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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Seeing Art

New Yorker critic shares his vision

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  A decade ago The New Yorker magazine hired Peter Schjeldahl as their visual art critic. What a coup for a chap who spent his early years in the small towns of Minnesota and South Dakota, dropped out of college and existed on the ragged edge while writing five books of poetry between 1967 and 1981. He’s taught at Harvard and received a Guggenheim fellowship. Come fall, he’ll add the 2008 Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing.

  He’s a master of his craft. Pick up a copy of Let’s See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker (Thames & Hudson) and you’ll see why Schjeldahl shines where others fail. This isn’t a tome that instructs on how to become an art critic. It’s a 247-page sampling of his intimate essays, and though Schjeldahl gave up poetry writing long ago, his observations about art remain poetic. I’m sad to say that I have never seen (and probably never will see) many of the works of artists included in his book—for example, Rembrandt, Vermeer or Tintoretto—but because of the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), I have seen hints of some: Henry Darger, Marsden Hartley, Agnes Martin, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol.

  Last year, MAM hosted an elegant retrospective of the works of Martin Ramirez. Schjeldahl reviewed the show when it debuted earlier at the AmericanFolkArt Museum in New York. In his Jan. 29, 2007 essay, he brilliantly takes to task those who beat the drums for the alleged “psychological” aspects of Ramirez’s art.

  “What is it like to be an outsider? Outside what?” Schjeldahl writes. “Ramirez worked cogently from within his memory, imagination and talent. … His wombish mounds and tunnels lend themselves to psychoanalytic interpretation with suspect alacrity. I’ll bet they excited the doctors.”

  Schjeldahl is no snob. His essays cover not only the “art” of Hitler and Chris Ofili (who painted with elephant dung), but also the Guggenheim’s “The Aztec Empire,” which he describes as a “diplomatic potlatch.” You can learn what he likes and/or dislikes about Norman Rockwell’s art, overblown shows and art dealer Marian Goodman. His intelligent thought process puts you in a museum (or gallery), in front of the work and, before you know it, in the work, riding along on delicate and sometimes thundering waves of perfectly balanced criticism.

  Will I ever get to see Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation near El Paso, Texas? Likely not, but I yearn to after reading Schjeldahl’s essay. “Chinati is a climax of the 20th century’s fixation on rational process and aesthetic purification,” he says. “As such, it has an air of being entirely too good for mere human beings.”

  On the back of the book’s cover (featuring a work by John Currin) is a black-and-white photograph of Schjeldahl peering through owlish glasses. Clad in a sloppily buttoned trench coat and sensible scarf, he has the satisfied look of one who has seen a lot and hopes to share in the seeing.