PRINT Summer 2008


Deborah Solomon speaks with Peter Schjeldahl

To mark the publication of Peter Schjeldahl’s new volume, Let’s See: Writings on Art from the New Yorker (Thames & Hudson, 2008), author Deborah Solomon spoke with the New York–based art critic—recipient of the 2008 Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing—about the task of writing about art in different times and places.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Your new book is, in fact, your fourth collection of criticism, and you have been reviewing contemporary art with only minor interruptions since 1965—probably longer than anyone else in this country. What is it like being among the most durably revered of American critics in an age when the Internet has made everyone a critic?

PETER SCHJELDAHL: Everyone was always a critic. Now everyone is a published critic.

DS: You were at the Village Voice in the early 1980s, when you championed David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Cindy Sherman, and many readers felt introduced to downtown New York by you.

PS: I was incredibly lucky to be hitting my stride in the ideal job while so much was happening. Then I made a mistake, leaving the Voice in 1982 to sign on with the relaunched Vanity Fair. It was a disaster. In the course of five months, I quit three times, and the third time it took. I had to freelance, miserably, for six years. Gary Indiana was at the Voice and kept saying he hated it and was leaving. I salivated. But Gary did not go and did not go.

DS: Who was your audience at the Voice?

PS: Voice readers, art people. I don’t know. Editors think about the audience so writers won’t have to.

DS: How did things change for your writing when you moved to the New Yorker?

PS: Instead of saying “Sigmar Polke,” I say “the German painter Sigmar Polke.”

DS: Do you buy the argument that critics have had their influence diminished by megacollectors, in a culture where money talks?

PS: I suppose, but I’m pretty determined not to care. Influence on the biggest scale is a form of collective insanity, whoever seems to wield it. I’m lost if I let myself consider it.

DS: Now that you’re at the New Yorker, you’re limited in the number of gallery shows you can review.

PS: My columns tend to get taken up by the big museum shows, and the odd out-of-town or foreign piece. I try to compensate in “Critic’s Notebook” minicolumns and some, not many, of the unsigned reviews, in the front of the magazine.

DS: Do you feel any paternal obligation toward artists, any pressure to be an advocate for their work?

PS: No. None.

DS: Do you feel moved by the basic nobility of artists, the desire to be alone in a room, trying to add meaningful objects to the world?

PS: There is tremendous poignancy in that, but you know something? It’s a great privilege to be an artist. You get to discover the outer limits of your talent and freedom. You get to see the world from a high place. If you flop and end up with a square job in Dubuque, you will already have a wealth of knowledge and experience that 99.9 percent of humanity can only dream of. Do not whine.

DS: You don’t seem to have any qualms about playing the role of judge.

PS: As a critic I try to remember that I’m only visiting where somebody has to live. But I’m there by invitation, and it’s not a hospital zone.

DS: Actually, as a critic, your main loyalty has always been to the cultivation of your own responses, which places you squarely in the tradition of the critic-poet as opposed to the critic-philosopher.

PS: Yes, though I like to think I do little bits of philosophy, too, in a drive-by kind of way. Also science: amateur physiology, now and then.

DS: The tradition of the critic-philosopher probably began in the 1760s, when Diderot was reviewing shows at the Paris Salon. The critic-poet, by comparison, didn’t appear until Baudelaire wrote his first review in 1845. As I see it, you belong to the Baudelaire line.

PS: I see Baudelaire’s method as plenty philosophical— philosophy in action. The professional difference is that he doesn’t think about what he thinks. He throws it out, letting the reader take over from there, or not. That’s my ideal.

DS: Do you like to go to openings?

PS: I rarely go. I avoid openings.

DS: What if the artist is a friend of yours?

PS: I have very few artist friends left. I don’t have many writer friends, either.

DS: That is such bullshit. What about Dave Hickey? What about Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith? What about Roger Angell, Steve Martin, Walter Robinson, and Gerry Marzorati, to name a few of the writers who surface as official friends in your new book?

