Peter Schjeldahl is perhaps most familiar as the art critic for the New Yorker, but Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, his new collection of “art writings,” also includes contributions to museum catalogs and a number of insightful pieces for the sadly defunct Village Voice and its companion magazine, 7 Days. The book is divided into four sections based on the adjectives in its title, and not surprisingly — considering how varied any good artist is — these categories sometimes feel a bit forced.
Questionable classifications aside, however, there is little not to like about Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light. In a review of a 1992 Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Schjeldahl writes, “It is as if the least desire, the merest whim to see a certain motif in a certain way, were granted the power of a thunderbolt-wielding Zeus to fulfill itself.” No one else, Schjeldahl says, “has come close to that quality of the big effect delivered with seeming nonchalance,” and yet it would be difficult to come up with a better description of Schjeldahl’s own prose, which manages to balance instruction with pleasure in such a way that you hardly realize how much you’ve learned while he was low-key dazzling you with his insights.
In fact, although Schjeldahl writes about the visual arts, the book could serve as a primer for a reviewer of any art form. Every sentence is dense with meaning and crafted with the care of a poet. The final piece, “Credo: The Critic as Artist,” discusses qualities critics should cultivate in themselves, including “intelligence and energy” and a desire to work outside the establishment. “Most of all,” Schjeldahl writes, a critic requires “a loving relationship with an ideal reader whom you have never met and never will, in person, but who companions you constantly, in imagination.” And that’s just how Schjeldahl makes you feel, like someone whose best friend just happens to know almost everything there is to know about art.