November 25, 2022

This art critic with North Dakota and Minnesota roots influenced the art world – and angered people back home – Grand Forks Herald

FARGO — For more than half a century, the art world has been influenced by the voice and opinions of Peter Schjeldahl, longtime critic for The New Yorker, The Village Voice, The New York Times, ArtNews and Art in America, among other publications.

He died on October 21 at age 80 after a long battle with cancer.

Schjeldahl was born in Fargo in 1942 but moved with his parents, Gilmore and Charlene, Minnesota to Farmington, Minneapolis and Northfield, where he would twice attend and drop out of Carleton College.

He eventually moved to New York in 1965 and found work as a publications reviewer.

As an adult, he occasionally returned to the Midwest, and in 1978 helped repair the old post office in Christine, North Dakota, where his mother, Charlene Hanson, lived.

“In North Dakota, I’m overwhelmed,” he told the Forum in 1980, referring to the horizon and the blackness of the ground. “I feel deeply moved in ways that I can’t really explain, and I think about it a lot.”

Perhaps Schjeldahl’s greatest direct impact on the area came in 1979 when he was part of the committee that commissioned Texas-based artist Luis Jiménez to create a public sculpture for the corner of Broadway and Main Avenue.

“We wanted something that would challenge local tastes but be user-friendly in the long run,” he told the Forum in 1980.

Jiménez’s fiberglass sculpture “Sodbuster”, depicting a farmer plowing a field behind a team of oxen, indeed proved difficult for the locals. When it was installed in 1982, some rejected the work, and a letter to the Forum editor called it “trash”.

In the 1980 interview, Schjeldahl recalled how one of Jiménez’s earlier designs, “an exuberant square-dancing scene”, was canceled.

“There is a definite cultural divide between Jiménez and Fargo,” the reviewer said. “Jiménez naturally assumed, being Chicano, that people liked to see each other having fun. As a Lutheran born in North Dakota, I could have told him he would be wrong.”

The late art critic Peter Schjeldahl.

Contributed / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

It seems he had little or nothing to do with the arts of Fargo-Moorhead after that, but he continued to influence the national art world.

Among those who praised Schjeldahl was Alex Greenbereger, who in an ARTnews article said that the late writer’s exuberant prose and insightful wit made him one of the of the most read art critics in the United States”.

In the many published memoirs, people have pointed out Schjeldahl’s approachable way with words, an extension of his work as a poet.

“Often his reviews were stripped of artistic jargon, making them readable to a wider audience, even when it was conceptual work,” Greenberger wrote. “His prose was lush and buttery, with sentences peppered with swear words more likely to appear in novels than in art journals. If read aloud, his reviews sound melodious and quite pleasant. If read for oneself, they can also be fascinating, even amusing.

Greenberger pointed to a passage that fellow critic Jarrett Earnest wrote in “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018,” which included works by Schjeldahl.

“Every painter I know would give a few fingers of his unpainted hand for a good long critique of Peter Schjeldahl – not just for recognition, but because he infallibly brings something new into the discourse,” Earnest wrote.

Perhaps not all artists saw Schjeldahl this way. Of popular contemporary artist Jeff Koons, who set an auction price record for a living artist at $91.1 million in 2019, Schjeldahl wrote, “Jeff Koons makes me sick. He may be the definitive artist of this moment, and that sickens me the most.

The critic’s words have not always pleased Jonathan Rutter, director and curator of the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum in Moorhead and an accomplished painter in his own right.

“Peter Schjeldahl certainly left an impression on me. I would usually grab his New Yorker articles second-hand or probably third-hand James O’Rourke,” Rutter says, referring to Rourke’s late co-founder. “More often that otherwise I would strenuously disagree with what Schjeldahl had to say, but his writing was always a pleasure to read.”

“Criticism joins poetry, for me, in the civic duty to loosen the common stock of words, keeping the right words in play,” Schjeldahl said in a 2008 interview with Artforum. “My sidekick is the full dictionary of Random House Webster.”

However, by the 1990s, he had stopped writing poetry.

“Poetry has dried up. Art criticism ate poetry,” he said in this Artforum interview.

In 2019, Schjeldahl shared the news of his lung cancer diagnosis in a New Yorker essay, “The Art of Dying,” a raw, unsentimental mini-memoir. At the time, he was given six months to live, but he ended up extending his stay for another three years, making his verse all the more prophetic: “I always said that when my time came, I would go fast . But where is the fun in that?

“He took his job seriously – despite the self-deprecating stunts, there were times when I think he knew how good he was – but he was never serious,” wrote David Remnick , editor of the New Yorker. “Once he won a scholarship to write a memoir. He used the money to buy a tractor.”

Schjeldahl continued to write until the end, delivering a book review of a biography of Piet Mondrian to The New Yorker a few weeks before his death.

“The fact that he wrote it during what must have been an incredibly painful time is testament to what great art and powerful writing meant to him. And I hope for us,” wrote Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, in a reminiscence.