Mask of the Critic – Guernica – Interview with Peter Schjeldahl and Jonathan Santlofer


Peter Schjeldahl and Jonathan Santlofer have been fixtures in the art world for decades, yet before Guernica brought them together for the “impromptu” conversation that follows, they’d never met. The art critic for The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl was born in Fargo, North Dakota, settled in New York in the mid-60s and began writing criticism for Art News. Before joining The New Yorker in 1998, he was the regular art critic for The Sunday New York Times, The Village Voice and 7 Days. Between 1967 and 1981, he published six books of poetry. His five books of criticism include The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings (University of California Press, 1991). Of Schjeldahl’s work, The Times Literary Supplement writes, “[Schjeldahl] has a masterly personal voice, flamboyant, witty, lyrical yet often precise; more important, he has an open-hearted attentiveness to the subjects of his criticism and the imaginative spaces around them.”

Jonathan Santlofer was first known as an abstract painter. After a gallery fire in Chicago destroyed five years of his work, he went to Rome where he reinvigorated his interest in Renaissance and Baroque art, drew, and began to write fiction. He returned to art five years after his gallery fire, with 100 figurative paintings of artists and detailed replicas of their work. His paintings have been written about in The New York Times, Art In America, Art News, Interview, and Arts Magazine, and are included in such collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Institute of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, and JP Morgan Chase. He is also the author of three novels, Color Blind, The Death Artist and, most recently, The Killing Art, which features original art from the author and was hailed by Library Journal as “a fast moving procedural with enough creepy detail to please even the most ardent thriller fans.”

Jonathan Santlofer: You’ve written for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, and Seven Days. Does your writing change in relationship to the publication you’re writing for?

Peter Schjeldahl: Oh, sure. And it’s possible I am the only art critic that a lot of people read. And maybe Robert Hughes, if he’s still writing.

Jonathan Santlofer: He certainly was when The Shock of the New made its splash, but that was a long time ago.

Peter Schjeldahl: Hughes basically explained to people that their lack of interest in contemporary art was appropriate. He liked very few artists.

Jonathan Santlofer: I seem to remember he loved Frank Auerbach. But seemed to hate—

Peter Schjeldahl: Anything that showed a spark of intelligence made him nervous. But I think he anguished over what he wrote, however snide it was.

Jonathan Santlofer: Can we go back to your audience? If, as you say, when you’re writing for The New Yorker you may be the only art criticism that a person is reading, do you have a certain kind of responsibility?

Peter Schjeldahl: Yes. I have a total responsibility to the reader. The reader has to trust me and never feel betrayed. There’s a double standard between writers and readers. Readers can be unfaithful to writers anytime they like, but writers must never ever be unfaithful to the readers. And it’s appropriate, because the writer is getting paid and the reader isn’t.

Jonathan Santlofer: You seem to want to educate your reader. I recently read your piece on the Robert Smithson show at the Whitney Museum and you give the reader a fairly thorough education of what was going on at the time Smithson was making that work. I thought it was an interesting piece because there is also something quite damning about it. You essentially say that Smithson is not a particularly terrific artist.

Peter Schjeldahl: No, he’s terrible; but he is a great historical figure and cultural figure. I mean, there’s a double standard—quality and significance. You know, how good is it, and what good is it? We dream of art that is both top-drawer and of maximum significance—Rembrandt, for example. But there’s been a lot of very good art that simply doesn’t matter very much. There’s the art that I would readily buy if I could afford it, and enjoy, but would never write about because it doesn’t seem significant. Smithson was someone of tremendous significance whose work was not beautiful at all. I think he was an iconoclast. Minimalism itself had a very strong iconoclast impulse. You think of the sixties as loose and liberated, but in art it was actually quite the contrary.

Jonathan Santlofer: Your Smithson article made me want to see the show, and it made me realize that you, at least in The New Yorker pieces, always create a historical framework. Two pieces of yours immediately come to mind: the Picasso-Matisse at MOMA Queens, and your piece on Christo’s The Gates. Tell me if I’m wrong, but your Gates piece can be boiled down to your saying: ‘It was a good event, but not very good art.’

