Schjeldahl is most engaging when he’s ambivalent. His reviews’ typical format of first impressions, biographical capsule, smattering of social history, detailed analysis of the exhibited work, and general evaluation of the artist’s career leaves plenty of room for information and interpretations at cross-purposes. His mixed opinion of Paul Gauguin’s art combines a careful examination of Gauguin’s paintings with compact discussions of the artist’s life, colonialism, the early avant-garde, and the role of museums and collectors. Schjeldahl’s feel for living with contradictions provides his writing with both its depth and its surface appeal—that and its seductively pellucid phrasing. It involves his ability to admit mistakes and change his mind, whether from negative to positive (overturning prior dismissals of Philip Guston’s “hood” paintings and of Currin’s work) or from enthusiastic to worshipful (Velázquez). While the politics underlying his opinions can get murky, his aesthetic likes and dislikes are easy enough to discern along a spectrum ranging from the gush (Vija Celmins) to the sneer (Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park public-art project The Gates).
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