The Penetrating Gaze of One of America’s Most Brilliant Art Critics

100 Art Writings, 1988-2018
By Peter Schjeldahl

Whatever chips a critic might accumulate for honesty or temperance, for reading backlists, for punctuality or for nodding politely when yet another person recommends “All the Light We Cannot See,” for whatever, I would like to push all of mine to the center of the table on behalf of the following statement: Peter Schjeldahl is a great artist.

It’s unseemly to be so categorical, but the fact that Schjeldahl himself is an art critic — in its heyday for The Village Voice, since 1988 for The New Yorker — necessitates the vehemence. Is criticism an art? It’s a valid, exhausting question. Criticism follows other people’s work; then again, so does all human invention. What lab-pure operant-conditioning chamber do we imagine “real” artists spring from?

Regardless of your position, anyway, Schjeldahl’s thrilling new collection, “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018,” takes that poor old beast of a debate out of harness and sets it free in rolling country pastures. For now.

His specialty is the searching, summative essay of a few pages on a single artist. (Spearing “that little eel in the middle — that marrow,” as Virginia Woolf wrote.) Journalism may have imposed the format upon him, but it’s also, by happy chance, the ideal medium for his gifts. Like Lydia Davis, he writes with remarkable tensile beauty and closeness of observation. Any dilation of either’s work tends to diminish it.

Take Schjeldahl on Picasso, an artist who obviates the anxiety that the critic’s line of work is dependent on insider knowledge. In a review of a show that ranges over “a period of grueling brilliance, when Picasso kept junking and reassembling the female physiognomy like God,” he gives discerning historical and artistic context first. Then he expands his attention. “Picasso was simple in the ways that counted,” he writes. “People make the mistake of supposing that genius is complicated. It is the opposite. We regular folks are complicated — tied in knots of ambivalence and befogged with uncertainties. Genius has the economy of a machine with a minimum of moving parts. Everything about Picasso came to bear when he drew a line.”

With artist after artist in “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light,” Schjeldahl arrives at some similarly unexpected yet exacting truth. (I will never forget — really — the shock of tuning-fork accuracy when I first read his superficially odd claim that the motivating emotion in the work of Jeff Koons is rage.) He has the ability to freeze an artist cold in a line, not through aphorism, which implies a slinking away from the specific, but with meticulous, writerly precision.

On de Kooning, for instance: “His art is not abstract, just relentlessly abstracting.” (I have always thought that — I just never thought it.) Toulouse-Lautrec “embedded art in an imperishable present tense like no one else until Andy Warhol,” while Karen Kilimnik’s eerie portraits of celebrities and raw-eyed women intuit “the authenticity that all kitsch dimly remembers.” His rare reprovals carry a giddy weight: “A lot of people need Lucian Freud to be a great artist. How else to explain the furor for the pretty good English portrait and figure painter?” He doesn’t dodge psychology; in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, Schjeldahl writes, the volatile artist found “a steadying and dispassionate, heaven-sent collaborator: gravity.”

If you don’t care about visual art (my own ignorance of opera, which I offer as ballast, is humiliatingly total), these observations may not feel significant to you. Alone, they would mark him merely as our best critic.

But what separates Schjeldahl is the tangible sense in nearly every piece in this book — say 85 of the 100 — that something existential is at stake as he writes. The same sensation is present in Barthes and Sontag, his closest analogues to my mind, writers who, whatever their subject at a given moment, are desperately attempting to make something lucid out of this indecipherable life they’ve received without asking for it. Schjeldahl seems to find in art the unmediated experiences of living — humor, anger, sadness, perplexity, beauty, sex. He is especially moving when moved, himself, to reverence. Of arguably his favorite artist, Velázquez (as if “the flame painted the pictures” of the fire), he ends his review in simple wonder: “One of us did that.”

Like all compilations, “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light” is jerry-built. You could wish that it addressed more passionately the transformation of the art market into a venue for arbitrage; on the other hand, you could note that Schjeldahl was vitally open-eyed to female artists before such inclusiveness drew applause, dazzling on Ree Morton, Helen Levitt, Jenny Holzer, Florine Stettheimer and others.

But perhaps none of those names means a thing to you. If so, do me a favor. Go online and look up Philip Guston. Spend one minute with his ugly, mesmerizing, pink-scrimmed paintings.

Now watch, as Schjeldahl captures their essence in eight words: “scenarios of childish fear shading into middle-aged abjection.” An artist, his yearnings and the work they produced are all joined in that lightning bolt of a line. Perhaps even a century — the 20th. I know that art is only a small part of living, but it’s also true that there are people whose makeshift faith lies in the best things human beings have made. Schjeldahl grants those artifacts a corresponding dignity, with all the meaning we knew they had but could not describe ourselves. It’s astonishing; it astonishes. One of us did that.

Charles Finch is a novelist and critic. His most recent book is “The Vanishing Man.”

100 Art Writings, 1988-2018
By Peter Schjeldahl
390 pp. Abrams. $28.

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