Hot Cold Heavy Light collects 100 writings—some long, some short—that taken together forma group portrait of many of the world’s most significant and interesting artists. From Pablo Picasso to Cindy Sherman, Old Masters to contemporary masters, paintings to comix, and saints to charlatans, Schjeldahl ranges widely through the diverse and confusing art world, an expert guide to a dazzling scene. No other writer enhances the reader’s experience of art in precise, jargon-free prose as Schjeldahl does. His reviews are more essay than criticism, and he offers engaging and informative accounts of artists and their work. For more than three decades, he has written about art with Emersonian openness and clarity. A fresh perspective, an unexpected connection, a lucid gloss on a big idea awaits the reader on every page of this big, absorbing, buzzing book.
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About the Author
Peter Schjeldahl has been the art critic for The New Yorker since 1998. Prior to that, he wrote art criticism for Seven Days and the Village Voice. A poet as well as a critic, he was the recipient of the 2008 Clark Prize for Excellence in Art Writing. He lives in New York City.
Jarrett Earnest is the author of What it Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics (2018). A frequent lecturer on contemporary art, he lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
There aren't enough Flowers.
How's that for hard-hitting criticism of the Andy Warhol retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art? It will have to do. On an occasion so gaga that it begs for curmudgeonly demurral, I'm just another happy face in the crowd. I love the show. I love Warhol, with a fan's abandon. The feeling isn't so much a warm place in my heart, an organ not notably engaged by this artist, as a flat spot among the folds of my brain, from where they got run over in the sixties.
Warhol had a steamrollering effect on the whole mental apparatus of Western culture. The weight that did the trick wasn't his but history's: gigantic American power, pride, affluence, idealism, social mobility, technology, mass entertainment, and associated troubles. But nothing foreordained the appearance of an artist who would clarify the age, while it was happening, in icons of uncanny fidelity and amazing pleasure. Warhol gave shocks of self-recognition to lives that were changing anyway. He thus imbued many of us with the unreasoning devotion that is typical in the wake of conversion experiences. Mine came in Paris in 1965. It was a show of "Flowers."
Having only paused in New York after fleeing the Midwest, I was living out a dreary year of unrequited romance with France. It was a gray day. I entered a gallery packed with Warhol's silkscreens — big ones like billboards, little ones like ranked trivets — of hibiscus blossoms reduced to single flat colors amid grainy black-and-white blades of grass: photography degraded to the verge of abstraction. The pitch-perfect synthetic hues were never dreamed of in nature or previous art. My head sprouted a thought balloon: "Wrong city!"
Weeks later I was a naturalized New Yorker. I lived on Avenue B, used drugs, was often miserable but too excited to notice, saw Warhol's films (saw all films, but Warhol's stand out as the most revelatory of the decade), walked into galleries and was wowed, walked the streets and was wowed, gave or attended innumerable poetry readings, felt on the brink of possessing important knowledge, didn't sleep much, anticipated a political Revolution (didn't like the idea but didn't argue), went with a flow like a whirlpool with riptides, and liked things.
Warhol said that Pop Art was "about liking things." The effect was a sort of Zen keyed to supermarkets and movie magazines. (It had only glancingly to do with camp, Susan Sontag to the contrary, because active rather than reactive — a proposition of normality, even, with only whispers of rebellion and no defensiveness at all.) My compulsion to be analytical proved a nuisance, which I beat down with drugs and flirtations with the occult. (But the I Ching lost me to boredom by proving always right.) Aesthetic sensation inhered in every particle of a world like an explosion, things flying and tumbling.
I had a couple of conversations with Warhol, who was so omnipresent, you thought there must be several of him. I talked in rushes and jumbles. He replied, as near as I can recall, "Oh," patiently. He was nice when not many were. (He referred in his diaries to "Peter Schjeldahl who I know hates me," which, with remorse, I attribute to my way of dissembling nervousness. What looked like hostility was terrified respect.) He was shot in 1968. Everybody valuable seemed to be getting shot or else hit on the head by police or shattered by the drugs. People fled one another and crashed. It was over. What "it" was, I forgot.
At MoMA, I remember. I had expected the show to be beautiful and fun, which it is, and perhaps nostalgic, which it isn't. The three hundred or so objects, most from the early and middle sixties, remain too potent to be mooned over. Their radiance is still like a lighthouse seen at night from a sinking ship. They reawaken a state of mind bashed around by impersonal forces, staggering for balance, and, now and then, making a dance of the stagger.
