by Christian Viveros-Fauné, The Village Voice
"What Turns Shy Boy Into Sex Killer?" A fantastic headline concocted by 20-year-old cub reporter Peter Schjeldahl for the Jersey City Journal circa 1963, the unlikely phrase tumbled through my skull's traps and chutes as I sat down to a season-opening lunch with The New Yorker's ace art critic. "Killer turns into shy boy?" Nope. "Art critic turns into sex killer?" Plausible, but not here. "Shy boy turns into killer art critic?" Now we're getting somewhere!
While the cliché of a killer from the wheat-growing hinterlands is standard Hollywood fare (cue picture of Robert Blake), few stories are as improbable as Schjeldahl's real-world transformation from small-town literary hick into major-league aesthete. A North Dakota-born, Minnesota-raised book nerd besotted with poetry—as youths eternally were before the Beatles—Schjeldahl dropped out of college, weighed his meager options, then literally drew lots to decide which of four major U.S. cities would host his budding, taciturn genius. New York won out—thank- fully for generations of readers who've been weaned on his generous insights, capacious taste, and sparklingly clean prose.
Landing in Hoboken, Schjeldahl first applied himself to beat journalism while writing poetry. Admittedly "too self-conscious to be a good reporter," he soon learned from folks he fell in with—Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara—that art writing was something else poets could do to earn money. This led him, legend goes, to place a pay-phone call to Thomas Hess, then crackerjack editor of ARTnews magazine. Schjeldahl breathlessly pumped his nonexistent qualifications. "Never mind all that," Schjeldahl says Hess shot back. "Just write me a letter telling me what makes you think you're qualified to walk into a gallery where some poor bastard has his paintings and tell him they are no good."
This, in a nutshell, is how Peter Schjeldahl, America's most important living art critic, came to write about art....
Featured Comment by Yuanchung Lee: "Boy, it's been a long time since I've read a critic (the author) write something so sycophantic and uncritical about his/her subject. Just over the top, no? As for Schjeldahl, he is not to my taste. His writing is not at all clear; though it is not the jargon-laced prose used by many Art critics, it is obfuscatory nonetheless. I admit to often finding it difficult simply to understand what the heck he is trying to say. In fact, before reading this article, I had assumed that Schjeldahl was not a native English speaker, given the oddness of his writing. But the poetry background kind of explains it. I prefer art criticism that explains, clearly and concisely, why the work in question is good / interesting / complex / important (or not). One has to mine Schjeldahl's writing to find the one or two sentences—admittedly illuminating and delightful, often—that actually performs this basic function."