Peter Schjeldahl: Right.

Jonathan Santlofer: You couldn’t say that and get away with it in New York while the piece was up. People would get mad if you said it wasn’t good art. But then, when you wrote that, I used your article to back me up because I thought it was very weak art.

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, I think that if it had been better art it would have been lesser entertainment. It seemed to me that it was strictly about the participatory narcissism of the crowd. I mean, you glanced at the work, there was nothing, so then you could look at each other and yourself. Early on he tried to make things beautiful, but I think he’s wised up. It was like a sort of vacation for Christo.

Jonathan Santlofer: I walked through The Gates with a camera and thought: well, I haven’t seen other Christo’s in reality so I could be wrong, but maybe all of the other Christo pieces that I’ve liked in reproduction weren’t very good either, or were simply made for two-dimensional viewing. I mean, that’s when they are beautiful—as pictures, or through a viewfinder.

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, beauty is… I just don’t know if that’s what Christo is after.

Jonathan Santlofer: Just recently someone said to me—a non-art person, a layman—‘Why do we need words to describe art?’ I said that writing about art is a very different activity from making art. That’s all it is, two different activities.

Peter Schjeldahl: Yeah, you know, you like art, you’re very excited, you don’t want to talk about it. It’s like, why do we need sports writing when we have sports? To wake up in the morning and buy the paper, to read about it and have a good time all over again. That’s all.

Jonathan Santlofer: Speaking of writing, are you still writing poetry?

Peter Schjeldahl: No. I’m about twenty-five years retired and not writing poetry again.

Jonathan Santlofer: Never?

Peter Schjeldahl: No.

Jonathan Santlofer: Some of your essays felt to me like they were set up like stories. They start with a premise, have a first act, move toward a conclusion; and often have a witty conclusion. Do you think of them like short stories?

Peter Schjeldahl: More like a sonnet. I can do pretty good work in various short forms, but anything over 1400 words, I’d be of no use. I like to say I’m a river navigator. I need to see the shore behind the shore.

Jonathan Santlofer:Your poetry was very narrative, at least the poetry that I’ve read. I have one book, “Poetry Since…—

Peter Schjeldahl: …Since 1964.” Collections from my first four volumes.

Jonathan Santlofer: And they read like little stories, vignettes, very sharp.

Peter Schjeldahl: I started out to be a surrealist poet. I was born in North Dakota, grew up in Minnesota. I dropped out of college, came East working with a newspaper corps; then went to Paris for a year, in ’64. I thought that’s where it was at for writers; and also I went to seek surrealism. But I was twenty or thirty years out of date on those scores. What I discovered in Paris is that it was radically not where it was at. Then I fell in love with art.

Jonathan Santlofer: There’s a whole history of wonderful poets—Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery—who wrote about art.

Peter Schjeldahl: They were my heroes. Baudelaire was the father of us all.

Jonathan Santlofer: And why do you think poets have this ability to write on art?

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, you know, creative types, the shared sensitivity; and also the use of symbolically nuanced language. Artists are expected to talk about their work but writers aren’t expected to talk about their writing.

Jonathan Santlofer: I think they all should be forced to.

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, maybe, but… I have painted enough to have a lot of respect for mediocre painters. It’s really hard.

Jonathan Santlofer: I think writing is harder.

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, you’re in the odd position of doing both. But it’s so different, the visual/verbal I mean. And the problem of making artists talk about their work is that when they’re making their work the left-brain is shut off. So if you talk to an artist about it, you’re talking to someone who wasn’t there. It’s hopeless. And also it’s insulting. It’s implying that the work is not an adequate account of itself. I mean, if there’s anything more to be said, the artist should go back and start the work again because he didn’t pull it off. To me, the greatest artists are almost entirely non-verbal.

Jonathan Santlofer: I’m not sure I agree with that. But here’s a question, something I’ve been thinking about recently, about words and pictures, the left-brain right-brain thing. I taught myself to read with comic books. I liked the pictures, and—

Peter Schjeldahl: That’s interesting because I’m writing—I’ve been assigned, actually, to write—an essay on graphic novels, which I’d completely ignored. But now I’ve been immersed in them for about a month and it’s very interesting. But I’m absolutely convinced that people cannot look and read at the same time. Not any more than you can kneel and jump at the same time. It’s a completely different physiological setting. You can seem to do it because the toggle between the two activities is so fast. But comic books, graphic novels, involve constant toggling and it’s hard work. You get tired reading comic books, but you never get tired looking at pictures or reading words.