There are only two middling Flowers. The reason may be lingering sensitivity about one of MoMA's old pieties — the sanctity of modernist abstraction — which Warhol wrecked. He stripmined the pleasures of Clement-Greenbergian Color Field painting, which was touted then at the museum, and expunged its preciousness. Is this still a sore point on West Fifty-Third Street?
I didn't know that in his miracle year of 1962 Warhol did a painting of Natalie Wood: several dozen repetitions of her preternaturally pretty face in black and white in that fast and lucky, there's-no-such-thing-as-an-accident silk-screening. He also made one I hadn't known about of Roger Maris hitting a home run: the big, grunting swing in rows of mighty whacks. Each work feels definitive, freezing for all time a fleeting euphoria.
I didn't know how great were the Marilyns, Elvises, Lizzes, Marlons, Jackies, electric chairs, car crashes, and "wanted" posters — and the Flowers, where are the Flowers? — which is odd, because I thought they were as great as anything gets. Not that thinking has much to do with a sensation of, chiefly, rapture. Rapture merges the top, bottom, and all sides of yourself, such that you don't know where you leave off and anything else begins. It's like D. H. Lawrence's speculation about the sensory awareness of fish in water: "one touch."
The sixties were about blurring boundaries. Warhol triumphed because the frontiers — between high and low and art and commerce — never existed for him. Look at every other important artist then, especially every Pop artist, and you will detect some or another skittish irony. Warhol wasn't ironic. He was neither naïve nor cynical. He was innocent and greedy. Middleclassniks tied themselves in knots trying to fathom the complexities of a mind whose secret was simplicity, as efficient a life-form as a shark, a cat, or an honest businessman. He gave himself with no strings attached, only price tags.
Warhol had a barbarian's unblinking detachment, as a son of lower-class Slovak immigrants and (it turns out, which almost no one knew) a lifelong observant Eastern Orthodox Catholic. He became the artist laureate of capitalism, in which everything is priced, because it seemed to him only natural. Having grown up on the system's underside, with no privilege and thus no ambivalence, he didn't fret about its morality, though he was moral within it.
He ran into creative trouble in the seventies, it's true. MoMA's representation of the later paintings is mercifully brief. (I do enjoy the society portraits, however — a genre achievement that no one has properly characterized yet, though some of us have tried.) I think the culture became so permeated with Warhol's influence that his responses to it picked up feedback, to deleterious effect. He still did well with death (skulls, guns), totalitarian and shamanistic sublimities (Mao, Joseph Beuys), and himself (the never-fail self-portraits).
Warhol had announced that the show I saw in Paris in 1965 was his last one of painting. His next major outing, at Castelli in 1966, was a walk-in beautiful climax of the careening decade, with drifting silvery-plastic balloons that mirrored our delirium and cow wallpaper that mimed our stupefaction. He planned to abandon the art world for Hollywood — a campaign that was defeated by the movie industry's real-life ways. (Liking things cut no mustard with bottom-line executives.) That he had to come limping back to New York, and to paint again, is still a little sad.
But leave downbeat notes to the curmudgeons. What they will miss, as usual, is that Warhol remains ahead of us all, as contemporary civilization's comprehensive seer. He delivered the glamour-industrial goods with full knowledge of the bads inherent in them. The petrification of life played by rules of celebrity was a fair bargain for him, and a serviceable business plan, but he never disguised its coldness. Pleasure and alienation aren't two sides of a coin in his work; they are the same side, a sleek, transparent surface with nothing — black-hole-in-space nothing — behind it. His art superimposes our gawking reflections on bottomless want.
Seven Days, February 22, 1989CHAPTER 2
WILLEM DE KOONING
Like the bus in the thriller Speed, this masterpieces-only retrospective never slows down and thus is hard to board. How I did it was to stroll nonstop through the show, finally pausing in the last room with the eerily deliberate paintings of de Kooning's dotage that lay out rudiments of his genius like silk ties on a bedspread. I studied those works that have no historical precedent that I can think of. Then I left the show and nonchalantly walked back in at the beginning, going straight to Pink Lady (1944) and giving it my full attention. The effect was like a plane taking off, when the acceleration presses you against the seat. The painting's violent intelligence detonated pleasure after pleasure. When I turned around, everything in the show was singing its lungs out. Half an hour later I was beaten to a pulp of joy. I'll rest and go back for more.
If something similar doesn't happen for you at the Met, either you are distracted by personal woes or the art of painting is wasted on you. The art of painting does not get more exciting than Willem de Kooning on a good day, and this show amounts to months of his Sundays. Times critic Holland Cotter has argued well, in his review, that the Greatest Hits approach is a poor way to represent this artist, whose feints and jabs set up his knockouts. But we must do our best with what we are given. The show will make a doomsday division between those who are attuned to painting and those who aren't.
