This art critic with roots in North Dakota and Minnesota influenced the art world – and pissed off people at home – Grand Forks Herald

FARGO — For more than half a century, the art world has been influenced by the voice and views of Peter Scheldahl, a 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 the age of 80 after a long battle with cancer.

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

He eventually moved to New York in 1965 and found work as a publication critic.

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

“In North Dakota, I’m blown away,” he told The Forum in 1980, referring to the horizon and the blackness of the soil. “I feel deeply moved in a way I can’t explain, and I think about it a lot.”

Perhaps Scheldahl’s greatest direct impact on the region came in 1979, when he was on the commission that commissioned Texas artist Luis Jimenez to create a public sculpture for the corner of Broadway and Main Avenue.

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

Jimenez’s fiberglass sculpture “Sodbuster,” depicting a farmer plowing a field behind a team of oxen, did prove to be a challenge for local residents. When it was installed in 1982, some dismissed the work, and a letter to the editor of the Forum called it “rubbish.”

In the 1980 interview, Schjeldahl recalled how one of Jimenez’s earlier designs, “a lush square-dancing scene,” was rejected.

“There’s a definite cultural gap between Jimenez and Fargo,” the critic said. “Jimenez naturally assumed, being a Chicano, that people liked to be seen having fun. As a Lutheran born in North Dakota, I could tell him he would be wrong.”

The late art critic Peter Scheldahl.

Contributed / public domain / Wikimedia Commons

He seems to have had little to do with Fargo-Moorhead art after that, but he continues to influence the national art world.

Among those who praised Scheldahl was Alex Greenberger, who stated in an ARTnews article that “the late writer’s exuberant prose and insightful mind made him one of the most widely read art critics in the United States.”

In the many published memorials, people point to Scheldahl’s accessible way with words, a continuation of his work as a poet.

“His reviews were often devoid of art jargon, making them readable to a wider audience, even when he was engaged in conceptual work,” Greenberger wrote. “His prose was lush and buttery, with sentences peppered with big words more likely to appear in novels than art reviews. If read aloud, his reviews sound melodious and quite pleasant. If read on their own, they can also be fascinating, even entertaining.

Greenberger pointed to a passage written by fellow critic Jarrett Earnest in “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Works of Art, 1988–2018,” which includes works by Scheldahl.

“Every artist I know would give a few fingers of their non-painting hand for a good long review by Peter Scheldahl – not just for the recognition, but because he invariably brings something new to the discourse,” Ernest writes.

Not all artists may have seen Sheldahl this way. Of popular contemporary artist Jeff Koons, who set a record for auction prices for a living artist at $91.1 million in 2019, Scheldahl wrote: “Jeff Koons makes me sick. He might be the definitive entertainer of the moment, and that makes me the sickest.

The critic’s words didn’t always sit well with Jonathan Rutter, director and curator of The Rourke Art Gallery + Museum in Moorhead and an accomplished artist in his own right.

“Peter Scheldahl certainly made an impression on me. I usually get his New Yorker articles second-hand or possibly third-hand from James O’Rourke,” Rutter says, referring to Rourke’s late co-founder. “More often than not I would strongly disagree with what Scheldahl had to say, but his writing was always a joy to read.”

“Criticism joins poetry, for me, in having a civic duty to expand the common stock of words, keeping good words in play,” Scheldahl said in an interview with Artforum in 2008. “My helper is Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.”

However, in the 1990s, he stopped writing poetry.

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

In 2019, Scheldahl shared the news of her 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 eventually extended his stay by another three years, making his line even more prophetic: “I’ve always said that when my time comes, I’ll want to go fast. But where’s the fun in that?’

“He took his work seriously—despite stunts of self-deprecation, there were times when I think he knew how good he was—but he was never self-serious,” wrote New Yorker editor David Remnick in a tribute. “Once he won a grant to write a memoir. He bought a tractor with the money.”

Scheldahl continued to write until the end, submitting a review of Piet Mondrian’s biography to the New Yorker weeks before he died.

“That he wrote it during what must have been unimaginably painful time is a testament to what great art and powerful writing meant to him. We hope so,” wrote Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, in a memoir.

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