Jonathan Santlofer: Really? I enjoy it. The pictures and words at the same time. There’s this moment—and maybe it relates to being a child when you’re just putting pictures and words together and identifying them—that the picture verifies the language for you. I made pictures for my most recent book because I knew they would stop the reader and that it would confirm something about the words they were reading. I’ve been very intrigued with that and it’s made me also think about poets, and how poets perhaps look at paintings and think about putting words to them—to the visual components.

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, there was a generation where poets and artists collaborated a lot which was kind of just a bad idea. What you end up doing, out of politeness, is being yourself at your worst. You do what you do in the most obvious and dumb and weak way in order to not compete with the other person, when really what you want to do is destroy them.

Jonathan Santlofer: (Laughs) Well, knock them off the page, perhaps. You can knock the picture off with words, though I think the picture usually wins the battle.

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, I think you just want to kill each other!

Jonathan Santlofer:That reminds me of a Clyfford Still quote where he says something like, ‘Your best artist friends are concealing a knife that they’re ready to use on you.’

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, you know, Still had no friends.

Jonathan Santlofer: That’s what I gathered.

Peter Schjeldahl: I think we learn, not only not to kill each other, but to pretend that we never even dream of it, although that’s not true. There’s not only a desire to be the best, but to be alone—not to be the best poet in the world, but the only one.

Jonathan Santlofer: I’d go with the alone part. I think, choosing to be a poet or artist, you remove yourself from the world and that’s the only way you can do it.

Peter Schjeldahl: First of all, all artists and creative people are basically unhappy people. If you were happy, that would mean you were content with the world as it was and why would you ever want to change it?

Jonathan Santlofer: Artists are always recreating the world for themselves.

Peter Schjeldahl: Yes. It’s narcissistic. And there’s a tendency toward depression, plus a likely prognosis of alcoholism. That’s the nuts and bolts of it….

My analogy is [it’s] like being a chef. A lot of writers and artists are like chefs who eat their own cooking in the kitchen and then deliver an empty plate with assurances that it’s great. Whereas the chef makes cake and sometimes tastes it with a finger, but that’s it—the rest is for the people….

But of course there is a sensuousness to language, there’s a pace to it. There’s a deliciousness to it. I do have pleasure when I’m writing. I mean, I’m aware of pleasure. And sometimes I make myself laugh, with a joke or something; or I feel gleeful. But that’s just momentary. And then it’s about how to make it work. Your medium has to be alive to you, no matter what you do.

Jonathan Santlofer: Yes, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have an audience watching or in your mind when you’re making it.

Peter Schjeldahl: I found with poetry that I couldn’t keep it up. I was too vulnerable. Maybe I was too aware of the audience. And I had impossibly high standards that I could never approach. So there was always a sense of being a failure, and of being vulnerable.

Jonathan Santlofer: But the sense of being a failure is a several-times-a-day affair for artists, no?

Peter Schjeldahl: Sure. But as a working writer I had to get over it. I find that the mask of the critic is to have distance. There are degrees of openness, of vulnerability, but it’s different.

Jonathan Santlofer: You were saying before, about being aware of an audience. In art school I was taught by the last of the Abstract Expressionists, and they were like: The minute you have an audience, you’re doomed.

Peter Schjeldahl: Like they weren’t doomed? (Laughs)

Jonathan Santlofer: Well, they were doomed, but—

Peter Schjeldahl: Art teachers are always the doormats of the previous generation.

Jonathan Santlofer: I didn’t teach for very long, but I certainly loved my painting teacher, George McNeil. I turned him into my father. I even made McNeil paintings for years afterward. But we—my generation—were schooled on the idea of the Zen state: that you can’t think about your audience—

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, you think about what the hell you think about, right?…

Jonathan Santlofer: Did you have any training, any art education?