PS: I’d like them even if they didn’t write, except maybe Hickey. What would be left of him, except cigarette smoke and ruby slippers? But I don’t have much talent for friendship. I’m compulsively impolitic and tactless.

DS: Jerry Saltz, by contrast, has officially been voted the world’s favorite art critic, perhaps because he seems to believe that the art world is still a close-knit community, which it is, when he’s around.

PS: Yeah, well, Jerry earns it. He’s indispensable—to me, among so many others.

DS: He’s a warmer personality than you.

PS: He sure is. I’m jumpy and touchy.

DS: I also admire Sanford Schwartz, who, in his pieces for the New York Review of Books, seems to write from inside an artist’s head. Your criticism is not particularly psychological.

PS: Sandy’s great. But what do you mean by “psychological”? I had eleven years of Jungian therapy, in the ’60s and ’70s. Which cured me of Jung, if nothing else. He’s very entertaining, but you keep swinging past the same psychic landmarks, like on a merry-go-round.

DS: Your reviews might include a brief biography of the artist, but you keep the life separate from the art.

PS: That’s what the artist does.

DS: As a biographer, I disagree. I’m more of a vulgar Freudian who believes that art springs from a wound.

PS: Well, sure. I’m a believer in that great book by Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow [1941], which relates creativity to psychological damage. Artists are unhappy people, or they wouldn’t be so desperate to make the world different. That’s common sense. But then you’re stuck with the problem of a billion or so untalented unhappy people. If art is neurotic, is neurosis an art form? Phooey.

DS: How would you describe your writing style?

PS: Concentrated. At least one idea per sentence. Melodious, I hope. With jokes.

DS: I’ve always admired the range of your language. In your criticism, you use a lot of slang—goofy, dude, oomph, shuddery, ingratiation-free, artistic outlawry— in combination with fancy vocabulary words, such as basilisk or raddled or epicene.

PS: Criticism joins poetry, for me, in having a civic duty to limber up the common word stock, keeping good words in play. My sidekick is the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.

DS: What kind of poetry do you like to read?

PS: Not much contemporary. Shakespeare always, off and on. Or I’ll get a renewed bug for Homer or Andrew Marvell, say, or D. H. Lawrence, something that meant a lot to me at some point and, I’m thrilled to find, holds up. So much doesn’t.

DS: What about someone like Mark Strand?

PS: No. He’s alien to my generational prejudices, from the ’60s. I was of the beatnik/New York School. “Howl” imprinted me. So did Frank O’Hara’s scorn for solemnity. I think John Ashbery is a genius, the purest poet. Want to know the most depressing thing an aspiring poet ever heard? Somebody asked Ashbery how he could be so prolific, and he said, “Well, it’s like television. There’s always something on.”

DS: Do you think there will ever be an alliance between poets and artists again?

PS: Not like in the good old la vie de bohème. The poets-and-painters gang thing ended in the ’60s, when art broke out to a whole other level of public engagement and wealth and power. And poetry lost what little public purchase it had to the rise of intelligent pop songwriting. In the past forty years, any kid with the chops to be a good poet is 90 percent more likely to be out in the garage with a guitar.

DS: You can say the same thing about drawing. Any kid who’s an expert draftsman is likely to wind up working for Matt Groening.

PS: Exactly. Art schools warn away anyone who’s good at anything. The pop-culture industry snaps up most of the whizbangs.

DS: Do you enjoy going around to see the shows in Chelsea?

PS: Intermittently. I miss a lot. Every once in a while, I get panicked at being out of touch, and I run around for a couple of days.

DS: To ask an age-old question, how do you tell good art from bad art?

PS: There are numerous giveaways. One is that the first thing you think about is how well a work is done. That should be the last thing. Ed Ruscha has a great formula, which Hickey relayed to me. Bad art is “Wow! Huh?” And good art is “Huh? Wow!”

DS: That sounds like the caveman version of Clement Greenberg’s famous dictum that all good art looks ugly at first. But obviously you’re not interested in his sort of autocratic position taking.

