Friday, January 08, 2016

The Art Criticism of Peter Schjeldahl

Chardin, "Jar of Apricots", 1758

The philosopher and pioneering art critic Diderot reported that at the Salon of 1763 Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the leading genre painter of the day, was observed to pause before a Chardin, and then pass on, “heaving a deep sigh”.  I imagine Greuze thinking “Some guys have all the luck”  That painting, the Louvre’s “Jar of Olives” is not at the Met, but any of a dozen that are could have stung Greuze equally.  I recalled this anecdote while noting an astonishing color – a smoldering orange – that sounds a deep bass note in the “Jar of Apricots” (1758). Were I a rival of Chardin’s, I might briefly consider hanging myself.--Peter Schjeldahl, excerpt from "Stillness", New Yorker Magazine, July 17, 2000

By way of introducing his audience to the art critic, Peter Schjeldahl , Steve Martin, the entertainer and art collector, read the above excerpt on his on-line interview .

He contrasted it with the following  example of "art talk":

Ginger Wolfe-Suarez and her installation

Wolfe-Suarez explores the psychology of built space and perceptions of place while re-engaging notions of sitespecificity. Approaching fragility and impermanence, the material, textural, and odiferous with the same complexity as site and scale, Wolfe-Suarezʼs sculptures operate phenomenologically, the exhibition space reformed into a temporal and experiential zone for the viewerʼs body. Utilizing a material palette of wood, rock, paint, transparencies, light, yarn, as well as various odors and scents, “Memory Objects” includes recent sculptures and installations questioning how moments are made physical. Wolfe-Suarez negotiates a tension between presence and non-presence, dispelling notions of reduction, in what the artist terms a “symbolic abundance through absence."
........LTD Los Angeles

Since it takes about three seconds to find it with Google,  Martin was rather disingenuous to claim ignorance of it's source.  But as you can discover , the above text comes from a gallery press release.  It has been targeted at a specific audience of academics and collectors of 21st C. avant garde art. And contrary to Martin's assertion, it does not use uncommon words (or common words in an uncommon way)   But it does aim at those who are more interested in contemporary rather than 18th C. art.

And it's more about analyzing experiences rather than having them - the same distinction  that  can be found in Schjeldahl's two essays in the Dec. 21/28, 2015 edition of The New Yorker. His feature essay discusses the minimalist, Robert Ryman, while a shorter review discusses the Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock.   They are the reason that I began to write this post.  But now that I've discovered his earlier essay about Chardin, I can't resist examining that one as well.

Ryman boors me.  Pollock disgusts me.  But Chardin!.  I LOVE CHARDIN!.

And happily, "The Jar of Apricots" is online at the Google Art Project

This must be an example of the "smoldering orange".  (the color - not the fruit)

The title of Schjeldahl's essay on Chardin is "Stillness".

It begins with these thoughts:

"...the most silencing of painters - put thought and emotion on hold with gentle sternness as if to say "no doubt you are intelligent and full of feeling,  but for the moment simply look, if you don't mind"

-- if you won't wholeheartedly contemplate it , it will have nothing to do with you. You must relax and gaze. No special effort or acuity is required, but patience is not optional. Gradually you are engulfed in mysteries of painting and of something else supremely indefinite - something about existence. 

I am also "engulfed in mysteries of painting and existence" by Chardin -- but also by every other painter whom I like.

And like Schjeldahl, I always try to  put my thoughts on hold when looking at a painting.  Let them come later. But emotion drives my involvement with art. (which can be a problem when I need to look at ordinary things for mundane reasons)

Chardin eschewed the showy, eye fooling sensations of Flemish still-life. With him, the illusion of reality is a conviction won on scant evidence. You buy it, but when you look carefully you can't say why, because what's there is just paint. Except in the smallest formats, Chardin's brushwork usually resolves into passing verisimilitude only at distances of between six and ten feet. Strong pleasure occurs at closer, blurring quarters. Standing back you see pictures that bespeak intimacy-domestic stuff, preoccupied, ordinary people. Approaching the canvases, you receive something actively intimate- the obsessive passion of the artist to wrest rightness from his material It becomes hard to distinguish awkwardnesses from inspirations. A smear of Orange tells everything knowable about light when it collides with the bottom of a copper pot.

Rubens, "Diana Returning from the Hunt", 1615 (detail)

Frans Snyders, "Market Day on the Quay", 1635-40 (detail)

"Showy" characterizes these Flemish examples better than "eye fooling" - which one might easier find in  Dutch paintings.

I'll have to experiment with viewing distance when I next see  Chardin at the Met. Chardin-size paintings usually put me about four feet away.

Schjeldahl's last  two sentences puzzle me. If "it becomes hard to distinguish awkwardnesses from inspirations" - and if any area feels like a paint smear more than anything else - then I would say that the painting has failed.

