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Famed Art Critic Peter Schjeldahl Dies at 80

Peter Schjeldahl, the legendary art critic at the New Yorker known for his elegant prose, has died at the age of 80.

His death was confirmed by the New Yorker in a tweet on late Friday. For many years, Schjeldahl had been battling lung cancer. His 2019 essay, titled “The Art of Dying”, shared insights on his long battle with the deadly disease.

Peter Schjeldahl was born in 1942 in Fargo, North Dakota. Writing was always a passion of his, though as a teenager he aspired to become a sports writer. After marriage and struggling to build a career, Schjeldahl found himself getting fascinated by paintings and artists. Thus, his career as an arts writer began. Over the years, he wrote for prestigious art publications like ArtNews, Art In America, and Artforum. In his early years as a writer, he was enamored with poets like Frank O’Hara, and his own writings had an indistinguishable sense of poetry. However, he confesses in his 2019 essay, that the art criticism aspect of his works “ate up” his poetry, after which he decided to move to newer publications.

A young Peter with his wife

For most of his career, Peter Schjeldahl focused on paintings. Even as other forms of art – sculptures, performance arts, videos, and photography – rose in prominence, Schjeldahl chose to stick with paintings. Some accused him of artistic conservatism that was akin to political conservatism. Others, however, equated his commitment to painting as “devotion” and something praiseworthy.

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Since 1998, Peter Schjeldahl was at the New Yorker. During his lifetime, he had formed a formidable reputation regarding which critic Jarett Earnest wrote “Every painter I know would give a couple of fingers off their nonpainting hand for a good long review by Peter Schjeldahl”. He was also widely popular in New York’s art circle. For every year until 2016, Schjeldahl and his wife organized a gala on the 4th of July which was attended by the who’s who of New York’s art world.

“The works await us as expressions of individuals and of entire cultures that have been—and vividly remain—light-years ahead of what passes for our understanding,” Schjeldahl wrote in a 2020 essay.