Peter Schjeldahl: No, none.

Jonathan Santlofer: So all of the art history that you bring into the writing you’ve learned or read on your own—things that you bring to it, interpret for a particular piece.

Peter Schjeldahl: Yeah, and this is true, by the way, of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, too. The idea of going to school to be an art critic is a very crazy idea. I educated myself in public, which is a very painful way to learn—by writing and then discovering that I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. But you remember the lessons vividly. Also, everything I’ve learned about art was (a) because I was actually interested, or (b) I was actually interested in covering my ass because of what I was writing about. Love and fear, the two strongest emotions we have. It all starts with emotion.

Jonathan Santlofer: Do you think that art history rewrites itself, that what we learn now changes what we thought in the past?

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, T.S. Eliot said: ‘Past art is subject to change.’ Art is always subject to change in a moment by somebody who’s strong enough to shed new light on it.

Jonathan Santlofer: So let me ask you: If there’s a big exhibition and it’s obvious that you should be covering it, but you’re not interested in it, can you muster the interest to do it? Or do you write a piece that shows that you’re simply not interested in the work?

Peter Schjeldahl: I make a decision whether my readers will be interested. I think being interested is really what being civilized is about. I mean, you have to be conscious of everything. You know the exhibition might not be very good, but people ask; and if you respect the people who ask, you begin to be interested, or try to be; and then when you write you try to make it as interesting and considered as you can. That’s the fun of it. There’s a brilliant, influential text for me, Edwin Denby’s Dancers, Buildings and People in the Street. He talks about a quality of attention, about being in the street and looking at cracks in the sidewalks and looking at buildings and the way people walk; about the way people walk in different parts of the world. How, in New York, they stride; in Paris, they stroll; in London, they walk as if it were a new thing that had been invented this morning and they weren’t very good at it. And it’s about aesthetics—the aesthetic as a filter or a lens cap, a way of working, a way of being, of seeing. The aesthetic experience has to be given. And beauty is a regular experience of every person—every person who is not clinically depressed! You could say that clinical depression is an incapacity to aesthetic response. It’s like there’s a constant agreement within ourselves, a kind of mutual understanding between ourselves and the world. When it becomes consciousness, and the consciousness wonders about it, then you have the beginning of cultivation. Everybody’s got plants, but most are just growing weeds. The cultivated have greater gardens, finer and gaudier gardens. And a critic had better have a pretty good garden.

Jonathan Santlofer: Indeed.

Peter Schjeldahl: It’s not something that other people don’t have. It’s simply a matter of degree to attention and cultivation. Everyone could have it. Cultivation, beauty… well, beauty makes us more like ourselves and more like each other.

Jonathan Santlofer: Can you elaborate on that?

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, we were talking about verbal and nonverbal consciousness. I think it’s a melding of consciousness into the body. It’s a sense of intelligence becoming physical, attended by feelings in the heart. And I don’t mean the metaphorical heart, I mean the play of adrenaline and whatever other hormones that we feel in our chests. The heart! It’s like a merging of ourselves; not a merging with the outside world, but a stability in ourselves in relation to the world. We can be fiercely attracted and, to the same degree and to the same intensity, held off by a sense of reverence, a sense of what we are looking at. This was the allegory of the Renaissance nude—the beauty being the inviolability of something that is desired but inviolable in its perfection; that it not be violated, starting with me. Especially me.

Jonathan Santlofer: What about the artist’s relationship to that object of beauty that they’ve painted or created?

Peter Schjeldahl: I don’t think that these things are related. The experience of beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. The artist’s relation to the object of beauty, how the art makes that happen, is a whole other subject. Beauty is an event. Beauty is something that happens. There is no such thing as a beautiful object or a beautiful woman. These things do not come near it—the experience of beauty, the event of beauty. The anxiety about it is what makes it such a central concern of culture and makes us so interested in it. With art criticism it’s difficult to discuss beauty, to assess it, because there’s always the possibility that we’re insane.

Jonathan Santlofer: Or simply that you’re wrong.

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, you don’t need everybody to agree with you, but you do need a few people. And by this point I have a fairly high degree of confidence in my judgment, in that I don’t doubt my sanity; or, even if I do, I don’t have to be reassured.

