Schjeldahl was born in 1942, in Fargo, North Dakota, and as a child moved with his family to various small towns in North Dakota and Minnesota. Attracted to poetry from an early age, he also enjoyed baseball, and served as the sports editor for his high school newspaper before in enrolling at Carleton College. He dropped out after two years, taking a job across the country at the Jersey Journal, in Jersey City, New Jersey, immersing himself in his off hours in the downtown poetry scene. After returning briefly to Carleton, he dropped out again and moved to Paris, where he developed a passion for art but found the scene there lacking. “It dawned on me that I was in the wrong city,” he told Interview’s Christopher Bollen in 2014. “Guys in the Midwest at that time, we thought Paris was where it was at, but our information was 25 years out of date. I remember going into a show in Paris at Sonnabend gallery of Andy Warhol flower paintings and thinking, ‘Wrong city!’” Returning to New York a year later, he wrangled a job at Artnews purely on the strength of his enthusiasm. Other gigs followed, including one writing for the New York Times under culture editor Seymour Peck, whom he counted as a mentor.
Through the 1970s, Schjeldahl considered his art writing secondary to his poetry career, a means of supporting it. He published several volumes of poetry but ultimately, he told Bollen, “I started to feel like my art criticism was second rate. I wanted to see how good I could make it and let the poems take care of themselves.” Over the next twenty years, his criticism appeared regularly in Art in America, Artforum, the now-defunct 7 Days, and the Village Voice, among other publications. In 1998, he became the art critic for the New Yorker, where his reviews appeared until weeks before his death.