We were stuck in traffic on the way to the Alex Katz opening at the Guggenheim when my wife started rummaging through her phone. “Does Peter Scheldahl have a new book?” she asked. “His picture is all over Instagram.” My heart sank. No, I knew there was no new book. I knew all those pictures said goodbye.
Because before I set foot in a gallery, Scheldahl was one of New York’s leading art critics—in recent years for The New Yorkerbut before that for New York Timesthe short-lived weekly Seven daysand above all, The village voice. At a time when art criticism was becoming increasingly scholastic in tone, Scheldahl proudly held up the banner of fiction criticism in the tradition of Charles Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire, and the various New York poets—John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara—who wrote about Art news in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. And as I honed my own critical skills, I constantly turned to his writing, argued with it, emulating some aspects of it while trying not to emulate others.
Scheldahl’s stylistic enthusiasm was more than decorative and charming—it was an intellectual scalpel that could, oh so delicately, reveal the difficulties of feeling that give life to art. Scheldahl was a hedonist who understood that the pleasure of art can only be a problematic pleasure. A recent article of his was on Mondrian, an artist one would think too raw to fire Scheldahl’s aesthetic imagination. But Scheldahl revels in the “solid mystery” of the Dutchman’s art – “his powerful combinations of hermetic sensibility and formal clarity that stun even as they command attention.” For Scheldahl, the experience of art is inseparable from the desire to be stunned, to be reduced to ignorance, to mere experience.
Scheldahl was Catholic in his interests, but could be strangely reticent about his own preferences. “There is art that I adore and which I will not write about,” he once explained, “because I cannot imagine that it has enough meaning for ordinary readers. It refers to my personal experience as a person, without which my activity as a critic would disappear, but which falls outside my critical mandate.”This is where I found myself in fundamental disagreement with him: for my taste, he gave too much weight of the social consensus-building aspect of the critic’s role, and insufficiently of the personal and idiosyncratic.
SCheldahl was voraciously read by those who could empathize with his hyper-arousal sensibility and appreciate the insights it provided—that “Holbein was sensitive but cautiously non-erotic in his portrayal of women who are usually gloomy” or that “it is like [Jasper] Johns to subtly call out holy wrath. He was not happy with the retailing of the bromides that accumulate around famous art. But he also had no desire to put himself in the spotlight. He eventually overcame his aversion to the first-person singular in 2019 with The Art of Dying. The essay was something of a farewell speech, prompted by the diagnosis, which he laid out emphatically in the opening line: “Lung cancer, spreading.” Part of the theme was precisely his long-standing inability to write an autobiography—his sense that he was both insufficiently interesting as a subject and too guilt-ridden to self-reveal. The complexity of Schledahl’s character suddenly came to light.
At the time, The Art of Dying seemed like a farewell to Scheldahl, but it turned out to be the prelude to a renewal of his energy. After that essay (and contrary to the prediction he shared with me in an email a few months before the essay appeared: “About half a year’s outlook”), he began to seem more alive than he had ever been, becoming even more productive and coming out, according to my calculations, about forty-five more articles about The New Yorker between February 2020, when he wrote about the artist Peter Saul, and this October with some of Wolfgang Tillmans’ photography—all during a period of pandemic that has made so many of us less active. Every time a new Sheldahl essay came out, there was a cheer among his readers, a cheer for life, for enthusiasm, for art—for everything that kept going into extra innings. Scheldahl may no longer be with us, but for his readers his essays will continue to do so. That’s why he was all over Instagram that day. We wanted it to last forever.