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Chance Abutmenting (a counter-critique of Peter Schjeldahl)

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by Robert Ryman
 

Last month I counter-critiqued Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine (and previously of the Village Voice). This month I turn to Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker, whom Saltz called "mi amigo", if you remember.

Schjeldahl is a slightly better writer, in the sense that he seems to know what most words mean and in the sense that he occasionally offers his editor a sentence that is true. For instance, in his review of Robert Ryman [March 19, 2007, to which issue my entire article refers] he says, "But to be shameable, under present conditions, may be an unaffordable luxury." Perfectly true and applicable, both to Ryman and to himself.

Schjeldahl has no least modicum of shame, or he would never be caught speaking of modern art at all. But he would especially not be caught saying things like this (which, in his writings, come far more frequently than the true things):

Ryman has favored astringently poetic titles, on the order of "Regis," "Consort," and "Journal." 

Only at a place like The New Yorker, where the poems are so utterly banal and prosaic, would an editor let pass the claim that the word “Regis” is poetic. (Unfortunately, all places are like The New Yorker, in that no places publish real poetry anymore. They prefer the sort of stripped and chopped storytelling, by storytellers who have no story, that appears in this issue, and all issues.) These three words in quotes aren't prosaic, much less poetic. As titles applied to Ryman's white canvases, they aren’t even titles. They are just floating words of no possible import. It takes fantastic levels of sad misdirected creativity to want to find meaning in such things—poetic meaning no less—and in this Schjeldahl is almost insupportably qualified.



Since Ryman's canvases are complete nullities in every way, Schjeldahl is forced to begin describing the frames to us from the start; and the frames are, of course, not worth mentioning either. They are "oak, cherry, or maple." Astonishing. Wood frames, you say. But wait, the white paint "bleeds across the abutments between surface and frame." Doubly delicious, we are supposed to believe, since we get a big word like "abutments". Abutments, yummy. And then we are told about the walls and the lights. Apparently reflections are caused by such things, and the artist gets credit for that. The critic can even see himself! The artist also gets credit for poorly constructed frames, "slight separations at their corner joints" which "register as chance elements of drawing."

You can already see that no one but me bothers to read these reviews in search of any sense. Supposing that some people must do what they call reading of these reviews of Schjeldahl, I can only imagine that the words never really register as denotative or connotative, in the linguistic or semiotic sense. A few ideas already in the head of the reader are drummed awake by familiar words and phrases, but the bulk of the sentences and paragraphs must simply run through the brain, like light beer through the bladder. No one who had analyzed any of his reviews for sense, logic, or meaning could come to the conclusion that Schjeldahl was anyone to be reckoned with on any level. Like Saltz, Schjeldahl is judged by his title, not by his output. He is "the art critic for The New Yorker," and he needs nothing else to float him through the dirty channels he rows.

Most normal or abnormal people would look for drawing in a drawing, but Schjeldahl looks for it in the frame. Once he sees his reflection in the lights, all art is afoot. Everywhere he turns his head, there are chance elements of drawing, chance elements of framing, chance elements of reflection, chance elements of abutmenting, chance abutments of elements, chance frames of walls, chance reflections of framed abutments.

In such a receptive state of mind, even the grains and knots in the wood frames become "practically rococo in their visual appeal, amid the prevailing blankness." Yes, they would be, wouldn't they? And the carpet was no doubt relatively Gothic in its ability to stand there, day after day, under such foot traffic of such boobies. And the ceiling tiles were Byzantine in their sheer number and the baseboards were crypto-Asiatic and the A/C vents were Zoroastrian.

At last, to finalize this horrible and desperate search for something to say about nothing, Schjeldahl tells us that if you add all the white paintings together you get "fifty seven and one-third feet." Although Schjeldahl just made it up, it is nonetheless significant, since,

Intentional or not, that gawky one-third (an infinity of threes, when expressed in decimals) seems Rymanesque, consistent with a thoroughgoing aim to pique and discombobulate. 

Good God, Peter, why not go somewhere with this math? Why not apply differential equations to the canvases, or quantum dynamics, or some fake relativity theory? Any fool can add them up. A real first-rate pomo would have been able to drop a mention of Godel here, or Hilbert's Hotel, or the transfinite. If I had been paid by the word by the f*cking New Yorker, I would have connected old Ryman to Einstein by now, and Rimbaud and Kurasawa and Tarkovsky and superstrings and the Kabala and transubstantiation and metempsychosis and Jung and Giotto and Chaldean astronomers standing on high walls and Duchamp to knight four, knight takes queen, and Derrida and Foucault's pendulum and Gravity's Rainbow and Beuy’s scratching his balls and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Rodin’s mistresses (every damn one of them) and the I Ching and reverse black holes and the Tunguska Event and Lacan's litany and the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.

The thing about New Yorker readers is they like even their absurdities to be boring. They are duly (or dully) impressed by "an infinity of threes." For them, that reaches a pitch-perfect level of phoniness. A real scholarly level of phoniness would be too much for them: best save that for the university journals. A sentence that was really clever, like a cartoon that was really funny, would be too strong a punch. The modern magazine reader is a member of the new bourgeois varletry, the monied class that makes the old nouveau riche look like aristocracy. They have stomachs that can somehow digest descriptions of white canvases, as long as the sentences are peppered with words like "aesthetic experience" and "emotional numbness" and "cynical wisdom" and "vivacious brassiness." "Hey Marge, I just read an art review in the New Yorker!" "Good boy, Ernest, would you like a cracker?"

Or as Schjeldahl puts it,

How much you like Ryman depends on a couple of things. First, how highly do you value feeling sensitive and smart? [Yes he really said that, I am not making this up.] 

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