Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker’s art critic and a half-century-long prose stylist of New York City’s art scene, died today, October 21 at the age of 80.
Although Schjeldahl’s cause of death has not been officially confirmed, he was diagnosed with lung cancer at 77. In his fragmentary, freewheeling essay “The Art of Dying,” published in the New Yorker in 2019, Schjeldahl recounted how he was once awarded a Guggenheim grant to write a memoir but never completed the task. “I don’t feel interesting,” he said simply. “The Art of Dying” was an attempt to remedy this failure, recounting his beginnings in criticism in 1965, his entanglement with the St. Mark’s Church and Lower East Side poetry scene of the 1960s and ‘70s, his sexual relationships, his drug use and alcoholism, and his ever-evolving relationship with dying and death. Citing “the grim reaper” as his muse,” he likened himself to “a camera situated nowhere and taking in every last detail of the pulsating world.”
Born in Fargo, North Dakota in 1942, Schjeldahl grew up in Minnesota, where he studied English at Carleton College but did not finish his degree. He began his career at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City after cold writing to “papers in small cities near big ones.” Following a brief stint writing for Art News, Schjeldahl worked as an art critic at the Village Voice before joining the New Yorker as a staff writer in 1998.
With little formal training in art history or practice, Schjeldahl dove into art criticism simply from a passion for art, developed in part while abroad in Paris in the early 1960s. “Most of what I know in a scholarly way about art I learned on deadlines,” he later wrote, “to sound as if I knew what I was talking about — as, little by little, I did.”
Over his long career, Schjeldahl championed living artists working across a variety of genres and subject material, including Faith Ringgold, Richard Serra, Amy Sherald, Bruce Nauman, and countless others, while turning a critical eye to others, like Cézanne and KAWS. Schjeldahl kept writing essays and reviews until his final days, including a panegyric on Wolfgang Tillmans’s show at the Museum of Modern Art published just two weeks before his death.
Schjeldahl also wrote poetry before art criticism eventually overtook his poetic practice. In his brief time at Carleton, he co-founded a poetry journal that was an exponent of the then-contemporary New York School. In 1978, he published a collection entitled Since 1964: New and Selected Poems, drawing from several volumes of his work.
Schjeldahl is survived by his wife, Donnie Brooke Alderson, and their daughter, Ada Calhoun, who earlier this year published Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me, a memoir that both recounts her complicated relationship with her father and seeks to complete a biography of poet Frank O’Hara that he never finished.
Writing in Hyperallergic about Schjeldahl’s 2019 collection Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018, critic David Carrier said: “Schjeldahl is a lover of fine painterly art in an era that is often hostile to that concern. And so, for me, his greatest achievement is that he didn’t become a curmudgeon like Hilton Kramer, or beat a retreat to focus on the past; instead, he continued to review prolifically even as much contemporary art becomes obviously alien to his sensibility.”