De Kooning is ninety and under nursing care. He has not worked in several years. Except for some rumored late-late paintings, we have his whole career in sight. Only Picasso, Matisse, and maybe Mondrian, among the century's painters, had more substantial careers over comparably long hauls, though you wouldn't guess de Kooning's stature from art criticism of the last three decades.
De Kooning did some of his strongest work after the early sixties, while excluded from the conversation of contemporary art. He seemed left behind. He was waiting ahead. At last catching up, we have no major critical assessments of him fresher than musty old myths of his existentialist heroism (Harold Rosenberg) and "Luciferian" ambition (Clement Greenberg), unless an allegedly lousy attitude toward women counts. It makes sense to start from scratch. I suggest a focus on de Kooning's mental powers.
He was an intellectual giant among painters, with an analytical grasp that registers in every move with pencil or brush. A mark by de Kooning always has more than one thing on its mind: direction, contour, composition, velocity. The mark lies on the surface and digs into pictorial space. It makes a shape of itself and describes shapes next to it. Such doubleness derives from Cubism, which gave de Kooning his initial orientation. With crucial guidance from Arshile Gorky, who showed him ways around Picasso's intimidatingly authoritative permutations, de Kooning blew open the Cubist grid, changing its mode from structural to fluid. De Kooning is to classical Cubism as flying is to walking.
His art is not abstract, just relentlessly abstracting. Memories of depiction cling to every stroke. They contribute to a fabulous complexity that, as you look, can supercharge your capacity to maintain disparate thoughts simultaneously. This is never more the case than in the Women, where sublimely abstracted marks bend to the vulgarity of a derisive, yakking image. It is as if an angel choir chanted a dirty limerick. Savagely comic, the work unites exalted and degraded feelings in Möbius-strip continuity.
De Kooning had the skills with line, paint, and color of an Old Master, the last in a parade from the Renaissance. After Jackson Pollock, dripping, broke physical contact with canvas, ideas commenced to eclipse craft in significant art. The craft secrets lodged in de Kooning's wrist — still active in his late work, without help or hindrance from a brain gutted by senility — have not been inherited by anyone, nor will they be. They posed an odd problem for de Kooning himself, who in midcareer seemed to realize that his mastery overqualified him in a changing culture.
No one since 1950, including de Kooning, has painted a picture as consummately grand, as much an emblem of Western civilization in its glory, as Excavation, here paying a visit to the city of its creation from the Chicago Art Institute. Conservative critics still deplore the artist's abandonment of his late-forties heights. But he saw that nothing important was left there. His ravening Women and then his blowsy abstract landscapes, of the late fifties, react to a time when everything old was winking out. For a while — as in a 1955 painting whose deadpan title, Composition, is made hilarious by a stumbling and dancing, falling-forward manner dis-composed to the nth degree — the very ruin of the world seemed to drive his brush.
It couldn't last. As beautiful as they often are, the abstract landscapes strike me as manically overoptimistic in their rhetoric, presuming a level of poetic communication with viewers that lured him off-balance — and incidentally jinxed a generation of young painters, influenced by him, who tried to start from there. It took years of wood-shedding in The Springs, painting friendly nudes and engaging in one of history's most profound excursions into mysteries of drawing, for de Kooning to recover his own wavelength. By 1967, with Two Figures in a Landscape, he had it. The rest, allowing for runs of so-so work now and then, is as much happiness as eyes can bear.
De Kooning's keynote is a self-engulfment in painting that demands every resource of wit and skill not to become a mess. He regularly raises the ante of the game with clangorous colors, bizarre textures, and ripped and shredded compositions, seemingly at ease only on the lip of chaos. It makes the paintings inexhaustible. They keep happening as you look. They are eternally in the middle of something, not that you know what.
Being all middle, a de Kooning is the opposite of the typical artwork of the present day. Our young artists tend to give us things with pat premises and rote finishes, distinguished from mass-cultural commodities by piquant subject matter and aren't-we-smart ironies. No one is to blame for the diminishment that such work represents. The decline of high culture that de Kooning accepted after Excavation was not about to stop with him. But what do we make of the fact that until just recently the old Dutchman was getting out of bed every morning and making miracles? He was our contemporary, breathing our air. Where were we? What were we thinking of?
