certain resemblance to sports fandom, which Roger Angell called “insatiable vicariousness.” It’s like I’m always trying to enter into the mind and heart of whoever made a thing. This more or less limits me to certain strains of Western art. I may be excited by other cultures, but I can’t know how they feel from the inside. I can imagine some impulses in Western art pretty far back in time. I’ve had moments of connection with Classical Greek art, less so the Romans because I don’t like them. And Christians of most varieties.
Rail: I think it is fair to say that dealing with someone’s artwork will get you closer to their intentions than talking to them about it.
Schjeldahl: Looking at art is like, “Here are the answers. What were the questions?” I think of it like espionage, “walking the cat back”—why did that happen, and that?—and eventually you come to a point of irreducible mystery. With ninety percent of work the inquiry breaks down very quickly. You reach an explanation that is comprehensive and boring. Bad art, as any good artist will tell you, is the most instructive, because it’s naked in its decisions. Even adorably so. When something falls apart you can see what it’s made of. Whereas with a great artist, say Manet or Shakespeare, you’re left gawking like an idiot.
Rail: I feel like that with certain writers, like the late Henry James—its perfection is almost oppressive to a young artist.
Schjeldahl: I don’t like Henry James. I don’t like the contract—taking social excruciations so seriously. I feel like a kid from the other side of the tracks. Though William James is deeply important to me: he is my philosopher.
Rail: When did you find him?
Schjeldahl: Early on, and then dramatically twenty years ago. Alcoholics Anonymous is Jamesian; Bill Wilson adapted ideas from James. Partly it’s about the psychology of religious conversion, apart from theology. I like to think of the higher power as the lower power of the addiction turned upside-down—a sane mystery equal to the insane one. This has to sound weird to most people, but not to ones who need their lives saved. More generally, James’s pragmatism is about judging things in terms of effect. If two answers to a question make no practical difference, you don’t have a question. That’s wonderfully efficient—and ideal for an American. We don’t have any, say, Cartesian or other grounded pattern of thinking to play with and against. Now and then we may go off on an imported jag, but then we have to start from scratch again.
Rail: One thing you’ve done rhetorically over the course of years is a descriptive one-two punch: “I find Lucian Freud’s work hard to like and almost impossible not to admire” or “on first glance I thought it was junk, on the second I was in heaven,”—two seemingly opposed sensations put side by side.
Schjeldahl: Serial impressions. I think that’s how learning from experience works, on the way to knowing that finally we don’t know anything. One thing I say in my sometime talk with regular folks who say they hate some art is that that’s good, it’s an authentic response. But maybe linger a little. Have another response. You might hate it even more, but you’ll have learned something about yourself. Resisting a new experience is really a sign of physiological health: we are whole from moment to moment and then we encounter something contradictory, and the proper first instinct is to feel threatened and to fight it. That’s a crucial moment—when we probably see most deeply into the nature of the thing. Fear vivifies. It’s all hands on deck. Red alert. If the thing is good and we stick with it, our resistance breaks down, we integrate the new fact, and we are whole again. But the moment of threat is where the action is, and where I like to focus.
Rail: Is allowing yourself space to develop responses like that one of the reasons you are less inclined to write about performance or time-based media?
Schjeldahl: Exactly. Visual art—painting and sculpture—is the only major kind that doesn’t unfold in structured time, as even reading does. It has the decency to hold still. The time involved in experiencing it is entirely your own. A formative moment for me was the late ’60s and early ’70s when I was writing for the New York Times,Sunday Arts & Leisure. I had a great editor there, Seymour Peck, who became a mentor. He liked how I wrote and was very stern about me being grown-up, at a time when I was a wreck of a narcissist. He sent me off in all directions; I wrote about theater and rock music and television. For a while I was writing about movies. It was exciting. But it got confusing, “What am I doing writing about movies?” Everybody is qualified to speak of them. The movies don’t have any problems. Art in modern times has only problems. If I pay art special attention, it makes sense for me to speak and other people, for a moment, to listen.
Rail: One thing I noticed in your criticism of the ’70s and early ’80s: you made arguments against something that Robert Hughes had written, or some other prominent review. Before long that falls out of the writing. Was that because there were less people saying things you wanted to fight with, or—
Schjeldahl: That was ambition and antagonism. It was partly a sense of embattled vulnerability, which faded. I’m no longer the insecure kid that just ran into the room. Also I think it had to do with a trend in editorial judgment. It’s like magazines don’t like you reminding people of their competitors. I wish there was more reciprocal, name-citing argument—not name-calling, please. Critics being pissy about other critics is pathetic—as if anyone cares about our tender egos. At that time, I was antagonized by my elders, as I know I now antagonize young writers who want their turns at bat. It’s natural. I remember when Harold Rosenberg died, I felt a pang of guilt. I must have harbored a dark wish that he would.
Rail: You wanted him out of the way so that you didn’t have to deal with him?
Schjeldahl: I wanted to go toward the light and he was blocking it. But of course the big nemesis of us all was Clement Greenberg, and I’m reading him again—he’s great. An asshole on many levels and after the mid-’50s he ceased to be right about much of anything, but nobody in American history has been a more acute critic, who held himself to standards of evidence and logic that make everybody else seem like dilettantes. He had the strength and the weakness of his model, T. S. Eliot—a genius for analysis and a tic of overreaching, as the Voice of Culture. Greenberg’s Art and Culture has a hilarious title—there’s a tremendous lot about art but hardly a cogent word about culture in that entire book.
Rail: I think it’s amazing to realize that Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess died so close to each other.
Schjeldahl: Hess was a great loss; he was a radiant mind and incredibly urbane. But, once he asked me to review a new book by Rosenberg and I did something that was sheer hysterical attack and he said, “Peter, we can’t use this.”
Rail: I like how Hess relentlessly advocated for his group, so every review of a group show was indignantly asking, “Why aren’t these artists in this show?!”
Schjeldahl: That was a crusade that had roots in the ’30s and ’40s, the downtown avant-garde. Greenberg picked intramural fights, whereas Hess was a team player. The New York Times, with John Canaday, was an absolute wall of philistine snobbery. And the Museum of Modern Art was slow picking up, so Hess was like this battering ram. I think in the ’60s he became confused. Along with the wall giving way, it was like the whole building got blown up by Andy Warhol and Donald Judd. That’s when I arrived. I took on the old loyalty from my poet heroes, especially Frank O’Hara, but at the same time I was thrilled by what was happening.
A decisive moment in my life involved me reviewing a show of William Baziotes, the minor proto-Abstract Expressionist. I was full of myself and I wrote a disdainful, and I mean sneering, column. I didn’t know that he had died tragically and was beloved by all the artists—I didn’t know! So a letter to the editor arrives signed by maybe three dozen of the artists denouncing my review—de Kooning was one of them—I was completely devastated, suicidal. Seymour Peck said, “You’re going to have to write a response, get up here.” I went to the office and wrote a reply which was a groveling apology. He said, “Peter, the New York Times does not express itself in this fashion, start again.” I was there at a typewriter all day and kept coming over, and he’d cross things out. Finally he said, “This will have to do. Go home.” In the end my response was still propitiating but had some dignity—a quality brand new to me. The artists’ letter was largely reflexive rage against the Times, and I wasn’t essentially wrong about Baziotes. From then on, when I blundered, I’d be embarrassed but wasn’t going to fall on the floor and turn blue. Seymour Peck gave me a spine transplant.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.