Steve Martin Talks Art with Peter Schjeldahl at New Yorker Festival

(Photos: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

The capacity crowd that packed the largest auditorium of the SVA Theatre last Friday evening could be forgiven for having interpreted the sold-out New Yorker Festival event’s title—“Peter Schjeldahl talks with Steve Martin”—to mean that Schjeldahl, the magazine’s beloved art critic, would assume the role of interlocutor. But it wasn’t to be. After the two strode on stage, without introduction, Martin was the first to speak. “I’m very thrilled to be interviewing Peter Schjeldahl,” he said brightly. A hearty laugh erupted from the audience. “I’m not sure why that’s funny. It must be something I’m doing that I’m not aware of.”

And so the comedian, actor, author, banjo player, and art collector commenced his interviewing duties. (The couple sitting in front of us was not amused. “He’s interviewing him?” the man whispered to his female companion, after it was clear that this was not some sort of opening routine. “I thought it was the other way around.”) Martin began by asking Schjeldahl about the language of art criticism, first offering an example: a few impenentrable sentences excerpted from a review of the work of Ginger Wolfe-Suarez. “Every speciality has a ‘speak,’” said Schjeldahl. “There’s a kind of a wild poetry to it that’s enjoyable.” And he should know. After a brief stint at Carleton College, North Dakota-born Schjeldahl began his writing career as a “pre-postmodernist” poet. “I did tumble into clarity when I stopped trying to be John Ashbery and started trying to be Frank O’Hara,” said Schjeldahl, who started writing art criticism in the 1960s because “all the poets were doing it.”

Then the screen behind them filled with Piero della Francesca‘s Madonna del Parto, a fresco that Schjeldahl first saw during a formative year (1964-65) spent in Europe. This and the image of an Andy Warhol “Flowers” silkscreen that he saw in a Paris gallery that same year got Schjeldahl more animated, although he was quick to point out that in his own talks, he eschews slides. “Well, I can act out the paintings,” said Martin.

After the critic assented to more slides, the exchange between the two became easier. In discussing a range of topics, Schjeldahl explained that “de Kooning could draw like a son of a bitch,” that the work of Ryan Trecartin makes him “feel a zillion years old,” and that “Looking straight at a [Jackson] Pollock would be like leaning on a wall that wasn’t there.” Our favorite Schjeldahlian koan of the evening? “Everything has value if you know what it is.”

Meanwhile, Martin proved himself a master of the art-related quip and touched on some of his own artistic interests. “I get a big thrill out of what I call grade-B artists,” he said, after the two had discussed the vaguely “medicinal” quality of Cézanne and Rembrandt’s wardrobe choices in his 1658 self-portrait. Schjeldahl agreed. “You can’t be eating Beef Wellington for breakfast,” he said. “You learn a lot more from bad art than good.”

The proteinaceous metaphors continued when talk turned to viewing environments. “I always enjoy art more in private collections. Museums are meat racks,” said Martin. “You walk into a private collection, and everything’s pre-warmed.” Later, when an audience member asked both men about their own collections, Martin demurred. With works that range from Hudson River School paintings to contemporary art, his collection is “odd. It’s crazy. It makes no sense,” he said. “I have very eclectic taste.” As for Schjeldahl, he’s more of an aspiring collector. “If I had money, I’d be a collector in a minute. I’d stop writing criticism,” he said. “Writing a check is so much more sincere than writing a review, because writing a check hurts.”