PS: Greenberg was embedded in the Abstract Expressionist revolution. He was aggressively decisive in the same way the founding painters were, on the same historical terms—and he burned out at the same rate. Aspiring to be like him is like wanting to be Jackson Pollock. It doesn’t happen twice.

DS: You seem to favor figurative artists, be it Fischl in the ’80s or John Currin now.

PS: That’s not so! I was weaned as a critic on abstract art, and I love lots of abstract artists, starting with Mondrian and Malevich—but not Kandinsky—and, of course, the Abstract Expressionists, all of them. Then Kelly, early Stella, Twombly sometimes, Marden, Martin, Mangold, Ryman sometimes, Richter when he’s abstract—the usuals. And stubborn contemporaries like Tom Nozkowski. In the ’80s, the special prestige of abstraction got revealed as arbitrary. Energy shifted to overt representation. That’s history. I like Currin not because he’s figurative. I like him because he’s terrific, in consequential ways. With John, your first thought is likely to be, Jesus, who let that in here? It takes time to get a sense of what a picture of his is even up to. Finally you may marvel at his ability to do it. Here’s a proof of good art: You can’t use it up. Every understanding you have of it leaves something out.

DS: You were pretty kind to the Whitney Biennial this year.

PS: I liked it. It seemed honest. It didn’t seem to be straining. It felt sad and lost. Very true to the moment.

DS: Unlike artists, critics can hide behind the armor of their opinions. Is there anything you are afraid of?

PS: Disgrace. Appearing to be the fool that I believe myself to be. Part of this may be having become a critic with no prior education in art, or much education at all. I can’t shake the conviction that anybody is likely to know more than I do. For a lot of years, when writing about a subject, I might throw in absolutely every last thing I knew about it.

DS: I’ve heard it said that a good journalist uses only 1 percent of the facts that he or she has gathered.

PS: I’m in awe of that. When I was a newspaper reporter in the early ’60s I would use at least 150 percent. It was discovered that I was so nervous about asking people questions that I was kind of making things up. They switched me to features.

DS: What writers have influenced you?

PS: Many. Raymond Chandler comes to mind, for his pitch-perfect phrasing and existentialist wit. The drama in his novels is a series of threats to the hero’s self-possession. Marlowe turns the tables by thinking of something cute to say. A comeback! I think that’s a great analogy for writing, especially critical writing, where the threat is a wrongness—there’s always a wrongness—in what you’ve just said, and you have to say something else, just right, to counter it. Not just right because it isn’t wrong, too, but because it forestalls falling into blather.

DS: As a witness to forty-plus years of artmaking in New York, you could write a really wise memoir.

PS: Some witness! I’m too self-involved. What I know of others is their effect on me. I process everything through my...

DS: We all do. That’s why the word subjective exists.

PS: Oh, OK. True. Maybe it’s more that I don’t trust my memory—or memory itself, for that matter. Memory isn’t a record. It’s a bag of stories we like believing or maybe can’t help believing though we wish we could. Memoirs always strike me as packs of lies, whatever else they are. They may be superb literature. I don’t disapprove of memoirists. I don’t understand memoirists! To be sure of what happened! I like about artworks that they hold still. You can keep coming back to check and correct your memory, in the present. Art criticism is my mode of autobiography.

DS: Anything can be read as autobiography. But I think art criticism is basically an escape from personality, to mangle Eliot’s definition of art. Critics get to take refuge in a subject whose worthiness is beyond question.

PS: It doesn’t have to be worthy. I don’t assume the worthiness of it.

DS: Right. Time and again, you have opposed the notion of art as a force for social betterment. But I would guess you secretly believe that art is inherently worthy.

PS: Art isn’t inherently anything. It’s nice that it’s socially approved of, though the approval may be wishful, a wishful inflation. The possibility that the whole thing is bullshit can’t be excluded.

Deborah Solomon writes the “Questions For” column at The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).

Peter Schjeldahl has been an art critic at the New Yorker since 1998.