Remembering a major New York City art critic with a Kent connection | Along The Way

Don Schjeldahl, left, Peter, and Don’s son, Caleb, with grandchildren, Cole and Laney, during a visit earlier this year.
Don Schjeldahl, left, Peter, and Don’s son, Caleb, with grandchildren, Cole and Laney, during a visit earlier this year.

A journalism professor during my college days advised us to read The New Yorker telling us the weekly magazine showcases great writing. Because of that, I have periodically subscribed to and read this celebrated periodical, which presents wonderful writing, authors who use the language exceptionally well.

During the last 24 years, some of the finest writing has occurred in the art reviews of The New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl.  I do not know much about art, but I recoil from those who treat the subject in a highfalutin manner as though art is a topic beyond the comprehension of ordinary folks.  Peter Schjeldahl is not like that.  He reviews art without condescension in ways I can understand although I admit to wanting a dictionary nearby when I read what he writes.

David E. Dix
David E. Dix

He knows the history of his subject, why a painter is important, and the influences that may have shaped the artist’s work.  He explains all of this well, powerfully so.  If you are interested in art and do not feel excitement after reading one of Peter Schjeldahl’s reviews of an art exhibit, you may not have a pulse.

Because of the unusual spelling of his last name, I questioned Don Schjeldahl, the industrial geographer, who resides in Kent, but travels the world consulting with companies who are seeking good sites for building their factories and distribution centers.  Don is also the founder and owner of North Water Brewing.

“He’s my older brother,” Don said.  After that, I started reading the art reviews of Peter Schjeldhal even more avidly.  Don shared with me that local aspiring artists, many associated with studies at Kent State University, would glow when hearing the name “Schjeldahl” thinking they were in the presence of art criticism royalty.  When Don mentioned this to Peter, his brother effused, “I hope you tell them you are me and see where it goes.”

Don said his brother, like some of the best writers in journalism, started out covering sports, in Peter’s case while in high school. Wandering around Europe as a young man in the 1960s, Peter eventually discovered the world of art, especially painting, and was hooked. Intelligent, an encyclopedic reader, and always eager to learn more, Peter eventually became the art critic for the Village Voice.  There, the quality of his writing attracted the attention of David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, who hired Schjeldahl to be the magazine’s art critic.

Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker art critic for a generation of readers, died Oct. 21, and Remnick wrote about him in a touching postscript in the magazine’s Oct. 31 edition.

Peter Schjeldahl and his wife, Brooke Alderson in 1981.
Peter Schjeldahl and his wife, Brooke Alderson in 1981.

“I was looking to hire a full-time art critic,” Remnick wrote. “I’d read him for years in the Village Voice.  And a voice is what he always had:  distinct, clear, funny.  A poet’s voice-epigrammatic, nothing wasted.”

As one of his many, many readers, I appreciated Peter Schjeldahl’s open-mindedness.  His favorite painters may have been highbrow:  Velazquez, Goya, Rembrandt and others, but he expressed appreciation for Norman Rockwell whom other critics often dismiss as a mere illustrator.  According to Don, his brother’s writing attracted celebrities who sought his help in building their own art collections.  One of these was the comedian Steve Martin.  Peter’s wife, Brooke Alderson, is an accomplished actress.  Their daughter, Ada Calhoun, has become a successful writer.

A week ago, I met Don Schjeldahl at North Water Brewing to learn more so I could write this Along the Way tribute. The New York Times obituary says that Peter Schjeldahl’s writings about the New York art scene, including work for both the Village Voice and The New Yorker, total more than 50 years of reviews and critiques.

Don handed me several books his brother authored, some of them collections of his columns.  He said Peter voiced strong opinions and was not always easy to be around.  Zingers his brother could throw at phonies in the art world, he could also throw at Don and his sisters.

On other hand, in a column he wrote three years ago after being told he had incurable lung cancer, Peter was complimentary about his siblings and their achievements.  Don’s consulting business has a list of A+ clients.  If Peter was a man of strong opinions, Don is too.

Ada, Neal, and Oliver Calhoun, Peter and Don Schjeldahl and Brooke Alderson on the lower East Side of Manhattan, nearly three years ago when Don visited his brother upon learning of Peter’s illness
Ada, Neal, and Oliver Calhoun, Peter and Don Schjeldahl and Brooke Alderson on the lower East Side of Manhattan, nearly three years ago when Don visited his brother upon learning of Peter’s illness

Gladys and Larry

Geoff Thompson, who moved in with the Dix family his high school senior year in 1959 after his parents had died, returns from California annually and usually spends Thanksgiving with Janet and me.

After reading my column last week about Chas Madonio’s book, “Bars, Bands, and Rock ‘n' Roll”, Geoff said I should have mentioned Larry Durham, of Durham Electric, who created the Kove Bar by cutting up the bowling alley lanes and building tables with the wood.  Geoff worked for Larry at the Kove.

I also should have mentioned Gladys Mileski, who had The Barn, a non-alcoholic dance hall at her property on Sunnybrook Road for high school teenagers who liked rock music and dancing.  Chas described that scene well and her daughter, Susan Kandel, recollected it during the recent “Taps Talk” at North Water Brewery.

David E. Dix is a retired publisher of the Record-Courier.

This article originally appeared on Record-Courier: Peter Schjeldahl, a major New York art critic, with a Kent connection