Bovina resident takes art criticism award in stride, keeps low profile

By Matthew J. Perry
Although he describes his weekly turn as art critic for The New Yorker magazine as “the best job in the world,” Peter Schjeldahl, a longtime resident of Bovina, doesn’t seem to take praise for granted.
Artists, after all, are famous for their adversarial relations with critics. And then there are the art historians. Schjeldahl, a dropout of two colleges and largely self-taught, seems pleased by the notion of himself as a misfit among academics and others who use their degrees as a basis for opining about art. They can say what they like about him; after all, he’s been writing about art for 40 years.
But when he was recently awarded the Clark Prize for Excellence in Art Writing, even Schjeldahl, who talks freely about his lack of academic credentials, noted that this was an obvious sign of acceptance. “To receive an award like this from the Clark, which is pretty much Valhalla when it comes to art history,” he said, “is something else.”
The Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, first gave the award in 2006. Schjeldahl, the institute declared in its award announcement, “perfectly embodies the goals of the prize.” Those goals center on the linkage of scholarship and popular acceptance of art.
Schjeldahl is a natural for such a mission, although he won’t say so himself. His reviews are a blend of erudition, historical research, clearly stated opinions, solid reporting and a fluid writing style that can keep many—even the uneducated—along for the entire ride. He says it’s his obligation to provide readers with a fresh outlook, since they have bought the magazine he writes for and can throw it away if it bores them.
Schjeldahl first came to New York in the 1960s. He “worked his way east” from his Midwest birthplace along a string of newspaper jobs, until he found the city riddled with crime and opportunities for scrappy artists. “I had an apartment in the East Village: 40 bucks, four rooms, four burglaries a year.” His primary interest was poetry; art criticism was something he figured out on the job. “I was a nobody, but I knew a lot of people and so they’d talk. They didn’t have anything to prove to me.”
He married Brooke Alderson, an actress, in the 1970s. By the end of the decade, although well established as a critic, he felt like he’d reached a dead end. “I felt like I’d had it,” he says. “I was free-lancing and didn’t know what to do. Brooke was making all the money then. But then Robert Rosenblum—he was one of the most famous art historians then—sent me a letter praising me to the skies. I kept going.” He went on to write for The Village Voice, The New York Times and other publications, finally settling at The New Yorker in 1998.
Schjeldahl and Alderson first bought property in Bovina in the late ’70s. She has run Brooke’s Variety in Andes since 1996, and is the more recognizable half of the couple. “Up here, I’m Mr. Brooke,” Schjeldahl says contentedly. While he expresses support for the proliferation of art galleries in Andes and other towns, he has no desire to play tastemaker or attract undue attention.
“We love it here,” says Alderson, “but no one wants it to become a scene.”