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This art critic with North Dakota and Minnesota roots influenced the art world -- and angered folks back home

Peter Schjeldahl was born in North Dakota and grew up in Minnesota. He found his voice in poetry and turned it to the visual arts, becoming a noted art critic. He also returned home and supported the installation of a controversial statue.

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The Luis Jiménez sculpture, "Sodbuster," was moved to Fargo Civic Plaza in 2019.
Forum file photo
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FARGO — For more than half a century, the art world was influenced by the voice and views of Peter Schjeldahl, a longtime critic for The New Yorker, The Village Voice, The New York Times, ArtNews and Art in America, among other publications.

He died on Oct. 21 at 80 after a long battle with cancer.

Schjeldahl was born in Fargo in 1942 but moved with his parents, Gilmore and Charlene, around Minnesota, to Farmington, Minneapolis and Northfield, where he would attend and drop out of Carleton College twice.

He eventually moved to New York in 1965 and found work as a critic for publications.

As an adult, he would occasionally return to the Midwest and in 1978 helped fix up the old post office in Christine, North Dakota, where his mother, Charlene Hanson, used to live.

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"In North Dakota I'm overwhelmed," he told The Forum in 1980, referring to the horizon and blackness of the soil. "I feel deeply moved in a way I can't really explain, and I think about it a lot."

Perhaps Schjeldahl's biggest direct impact on the region came in 1979 when he was on the committee that commissioned Texas artist Luis Jiménez to create a public sculpture for the corner of Broadway and Main Avenue.

FARGO - After 13 years in storage, the "Sodbuster" is on the move. The Plains Art Museum on Monday announced plans to restore the colorful sculpture and place it at the proposed Fargo City Hall Civic Plaza in 2018. On Wednesday, the 24-foot-long,...

"We wanted something that would challenge local taste but that would be friendly in the long run," he told The Forum in 1980.

The Jiménez fiberglass sculpture "Sodbuster," depicting a farmer plowing a field behind a team of oxen, indeed proved to be challenging to locals. When it was installed in 1982, some dismissed the work, and one letter to the editor of The Forum called it a "piece of trash."

In the 1980 interview, Schjeldahl recalled how one of Jiménez's earlier designs, "a rambunctious square dance scene," was nixed.

"There's a definite cultural gap between Jiménez and Fargo," the critic said. "Jiménez naturally assumed, being Chicano, that people liked to see themselves having fun. As a Lutheran born in North Dakota, I could have told him he'd be mistaken."

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The late art critic Peter Schjeldahl.
Contributed / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

It seems he had little if anything to do with Fargo-Moorhead arts after that, but he continued to influence the national art world.

Among those who have eulogized Schjeldahl was Alex Greenbereger, who, in an ARTnews article , stated the late writer’s, “exuberant prose and perceptive mind made him one of the most widely read art critics in the U.S.”

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In the many published memorials, people pointed to Schjeldahl’s accessible way with words, an extension of his work as a poet.

“Often, his reviews were rid of art jargon, causing them to be legible to a larger audience, even when he was dealing with conceptual work,” Greenberger wrote. “His prose was lush and buttery, with sentences pocked with big words more likely to appear in novels than in art reviews. If read aloud, his reviews sound melodious and quite pleasing. If read to oneself, they can also be fascinating, even amusing.”

Greenberger pointed to a passage fellow critic Jarrett Earnest wrote in “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings, 1988–2018,” which included Schjeldahl’s works.

“Every painter I know would give a couple of fingers off their non-painting hand for a good long review by Peter Schjeldahl—not only for the recognition, but because he unfailingly brings something new into the discourse,” Earnest wrote.

Not all artists may have seen Schjeldahl this way. Of the popular contemporary artist Jeff Koons, who set a record for auction prices by a living artist at $91.1 million in 2019, Schjeldahl wrote: “Jeff Koons makes me sick. He may be the definitive artist of this moment, and that makes me the sickest.”

The critic’s words didn’t always sit well with Jonathan Rutter, director and curator of The Rourke Art Gallery + Museum in Moorhead and an accomplished painter in his own right.

“Peter Schjeldahl certainly left an impression on me. I would typically catch his New Yorker articles second or likely third-hand from James O’Rourke,” Rutter says, referring to the late Rourke co-founder. “More often than not, I would vigorously disagree with what Schjeldahl had to say, but his writing was always a pleasure to read.”

“Criticism joins poetry, for me, in having a civic duty to limber up the common word stock, keeping good words in play,” Schjeldahl said in a 2008 Artforum interview. “My sidekick is the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.”

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Still, by the 1990s he had quit writing poetry.

“The poetry dried up. The art criticism ate the poetry,” he said in that Artforum interview.

In 2019, Schjeldahl shared the news of his lung cancer diagnosis in a New Yorker essay, “The Art of Dying,” a raw, unsentimental mini-memoir. At the time, he was given six months to live but ended up extending his stay for three more years, making his line all the more prophetic: “I always said that when my time came I’d want to go fast. But where’s the fun in that?”

“He took his work seriously—despite the cascades of self-deprecation, there were times when I think he knew how good he was—but he was never self-serious,” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in an appreciation. “He once won a grant to write a memoir. He used the money to buy a tractor."

Schjeldahl kept writing up until the end, handing in a book review of a Piet Mondrian biography to the New Yorker weeks before he passed.

“That he wrote it through what must have been an unimaginably painful time is a testament to what great art and powerful writing meant to him. And hopefully to us,” wrote Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, in a remembrance.

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