His  emphasis continues to be on paint rather than whatever it might represent. But if he is feeling the artist's "obsessive passion", he must not be putting his feelings on hold, as he earlier recommended.

 Chardin, "Return from the Market", 1739

Reddish smudges on the cheeks of a servant woman convey the hectic path of a busy day in “the Return from market”, but then, somehow, so does everything else in this eventful composition, including a tiny triangle of blue sky over the top of an open door. That blue patch nearly took my breath away. How does Chardin do it? He paints. He keeps reaping epiphanies that are within the reach of painting, because that – and not copper pots and servant women , is what he is about. He was the first painter to convince us that he painted purely for paintings sake, an example that was not lost on the greatest of those painters who learned from him, Edouard Manet. . .

On the one hand, Schjeldahl tells us that everything in this eventful composition conveys the hectic path of a busy day.  On the other hand - he tells us that it does so because the artist was about painting itself - not it's  subject  matter like copper pots or servant women. Can't he allow that the artist used the one to show the other?

Here's that small blue triangle (upper left).  It's a nice touch - but so is the servant girl who stands beneath it while answering the door  Her erect posture contrasting with the woman in the foreground who is leaning on the table as she finally sets down her heavy load.

Schjeldahl then introduces us to a discussion of 18th C. French painting by Michael Fried.  Entitled “Absorption and Theatricality”, it defines that practice as "A time consuming investment of the painter’s life that holds still to be realized by the viewer, whose life is correspondingly enriched."

If we allow that the artist's investment might be in a lifetime of study rather than just whatever time it took to make the painting, I would apply that definition to every  painting I like to see. In contrast to the definitions provided by contemporary artists , it is made to serve the viewer rather than the painter.

Chardin, "Soap Bubbles", 1733

The above painting is offered as an example of an absorption "so total that the presence of the work's beholder is negated"

Yes -- it does feel that way - in contrast to so many images, especially devotional ones, where the characters on the pictorial stage are there to interact with the viewer

Suggesting that this is a paradox (if viewers were absent, how would anyone know that they were being ignored?), Schjeldahl goes on to share other "outlandish"  responses - and invites us to make up our own.  Apparently Diderot wrote that Chardin's harmony is like what theologians say about the spirit - sensible in the whole but secret in the details.

Diderot's analogy seems irrelevant. Not to be outdone, Schjeldahl proposes that Chardin's paintings appear to have been  painted by someone other than the artist, to be  viewed by someone other than the viewer. But that does not seem too outlandish.  Many paintings seem to exist in a world quite distant from either me or whoever made them

Chardin ,"Still Life with Hare", 1730

For me, Chardin’s most penetrating motif explicitly involves death: still-lifes with freshly killed game animals, notably rabbits. The subject came from a tradition of celebrating nature’s bounty, but there’s nothing festive in Chardin’s treatment of it. There’s nothing precisely sad, either. He isn’t propagandizing for animal rights. Bunnies get hunted, and that’s that. Moreover, he couldn’t render them with such fantastic accuracy if they were alive. It could be said that they died for art, that Chardin’s art hungrily consumes – beyond their marvels of shape, texture, and color – their very deadness. Here are creatures formed for motion that no longer move. They have embarked on the second career that awaits all beings, as inanimate objects of a special sort. They lie or dangle in eloquent postures that in life nothing can assume. They strike me as the deadest things in art – vibrantly, lyrically so. Is this disturbing? It is to me. It verges on an indecency that is all the more nerve-racking for having no touch of the grotesque, and for being firmly in the cause of beauty. The phenomenon of beauty can be a kind of murder, snatching something out of time and freezing it permanently.

Wow!  This is the paragraph that makes the entire review worth reading.

But please note -- Schjeldahl is no longer talking about paint.  This poignant reflection is all about subject matter and the dramatic, figurative gestures that express it.

As it discusses the naturalistic presentation of a timeless, impersonal subject matter - no more relevant to the artist than to any viewer - and more about life than art -- it exemplifies  pre-Modernist art criticism.


Jackson Pollock, "Stenographic Figure", 1943

Schjeldahl begins his  discussion of Jackson Pollock (December 21, 2015), with a career synopsis:

The trajectory of his too brief career retains a drama, as evergreen as a folktale, of volcanic ambition and personal torment attaining a lift-off, with the drip technique, that knitted a man’s chaotic personality and, with breathtaking efficiency, revolutionized not only painting but the general course of art ever after. (It can be argued, and has been, that the matter-of-factness of Pollock’s flung paint germinated minimalism.)

Did drip-painting germinate Minimalism?  That makes sense to me -- and I would add that the respectability of Outsider Art is another sprout from that wild seed.  But note that Schjeldahl only states this argument.  He does not endorse it.

