PRINT December 2019


Gary Lutz

I’ve been swooning over the gusto and graces of Peter Schjeldahl’s prose ever since his days at the Village Voice, so in my estimation, Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings, 1988–2018 (Abrams) is a gift for anyone alert to the sorts of miracles that can be wrought within the span of a single thrillsome sentence. Whether working as a miniaturist within the paragraphic confines of the Goings on About Town section of the New Yorker or dilating into the larger space of the essay (with a word count often not much higher than that of the average op-ed tantrum), Schjeldahl, a virtuoso of compressed, lyrical, definitive utterance, writes with an open heart, an immaculate mind, and an eye unrivaled in seeing exactly what’s there and exactly what’s not—and this exactitude, and the aplomb with which he translates the visual into the verbal, are uncanny and unexampled. In criticism invigoratingly free of feigned knowingness, preening opacity, score-settling impurities, jargon, and snark, Schjeldahl knows how to lay out the facts and then arrow effortlessly toward aphorism: “the dead are always up-to-date”; “civilization is pleasant complication”; “likable art is more trouble than it is worth.” A stylist of the highest order, he bypasses the merely felicitous on his way to what Susan Sontag, in her essay “A Poet’s Prose,” calls “lexical inevitability”: Pollock’s strands of paint “bang on the surface” of the canvas; the beard in a van Gogh portrait is of “variously spiced browns”; the bowled fruits in a Matisse are “black-contoured, zero-gravity, incredibly sumptuous ciphers.” Another phrase from Sontag’s essay—“the autobiography of ardor”—would in fact be a fitting subtitle for Schjeldahl’s seducingly crucial collection.

Gary Lutz’s most recent book is The Complete Gary Lutz (Tyrant Books, 2019).