Peter Schjeldahl, who turned 72 on March 20, has been making a living as a writer for close to 50 years, the last 16 of them as the productive, well-regarded art critic for The New Yorker. You’d think, therefore, he’d have his prose practice fine-tuned by now. But this is not the case; in fact, it’s not uncommon for him to take a couple of days to write what to his eyes is a satisfactory first sentence for one of his reviews. When it comes to talking, Schjeldahl’s quicker off the mark, looser; he’s something of a rambler, but often during those rambles he’ll pull together a sentence or sentences at once cogent and erudite, uttered in a creaky, grandpa-sounding voice.
The Globe caught up with the critic in Toronto, where, sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and the Ontario College of Art & Design University, he lectured – a term he likens to a cross between “sloppy writing and tight-ass talking” – on the baroque and its relevance to contemporary art practice.
Last fall a writer for The New York Review of Books, in a review of the collected recent writings of one of your fellow art critics, The New Republic’s Jed Perl, suggested Perl take a break from reviewing because he was becoming too negative, too dyspeptic about the current scene. Have you ever taken such a break or thought of doing so?
I constantly remind myself that nobody gets up in the morning with the intention of making me feel bad, and if I feel bad, it’s my own problem. I like art, I more or less like people and both are in play every day. I’m happy and grateful to have a focus for myself that’s congenial and that people seem to care about.
But there must be periods or moments in art history, whether near or far, that resonate with you more than others.
As I get older, my own pleasure gravitates farther and farther back in history, like to the Old Masters. Rembrandt is my favourite artist and I like to go to the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and the Frick [Collection]. Except I regard all that as contemporary, too. My rule is to define as contemporary any artwork that is existent today, whether it’s five hours old or 5,000 years. I pride myself on bringing the same responsiveness to each, be it Piero della Francesca or Jeff Koons. Notions of “old” and “new” made sense when we had a ruling myth of progress, when it seemed there was some kind of forward thrust of history. Now that that’s been pretty thoroughly destroyed, we’re just circling, churning, fragmenting, historically and in every way. But as long as I stay occupied in the present, I’m not gonna get moony about [what] used to be; the good old days were not all that good. The solution is just to relax and not get het up about much of anything.
Do you have any desire to write a big book or offer up a grand theory? Your last book, 2008’s Let’s See, was a collection of your New Yorker writings.
I’m a miniaturist. My problem with theories, all theories in culture … is that it’s essentially backward-looking. I mean, Clement Greenberg [the famous champion of abstract expressionism in the late 1940s and ’50s] got his definition of modernism all tidied up just in time to be blown out of the water by pop and minimalism. I’d rather not suffer that embarrassment.
On visual artists talking about their art: One of the things I tell artists is I don’t want to hear them talk about their work. I want them to shut up and I will talk. Because we have a division of labour: They make the [stuff] and I talk about it and as long as we’re in accord on that everything is fine. [Artists] are the last people who know what they’re doing. It’s left brain, right brain: the part of the mind that produces analysis and explanation is turned off in the studio; ask an artist about what the art is and you’re talking to somebody who, in essence, wasn’t there. You’re just going to pick up some [baloney] they’ve heard from their dealer or some professor of art theory.
On painting: It’s my favourite art form. It’s the one that gives the most and when it is great, nothing is greater. It has taken a whole series of blows from other cultural activities yet it has reproved its integrity every time. Sure, it has no practical function now in the world and very little intellectual function, but there’s something irreducible about a rectangular surface covered with marks that are all absolutely on purpose and made of physical stuff like we are. When it’s good, it demands – and allows – the highest degree of refinement of our feelings and perceptions.
On installation art: [Its rise] has been overdetermined by the needs of institutions. To put on a really good painting show you have to deal with collectors, you need so many paintings, the insurance costs alone can break your budget. Put up an installation and you’re good for three months; it takes up a good chunk of space, then you take it down.
This interview has been edited and condensed.