Then, he takes us through the highlights of the MOMA collection:

Jackson Pollock, One Number 31, 1950

..perhaps his single most satisfying work, the songful “One: Number 31, 1950,” more than seventeen feet wide: interwoven high-speed skeins in black, white, dove-gray, teal, and fawn-brown oil and enamel bang on the surface while hinting at cosmic distances.

…. Drawing in the air above the canvas freed him from, among other things, himself. “Number 31” is the feat of a fantastic talent no longer striving for expression but set to work and monitored. He watched what it did. We join him in watching. Pollock redefined painting to make it accept the gifts that he had been desperate to give. Any time is the right one to be reminded of that.

Giotto, "Last Judgment) (Hell - detail), 1305

Pollock's Number 31 reminds me of Giotto's Arena Chapel -- but not the beautiful parts.

I suppose that chaos, misery, and despair needs some kind of  representation  to remind those who suffer that they are not alone.  But  thank  goodness that Giotto, unlike Pollock,  could paint saints and heaven as well.

Jackson Pollock: "She Wolf"

Here's another hellish image - about which Schjeldahl had this to say:

MOMA also has the transitional touchstone “The She Wolf” (1943)—a picture ferociously conflicted between Jungian voodoo and exasperated originality

Might we allow that a person may choose Hell - just others may choose not to follow him there?

..and a rough gem from the artist’s blocked, sad last years,
“White Light” (1954).

(two years later he killed himself and injured others while driving drunk)

 Pollock redefined painting to make it accept the gifts that he had been desperate to give. Any time is the right one to be reminded of that.

 Was American high-brow painting really improved by accepting these dark gifts ? Wasn't the ironic optimism of Pop-Art, as well as the nihilism of Minimalism a direct consequence? More positive expressions have been overwhelmed and marginalized - even if, like Ed Clark ,  they were early Abstract Expressionists.


  Robert Ryman, 'Arrow", 1976 

 As a response to the painful Abstract Expression of Jackson Pollock,  installations like the above seem to be saying "Stop it!"

It's not so much a self expression as the firm denial of one -- as if this white panel had been tacked up on the wall to cover something else. (the  four brutal  brackets are part of the piece itself).

Schjeldahl writes 1300 words about a Ryman exhibition  in the same New Yorker issue that he discussed Pollock.  His introductory paragraph concludes with:

There’s no savoring of style, just stark presentation. His work’s economy and quietness may be pleasing, but its chief attraction is philosophical. What is a painting? Are there values inherent in the medium’s fundamental givens—paint skin, support surface, wall—when they are denied traditional decorative and illustrative functions? Such questions absorb Ryman. Do they excite you? Your answer might betray how old you are.

Schjeldahl's manner may be respectful, even deferential,  but he's telling us that Ryman is a philosopher, not a painter, and the questions that he asks may  be  dated. (BTW - he notes that Ryman, unlike Pollock, was not  trained as a painter. He came to NYC to become a jazz pianist. He got work as a museum guard at MOMA - and started hanging out with co-workers like Don Flavin and Sol Lewitt)

In his second paragraph, he outlines a brief history:

Ryman is rooted in a phase of artistic sensibility that was coincident with early minimalism and Pop, and is still in need of a name. Call it the Age of Paying Attention, or the Noticing Years, or the Not So Fast Era...... What you saw, while not a lot, stayed seen. The mental toughness that defined sophistication in art back then is rare now. Ryman’s Dia show is a spiritual time capsule. The work isn’t dated, exactly; it seems classical. But what’s missing is a confident assumption that there will be an audience eager to put up with it.

He's still toying with the idea of Ryman's work being dated, but not yet ready to commit to it. Though it's something of a stretch to call an all-white canvas "classical".  It's also a stretch to conflate "sophistication" with "spiritual"-- except as a  mockery of both.


Ryman, untitled, 1959

Here's an earlier piece that accompanied Schjeldahl's essay.  It looks like Ryman has not yet completely obliterated  the colorfully expressive painting beneath the  thick, lumpy paint that he lathered over it.  As Schjeldahl put it:

.The earliest of Ryman’s paintings in the show, made in 1958, are small, awkward, oddly charming arrangements of impasto strokes, which have a generic look of expressive painting—at a time when the swashbuckling style of Willem de Kooning was much in fashion—but are as matter-of-fact as cards laid out for solitaire. Ryman was likely affected by Jasper Johns’s recent, sensational “Flags” and “Targets,” in which sensitive-looking touches of thick paint wander like sheep without a shepherd

Sheep without a shepherd?  I like the gentle humor.

