Peter Schjeldahl (photo by Gilbert King).
Minnesota-raised art critic Peter Schjeldahl penned an essay for the Dec. 23 issue of the New Yorker magazine that’s not about art.
It’s about his own life, which is drawing to an end.
Four months ago, Schjeldahl, 77, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
Though he’s been in New York since 1965, the Fargo-born writer came of age in Farmington and graduated from Carleton College in Northfield. In his essay “The Art of Dying,” he recounts how he had his first smoke at age 16, behind the Northfield High School bleachers. Minnesota was also the place where his drinking career began; he would get sober, eventually, later in life.
"In a car with high-school classmates after a picnic party somewhere in rural Minnesota — a bottle had been passed, and I would have proof that Cheetos were on the bill of fare — I said to stop. I tumbled out and barfed beside the road. The vomit was bright orange. It puddled on bright-green grass. The summer sky was bright blue. I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful."
The Schjeldahl name may sound familiar to Minnesotans. His father founded Sheldahl Flexible Technologies, a company that produces printed electronics. He was, as he writes in his essay, “regarded as the rich kid, because my father’s firms (first manufacturing plastic bags, then engineering inventions including the nasa Echo 1 and Echo 2 Mylar-balloon satellites) were the biggest businesses around.”
If that sounds dull, consider that his dad invented plastic-lined paper sickness bags for airplanes. His father passed on, but his mother still lives, at 102.
Schjeldahl’s first reporting job was at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City. He stumbled into art criticism in 1965, writing what he calls “mostly one-sentence reviews” for the Art News. A year later, he got hired as art critic at the Village Voice. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Artforum and Art in America, and he has received several awards for criticism, including the Clark Prize. He's been at the New Yorker since 1998, and has published four books of criticism, including the 2019 collection “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018,”
In his essay, Schjeldahl alternates between an awareness of his own arrogance, and a playful sense of self-effacement. He's usually writing about other peoples' artwork, not himself. This winding, at times fragmentary piece seemed to come as a surprise even to himself.
"You’re reading an exception, which is pouring out of me. It’s the first writing 'for myself' that I’ve done in about thirty years, since I gave up on poetry (or poetry gave up on me) because I didn’t know what a poem was any longer and had severed or sabotaged all my connections to the poetry world. An impermeable block has crumbled, my muse being, I guess, the grim reaper."