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THE ART OF DYING by Peter Schjeldahl Kirkus Star


Writings, 2019-2022

by Peter Schjeldahl

Pub Date: May 14th, 2024
ISBN: 9781419773242
Publisher: Abrams

Notes on dying from a man who did an excellent job of living.

Schjeldahl (1942-2022) was best known as an art critic, a role he held at the New Yorker right up until his death at the age of 80. He made the East Village his home for most of his life, but his roots were in the Midwest—a fact that perhaps explains why he was able to make art accessible without dumbing it down or pandering. The title essay was published after he was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. The author writes about his life in a discursive style that he has, as an elderly man facing death, surely earned, but these vignettes hang together and offer a portrait of a life spent in search of beauty in an era largely defined by cynicism. Always a keen observer, Schjeldahl manages the neat trick of seeming to place himself outside the frame even when he serves as his own subject. For example, he recounts winning a Guggenheim grant to pen a memoir that never happened because he used that money to buy a tractor—rather than time to write. Relating this story, he quotes Susan Sontag, whom he recounts meeting in another anecdote that seems more self-effacing than it is. This author knows his place in cultural history, and he wants us to remember it; he just doesn’t want to brag about it. The rest of this volume includes Schjeldahl’s final pieces for the New Yorker, many written during the global pandemic, a time when the author was uniquely equipped to talk about how we might think about art in the face of death. In the foreword, Steve Martin notes, “It’s easy to think you can write like Peter, intrepidly flinging words around, but it’s dangerous.”

A gorgeous memento mori from a singular writer.