Peter Schjeldahl (1942–2022)

Peter Schjeldahl looking at Joan Mitchell’s Hemlock, 1956, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, November 2019. Photo: Jarrett Earnest.

ONE PROBLEM with seeing an exhibition with someone else is that rhythms of looking are so often at odds—either they move too slowly or not slow enough, or pay too much attention to stuff that you do not. Soon after we met in 2014, Peter Schjeldahl and I figured out that we were weirdly in-sync gallerygoers. Walking through a show together, we’d incessantly narrate bits of what we were seeing to each other, trying out descriptions and bits of language in the presence of the art itself—Peter scribbling on a checklist or small notepad like a proper reporter. These were my most vivid encounters with Peter the Poet, always aiming to delight with an unexpected adjective or analogy. The goal was marrying precision and surprise. “Poetry is a ruthless mechanism for stripping away every trace of the expected,” he told me a few days before he died. We were studying a withered milkweed in his garden upstate, watching its fluffy seeds take flight. It sounds too poetic to be true, but of course, life is like that.

Chain-smoking in his office early in the morning, as he’d done for over fifty years, Peter reworked these linguistic fragments until they were, sentence for sentence, the most finely crafted art criticism ever written. A critic-as-artist, a poet-journalist; Peter’s greatness is owed to an almost freakish gift for the English language, and to the fact that he was only ever truly comfortable while in the act of writing, alone in a room with the words, coaxing gossamer order out of the pigsty of ordinary sensation. He told me how much he enjoyed the process of “taking a sick sentence and making it better”—technical acuity irradiated by love.

Peter’s romance with the absent reader is a commitment to an Audience, over and against the claims of the artist, curator, or other writers. From his early pieces for Artnews and the New York Times in the mid-1960s, to the emergence of his longer authoritative essays for Art in America in the 1970s, to his verbally pyrotechnic reviews in 7 Days and the Village Voice in the 1980s and 1990s, and finally to his work as art critic for the New Yorker from 1998 through this October, he garnered a large and devoted readership. By the twenty-first century, his columns were widely considered the gold standard of art writing.

It takes a particularly agile intelligence to continue coming to terms with several generations of new art, as regularly, and for as long, as Peter did. Things change and so must arguments, though without losing credibility. One way Peter maintained that trust was by narrating his own inner process, attending to ambivalence and contradiction in print. Changing your mind was not a failure, but a freedom to be carefully guarded. Once, he described this to me as his willingness to entertain the thought that anything, no matter how sacred or unimpeachable, might just be bullshit after all. Then what? Could you trace it backward back into meaning? In conversation Peter often evoked the fourteenth-century spiritual tract The Cloud of Unknowing, which teaches a method of contemplation for willfully releasing all prior conceptions of life on this earth and pushing into this great “unknowing” where God finds you. Acclimate to being uncomfortable and just stay there until the miraculous appears. It lent a theological framework to the techniques he’d developed for encountering art.

Central to our many conversations––in galleries looking at art or reading drafts back and forth over the phone––was our joint commitment to disagreement, pushing each other toward something else. Often when Peter was getting too hot for something I’d argue against it, just for the pleasure of thinking together. Cézanne? What if he was a hack? Why does this matter to anyone right now? These are questions we’d ask each other, and they were also giving voice to what was already in Peter’s own mind as he wrote. “You’re describing the weather,” he might say, “but what about the climate?” From his vaunted position he felt an obligation to weigh in on what mattered in the culture, what crossed a certain threshold of significance, whether he liked it or not.

Peter wrote what turned out to be his last essay a few weeks ago, some incredible three years after his initial terminal cancer diagnosis of six months to live. He drove three hours to the Museum of Modern Art from his place upstate, a house he and his wife, Brooke, relocated to full time after their apartment on Saint Marks Place burned down in 2019. He walked in with a ragged cough, assuring “It’s not Covid!” It was actually a lingering pneumonia, which had also plagued him through writing his penultimate piece, a terrific review of a Mondrian biography. Always thin, by then Peter was starting to resemble one of his favorite Munch paintings—a comically intense skeletal Norwegian.

I knew going in that Peter never really ranked Wolfgang Tillmans and seemed poised to deflate what might be a lot of commercial and critical hype: big pictures, pretty people, money all around. It was a weekday and the retrospective was mobbed, especially with young people, hyper-styled and enthralled. As we moved around the first gallery, the earliest works, Peter was enraptured. They were so fresh, teeming with contemporary life. We contrasted them with some of Peter’s favorite photographers, about whom he’d written so brilliantly—Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore, Nan Goldin—measuring the distance between their work and what we were seeing, calculating the degrees of distance that measure Tillmans’s originality.

A retrospective at an institution like the Museum of Modern Art demands major critical evaluation, asking the public to take stock of a body of work that has materialized incrementally over the preceding decades. We spent a long time looking at photos Peter thought were flawed, attending to his dislikes as actively as his loves. And he wrote through these doubts and contradictions in his column, which opens: “‘To look without fear,’ the immense, flabbergastingly installed retrospective of the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, at the Museum of Modern Art, persuades me that the man is a genius. There’s a downside to the concession—it dampens my quarrels of taste with certain items, among the show’s predominantly brilliant several hundred, that I do not like.”

For a proclamation of genius, there is a lot of critique. It is profound to witness a mind grapple with serious art without resorting to simple solutions, especially while conceding greatness—we might call this critical generosity, creating the space for readers to work out their own feelings accordingly. My favorite stretch is Peter’s detailing the still lifes of random trash on a studio floor, the aftermath of a party. “These photographs shouldn’t amount to much, but to me they are stunningly lovely and, with only trace elements of melancholy, poetically more telling of communal ecstasy than any shots of the originating events could be. Think about mornings. They’re when the purest sense of what we are doing, or not doing, with our temporary habitation of the Earth sinks in.” The poignance is compounded by the knowledge that Peter spent an extraordinary number of his own mornings writing about art, modeling how to care about it, living with art and through it. Those words remain present as ever, so long and beautifully released into our world.

Jarrett Earnest is an artist, writer, and curator living in New York City.