Jonathan Santlofer: You seem pretty rational in your writing.

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, it’s my duty to sell the ideas. But there’s always a question when it comes to beauty.

Jonathan Santlofer: It brings up a question of different cultures. If people inherently have a physiological reaction to beauty—

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, beauty is a physiological reaction. As I said, beauty is not an object.

Jonathan Santlofer: But isn’t it a kind of evolving concept?

Peter Schjeldahl: I think it’s extremely primitive. It takes us down. And there’s an attempt of petty, grandiose periods in culture to make it heavy and grandiose—you know, for artists to make things in their own image—and to make it difficult and mysterious. To me, it’s deep, but not mystifying. One of the worst things that happened was Kant’s Sublime. Kant said, ‘The Sublime is the beautiful plus something painful.’ It’s a failed concept, The Sublime. It’s never made it into common speech. And yet it’s still a term of jargon after two hundred years. I think its time is up….

Jonathan Santlofer: You’d spoken earlier about how you were vulnerable as a poet.

Peter Schjeldahl: Yes. Very. I couldn’t do it.

Jonathan Santlofer: But if you’re writing anything or producing anything in the realm of art, whether its criticism or poetry, it goes out there in the world and there’s a degree of vulnerability around it because other people are going to look at it and judge it, right?

Peter Schjeldahl: Oh sure. But that’s probably so with any job you can imagine. And my stuff is mediated. You know, I’ve got an editor. And it’s a service, you know. I provide something.

Jonathan Santlofer: Have you come to see that position over the years? Was it scarier at the beginning?

Peter Schjeldahl: Absolutely. I used to be terrified—and jealous, and defensive, and aggressive—but not now.

Jonathan Santlofer: Do you have any desire to write other things at this point?

Peter Schjeldahl: No. I find what I do entirely satisfying. I love it. Or, no, I totally dislike it. What am I saying? I’m in absolute despair! (Laughs)

Jonathan Santlofer: I’m so glad to hear that.

Peter Schjeldahl: It used to be that for a week after I finished something, I would be happy. Now it’s strangely a matter of hours. But that’s the way it is. I would rather chop off my leg than be caught complaining of my profession in a world with New Orleans and Baghdad today….

Jonathan Santlofer: Someone recently asked me, ‘Why aren’t artists more political?’ And I said that I think being an artist has a sort of political component, but that making overt political art is often a problem.

Peter Schjeldahl: My problem with political art is not that it’s bad art necessarily, but that it is terrible politics. It’s like, ‘Oh, let’s go to the museum and find out what the artist thinks about the issues of our day.’ What are we talking about? We’re talking about a closeted person with minimum contact with reality who has trouble tying his fucking shoes! And he’s supposed to be political? A bus driver has a better perspective on things. Artists are completely indulgent….

In the ‘90s there was this fashion for political art, and suddenly a whole generation became political artists. And that went out of fashion about five or six years ago, and suddenly there were no political artists. But, for the most part, the art was bad politics. Artists are sometimes in a position to tell the truth, but they’re positioned as a Cassandra. They’re gifted with impeccable prophecy and the assurance of never being listened to. It makes me think of Goya….

Jonathan Santlofer: I’m thinking of his depiction of the royal family. What a nasty painting.

Peter Schjeldahl: Well, it is kind of nasty, but it’s probably who they were.

Jonathan Santlofer: But don’t you wonder how he pulled that off?

Peter Schjeldahl: Because he could. There’s the royalist painter, Velazquez, the greatest painter who ever lived.

Jonathan Santlofer: I agree. He’s at the very top of my top ten.

Peter Schjeldahl: And some of his portraits are very dark.

Jonathan Santlofer: Right, so what I’m asking is, like with Goya’s nasty depiction of the royal family, did these artists dazzle their subjects with artistic prowess? Is that how they got away with it?