Village Voice, November 1, 1994CHAPTER 3
"WOMEN" BY WILLEM DE KOONING AND JEAN DUBUFFET
When a boy wants to feel like a bad boy — most boys want to feel they are bad sometimes, others want to feel they are bad most times, and some are bad (beware these) — a reliable way is to draw a dirty picture of a woman, or Woman. Bad-boy drawings may be caricatures of, say, a despised teacher, if done well enough that anyone can tell, but normally they take the most economical linear route to the double message "female" and "stupid." The transgression relieves the boy's woe at being short, in all ways, on power. If the boy is a good boy, the drawing also makes him ashamed. The pleasure of being bad for a good boy isn't worth the discomfort it costs, and he stops doing dirty drawings. Or he becomes an artist.
A grown-up straight male artist is perhaps a good boy who has made a vocation of maximizing the pleasure of being bad while minimizing its downside. He may dream of Pablo Picasso: full-time bad boy, shameless, who got all the girls and made the badness in good boys weep with envy. But he is not Picasso, and he is never going to be Picasso. He must face that. He makes art, or Art, in which furtive badness mysteriously informs goodness, or "quality." In his heart, pleasure and shame dance the old dance. Usually that's his story, in which nothing dramatic happens.
A show at the Pace Gallery spotlights a moment, around 1950, when the stories of two men who were hardly immature or powerless, in their respective milieus, took similar, very dramatic turns. Each man was deemed by many, including himself, the best painter on his scene. Independently, in New York and Paris, Willem de Kooning and Jean Dubuffet made series of pictures of Woman more vehement than anything comparable in big-time art before or since. I am interested in why that happened and, too, in a historical consequence of it: lasting damage to traditions of Romantic sincerity in painting.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings, 1988–2018"
Copyright © 2019 Peter Schjeldahl.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Seeing as a Contact Sport Jarrett Earnest 1
Part I Hot & Cold
Andy Warhol 8
Willem De Kooning 12
"Women" by Willem De Kooning and Jean Dubuffet 16
Arshile Gorky 19
Two by Rembrandt 23
Zurbarán's Citrons 25
Jackson Pollock 36
Jean-Michel Basquiat 38
Anselm Kiefer At MoMa 41
Otto Dix 44
Picasso and the Weeping Women 48
Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec 51
Jane Dickson / Karen Finley 54
Keith Haring, 1958-1990 58
Ree Morton 59
Hélio Oiticica 62
Elizabeth Murray 66
Elizabeth Peyton 67
A Van Gogh Portrait 72
Kerry James Marshall 75
Henri Matisse I 79
Henri Matisse II 82
Andy Warhol's Grave 87
Baltic Views 90
Caspar David Friedrich 94
Joseph Beuys 94
Anselm Kiefer at Gagosian 100
Sigmar Polke 103
Martin Kippenberger 106
URS Fischer 109
Shepard Fairey 110
Frederic Remington 114
Christopher Wool 118
Mark Morrisroe 128
Louise Lawler and Institutional Critique 131
Jenny Holzer 139
A Theft in Norway 141
Judith Leyster 144
Lucian Freud 148
Francis Bacon 151
Edgar Degas 156
Luc Tuymans 159
Peter Doig 163
Laura Owens: A Profile 164
Part II Heavy & Light
Berlin, 1989 182
Removal of the Tilted Arc 184
Concrete and Scott Burton 186
Picasso Sculpture 190
Augustus Saint-Gaudens 196
The Greeks 200
Charles Ray 203
Bruce Nauman 204
Rachel Harrison: A Profile 207
Thomas Hirschhorn 219
Jay Defeo 223
Alice Neel 227
Philip Guston 231
Martin Luther 234
The Ghent Altarpiece 239
Giorgio Morandi 252
Piet Mondrian 256
Young Rembrandt 262
Clement Greenberg, 1909-1994 264
Leo Castelli 268
Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures 279
Cindy Sherman at MoMa 282
Jeff Koons: Sympathy for the Devil 286
Felix Gonzalez-Torres 295
P1Ero Della Francesca 298
Giovanni Bellini 303
Agnes Martin 304
Peter Hujar 312
Henri Cartier-Bresson 316
Helen Levitt 321
Thomas Struth 324
Mother Love (Whistler) 327
Karen Kilimnik 331
David Hockney 334
Frans Hals 336
The Auctions 340
Market Value 341
Marcel Broodthaers 347
Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray 351
Mughal Paintings and Andrew Wyeth 354
Florine Stettheimer 357
Albert Oehlen 361
Bill Traylor 365
Credo: The Critic as Artist 374