Art Critic Peter Schjeldahl Talks Art at UC Davis

art studio visit
Peter Schjeldahl with Julian Tan

Students recently got to spend time talking art and ideas with Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker magazine. Schjeldahl was at UC Davis to deliver the Betty Jean and Wayne Thiebaud Endowed Lecture supported by the College of Letters and Science. 

His talk, “The Critic as Artist: Updating Oscar Wilde,” was given to a standing room audience of about 250 at the Buehler Alumni Center. The talk and a question and answer session on March 10 explored a wide range of ideas:

–The difference between quality and significance in art.

–Why wall text gets in the way of seeing the art.

–How one never stops learning or fully understands a great work of art.

“You think ‘This time I’ve got it,’ but no you don’t,” he said. “Some artists, you won’t live long enough to use them up.”

Also a poet, Schjeldahl met with art and writing students to discuss art, writing and criticism. He visited master of fine art students’ studios to see their work and talk about it. In conjunction with his talk, the graduate students opened their studios for several hours to the public.

“It was amazing -- one of the best critiques I’ve had,” said Anna Davidson, a second-year MFA. “He was inspirational and had a lot of good things to say.”

Another second-year MFA Julian Tan found that Schjeldahl had unique insights into his paintings and sculptures.

“We were talking about my paintings and he segued into talking opera,” Tan said. “Music has always been an important part of my work, but it’s not something I normally bring up. No one else has ever brought it up before.”

Along with spending time with students, Schjeldahl also met with alumni, donors, faculty and community members.

“Peter was incredibly generous with his time,” said Gina Werfel, an art professor and driving force behind the Thiebaud Endowed Lecture.

The series is named for filmmaker and teacher Betty Jean Thiebaud and Wayne Thiebaud, an internationally recognized artist who taught at UC Davis for 30 years. Betty Jean served as the model for many of her husband’s paintings. She died in December.

“There is such love and goodwill toward the Thiebauds,” Werfel said. Along with feedback from Schjeldahl, Wayne Thiebaud was also at the open studios talking to many of the students about their work. 

The series was started last year with $150,000 from UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

“The chancellor has been incredibly generous in helping us start this endowment,” Werfel said. “Having someone of Peter Schjeldahl’s stature raises the profile of the series and support for it. It’s the start of building something bigger.

“In the future we hope to bring artists in from other areas to spend extended periods of time with them. It’s important for our students to be exposed to a wide range of voices. Having Peter here brought attention to our program and a greater appreciation of what we’re accomplishing in the arts at UC Davis. We hope when Peter’s back in New York, he’ll tell people about what we’re doing here.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science