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A View of Art with Peter Schjeldahl

«Cézanne won’t cut it.»

When I heard Peter say that line at the party, I knew I was in over my head.

Peter, at these dinner parties where no one was shy about opinions, sat tolerantly with his head tucked in and let us all chatter away until our balloon heads blew. He would wait for the inevitable pause, raise his head, and speak so forcefully that if we had a stenographer present, Peter would have another one ready A New Yorker essay.

In 2003, at one of those extravagant catwalk art fairs, I ran into Anne Stringfield, A New Yorker a worker I had already met: in addition to contributing to the magazine’s art lists, she often proofread my essays. She was with Peter and politely introduced us. Petr was just as receptive to people as he was to art. He caught something, and as I was leaving I said to Anne, «Well, you’re moving in some interesting circles.» Five years later we got married.

Anne and I attended Peter’s year regularly Fourth of July fireworks a night in the Bovina countryside, in the Catskills. We also made frequent stops at his wife Brooke’s Rip Van Winkle-themed miniature golf course, which she carved out of their property and opened for free to the entire community. In Manhattan, Peter and Brooke hosted cozy home dinners with star-studded company – artists (Vija Celminsová, Martin Puryear, Thomas Nozkowski), writers and critics (Roberta Smith, Deborah Solomon, Jerry Saltz), prominent (MOMAnn Temkin, infectious disease specialist Kent Sepkowitz) and one comedian and his artistic wife. Their apartment on St. Marks Place was five years taller, which matched Peter’s slim figure and fleet walking pace.

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The modest but powerful works of art that had attracted Peter and Brooke over the years hung smugly on the royal blue walls: Bruce Nauman, Susan Rothenberg, Cindy Sherman. A Willem de Kooning painting on newsprint — a gift from the artist — worth a ten-year lease has remained firmly in place, despite its potential on the auction block.

Peter’s writing was exemplary. It’s all too easy to find a gem: simply open any of his books of collected essays to a random page and put your finger down. Which I just did: «Kippenberger’s nihilism swept the world like a rustling wind.»

Peter’s goal was to have at least one idea per sentence. His best mentoring, he said, came from journalists, which makes sense. His reviews have an urgent quality. The latest news!

«There’s a new old painter in town: Hans Holbein the Younger.» . .”

Petr lavished precious words. He liked a dormant but appropriate vocabulary that might otherwise languish in a dictionary. There were little surprises in the sentences, as if to say, “You might want to try this this instead of wine?» Always perfect, they can knock off a sentence in the middle if you didn’t want to skip them and lose the prize. I recently came across the phrase «Kandinsky’s epigoni». Epigon: A minor follower or imitator of someone, especially an artist or philosopher. Peter turned thirteen words into one with a wave of his wand. What a useful word, you think: an epigon is not just a follower, but a less prominent a follower, especially of an artist. And here I use it.

It’s easy to think you can write like Peter and throw words around fearlessly, but it’s dangerous. Even when I write his sentences, it’s like I’m putting on someone else’s clothes: «Hey, this almost fits!» But the observer will tell you that you look strange. It’s one thing to learn the word «epigone,» but another to discover that you are one.

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One day in September 2010, Anna and I received an urgent message from Peter. The FrickRembrandt’s 1658 self-portrait—according to Peter, «the best painting in the museum, if not in the world»—was just being cleaned at the Met. Would we like to stop by the conservation lab and see the work in progress? Oh yes. Petr wrote about it nimbly Rembrandt. On the complexity of Rembrandt’s line drawing of Cain killing Abel: «The drawing shows that murder requires concentration, a certain method and sudden energy, and that it hurts.»

We made our way through the bowels of the Met, past a strewn assortment of paintings undergoing restoration—Rubens, Stanley Spencer, Georgia O’Keeffe—and finally reached the sunny studio of the conservation room. And there it was.

Unadorned on the easel, the painting emerged from the frame. It was clear that the artist was with us, but invisible, that his brush had just lifted from the canvas. Peter approached the painting, absorbing it, looking up and down, and we waited for the perfect commentary, epigrammatic and quotable. He happily turned around, “Where are his knees? He has no knees! His knees are somewhere here in the room.» Then he raised a thumb at arm’s length and covered and uncovered Rembrandt’s right eye. «See that white dot in his right eye? Cover it and the face loses its vitality.»

In 2019, Peter was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and given six months to live. He began experimental treatment and wrote his last essay to salute life. Published in this magazine, it caused a stir in the art world, which marveled at its grace, sincerity and subtle turn of phrase.

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Anne suggested that we form a group with Peter and Brooke and go to Spain and Prado for a farewell confrontation with his obsession, Velázquez «Las Meninas.” Deborah Solomon and her husband Kent Sepkowitz join in and the six of us venture out to spend five days together, even though we’ve never traveled together before. We set a date five weeks in advance, not sure what the future holds.

Then we learned that the experimental cancer treatment worked. Petr miraculously returned to full energy.

We all saluted the science that had saved our friend—and world-class essayist—and subsequently landed in Madrid. Embracing his jet lag, Peter jumped off the plane and ran to our first stop. A few hours later, we stood beneath Goya’s early frescoes in the Real Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, silent in a sacred—in my case, secular—silence.

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