Peter Schjeldahl: No. I think it has to do with the Spanish royalists. Spanish royalism is not self-diluting. Phillip IV—a painting I spent years looking at—was painted while Phillip was on a military campaign. He [Velasquez] was set up four miles behind the line and Phillip would come for a couple hours every day. And he had his military silver mace and he had a big, feathered hat, which he kept in his hand. He’s a dork, he’s an inbred idiot! But he knew what he was like. And it didn’t matter to him. There’s no irony at all. He [Velasquez] is showing exactly what Phillip looks like because you don’t want to mistake him for somebody else if you run into him. It would be unwise, right? The point is, he doesn’t have to look like anything other than what he looks like because he’s the fucking king and you’re not!

Jonathan Santlofer: I’ve never had it explained that way before. I’ve always thought, ‘How the hell did these painters get away with making these people look ugly and foolish?’

Peter Schjeldahl: Because he’s the king, get it? He isn’t playing the king. He’s not aspiring to the role….

Jonathan Santlofer: Well, they had to be cool with it, didn’t they? Because they kept having to be painted over and over. One stands in the Prado and looks at those paintings and says, ‘Well, I guess they were aware of the fact that they were being painted by the greatest painter of all time, so that made it okay.’

Peter Schjeldahl: Yes, that was the point.

Jonathan Santlofer: That you could buy the greatest painter.

Peter Schjeldahl: Of course. Meanwhile, Rembrandt, the second greatest painter who ever lived, an exact contemporary of Velazquez on the other side of the continent, was working strictly for the art market. He invented the bourgeois art market.

Jonathan Santlofer: I often think his models look like actors caught in a moment on a dark stage.

Peter Schjeldahl: Yes, yes. And he did something very delicate with them, the models, because he’s involved with role-playing. There are levels and levels and levels of role-playing. For Rembrandt, reality is role-playing…. Everyone is portrayed in relation to a social hierarchy.


Jonathan Santlofer: So, in a way, could one see Rembrandt as a social painter, a political painter?

Peter Schjeldahl: Rembrandt came at the time when people had sprung loose from descriptions. I mean, these people are sort of free-floating individuals; and they’re blurry, coming in and out of focus, in terms of role playing. A woman may still be a Dutch model, but she absolutely becomes this other person playing a role. Rembrandt was way ahead of his time. It’s as if he was painting an amateur theatrical, or a professional theatrical, in his studio. It’s a kind of performance. There’s a painting in Minneapolis, the best Rembrandt in America I think, Lucretia, from 1666. It’s a painting of a noblewoman, a wife, who’s been raped; and, in order to save her husband’s honor, she stabs herself, which is a very abstract noblewoman thing to do because every age has a different attitude for it—whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. But Rembrandt is only interested in the reality of this thing. So, here is this beautiful young woman at the peak of her fertility, beauty, social position, charm; all of the right forces in the universe are focused on this creature; but, because of the notion of honor—the male notion of honor—she is about to destroy herself. And it’s like, ‘How? What would it take to do that?’ A real question. There’s another painting, the same subject, same title—Lucretia—from 1664, in Washington, D.C. In it, the woman is standing three-quarter length in this big gorgeous dress, her hair is down, and it’s very theatrical. She’s got the dagger out and she’s got this look on her face—you feel it’s almost indecent to look at her, it’s so… final. It’s like we are leaning in and dealing with a power of beauty that we have never quite seen—the look of somebody in the moment of deciding to die. And her other hand, we’re not sure what it’s doing. It’s up here. But what is it doing? If you, as a viewer, ever wonder what’s going on, just assume whatever the physical position the model is in and you’ll always get it. So, you put it on, try it out, and you say, Okay, what would I be doing? And then you realize that her head is just tilted to the side, sort of at the last split second, she’s wondering, thinking. It’s interesting to look at the two paintings, in Washington and Minneapolis. I don’t know if it’s the same girl, she looks so different. The Minneapolis painting, which is better, is very heavy, lighted by candle, all darkness; you have the feeling it is 2:00 AM. Everything sags. The knife is falling out, there’s blood forging down the nightgown: bright, arterial bright, red, red blood. And you see where the slit is and you feel like it’s not exactly in the heart, it’s probably the edge of the heart. And she’s dead—no, she’s dying—but…

Jonathan Santlofer: You mean it’s slower, that she is in the process of dying?

Peter Schjeldahl: Yes,