Here's his response to his favorite piece:

 If I could have one work from the show, to satisfy my somewhat equivocal appetite for Rymanism, it would be the delicately befuddling “Arista” (1968), a six-foot-square painting on unstretched linen, which is stapled to the wall and abutted, on the wall, by ruled lines in blue chalk. The lines suggest a guide to placement, but there they are in place, themselves, as the most interesting feature of the work. The particular meaning, if any, of a Ryman commonly tiptoes just out of mental reach.

.Unfortunately, images of this piece cannot be found online. Possibly it would have less impact than the above words. After a few more descriptions, we move toward a conclusion:

 Ryman’s reductions of painting to basic protocols are engaging only to the extent that you regard painting as an art that is both inherently important and circumstantially in crisis. You must buy into an old story, which bears on Ryman’s extreme, peculiarly sacramental standing in the history of taste.

 Which allows that it may be reasonable not to buy into a story that is both old and paradoxical - just like religious notions that require ever greater leaps of faith from one generation to another.

 Ryman’s is a kind of mute art that, generating reverent and brainy chatter, puts uninitiated citizens in mind of the emperor’s new clothes. (I have in hand, as tinder for such derision, “Robert Ryman: Critical Texts Since 1967,” a thick volume of often gruellingly dense essays.) Yet, actually, the populist fable rather befits the serious aims of Ryman and his avant-garde generation, who insisted on something very like full-frontal nudity in artistic intentions. The emperor—roughly, high-modernist faith in art’s world-changing mission—could retain fealty only if stripped of fancy styles and sentimental excuses. That was Ryman’s formative moment. It was succeeded by a suspicion, now amounting to a resigned conviction, that contemporary art is an industry producing just clothes, with no ruling authority inside them. 

Yikes! Not only does the emperor have no clothes (despite exhaustive critical texts that say otherwise) -- but the emperor no longer has authority anyway - at least, no more authority than any other very rich guy. That would be a rather harsh judgment - of both Ryman and the world of contemporary art (galleries, museums, universities, magazines, etc)  that celebrates him.

 But note -- Schjeldahl does not claim this "resigned conviction" for himself as an art critic. Instead, he steps back to give his report, as if he were a journalist or social scientist - just as he did with his insights connecting Jackson Pollock to minimalism. Interesting things can be said about the contemporary art industry - but what about all the other kinds of  art practiced by contemporaries? (portraiture, commemorative public sculpture, traditional Asian landscape painting,, etc) Why doesn't Schjeldahl look there for some kind of cultural authority or world changing mission? As Kenneth Rexroth once noted, The dominant school of post-World War II American painting has really been a long detour into plastic nihilism.

And though that detour by now has many branches, none of them have led back to any kind of idealism.

Insightful  art criticism may not be dead -- but it does need to present judgments as if  the art critic had no heart and soul, and  his judgments belonged to someone else..


 By contrast, here is a less ambivalent response , that celebrates Ryman as an innovative "Light and Space" artist, as well as a "master of white on white painting",  updating his sophistication from one  verbiage to another. In another conceptual update, white-on-white has  been re-phrased as Queer painting 

Meanwhile,  the conventional  Contemporary Art 101 response can be found here: "Robert Ryman is a wonderful reminder of the historical importance of the artist, who bridged Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Post-Minimalism. Moreover, his work resonates with the liveliest contemporary practice, finding a place of honor within the current discourse about the medium of painting."


Here are some artists whom both  Schjeldahl and I have reviewed:

Walter Robinson (my version) Walter Robinson (Schjeldahl's version)

Schjeldahl gives much more of the back story - how Robinson's colleagues, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince both got famous back in the  80's, while Robinson has not been in a top tier gallery show until now. 

My basic point was: if you like this, go to any neighborhood art center - where people paint for themselves and not the artworld.

While Schjeldahl  concludes with this beautiful paragraph:

"The operative joke—helpless sincerity—turns breathtaking in the portraits on view of Robinson’s stepdaughter, Antonia, whom he adopted after her mother died, from complications of AIDS, in 1988. The world does not lack pictures of enchanting young girls, but these are visual poems intensified, rather than denatured, by their vernacular style. They make plain the subtle magic of all of Robinson’s art: returning tired images and jaded tastes to the first-morning blush of their, and our, innocence."

Is Robinson's "sincerity" a joke -- or not ?  Apparently, he and Schjeldahl live in a world where nobody cares about such a question.

I wish I had seen the Antonia paintings.


In a review titled "There is still no escaping Andy Warhol, Schjeldahl tells us that:

Love or hate him (I love him, if only because, coming of age as I did in the nineteen-sixties, I imprinted on him like a baby duck), he is not escapable."

Which does, I suppose, remind us that when  Schjeldahl came to New York City as a young man to work as an art critic, Warhol was the happening thing.  

It makes you wonder whether his response would have been different had he chosen a different career.   In a subsequent review of "Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera" at the Met,  Schjedahl tells us that:      "I was weaned on Abstract Expressionism"


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