A Man Of Words Who Loved To Look At Art

I met John Updike (1932-2009), the great novelist and man of letters, only once. It was at the press preview for the Edward Hopper retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art in the mid-1990s. While attending the show, I found myself standing next to the famous, tall and lanky writer and timidly mentioned to him that I was a fan of his writing, despite the fact that I had only read one of his short stories (A Sandstone Farmhouse). I hadn’t yet read any of the Rabbit novels, or anything else by him. Yet, I was brash enough to call myself a fan.

He responded by looking down at me. Then, he slowly moved his head and torso down to my level, almost like the creature from the movie Alien. Next, he scrunched up his face and emphatically inquired, “you are?” His question startled me. In that brief instant, I felt his eyes taking me in, examining me, more or less as a specimen. It was frightening. Stammering, I blurted out the name of that one short story I had read, and that I liked the descriptions in it.

His face softened as he returned to his upright, more human-like posture, and smiling, said good-naturedly, “I put a lot into that one!”

This meeting came to mind as I read through Always Looking: Essays on Art, the posthumously published collection of mostly fine-art exhibition reviews, most of which first appeared in The New York Review of Books, and recognized in his reviews a similar process to the one he used on me at the Whitney. Throughout the collection, Updike looks empirically and dispassionately at artists, artworks or collectors, asking incisive questions. After gathering information, he carefully and cleverly presents his thoughts or critiques of various works of arts and artists. And, not surprisingly, his gentle sense of humor appears alongside detailed descriptions and insightful interpretations of art throughout the book, which makes the essays very readable and enjoyable.

The book begins with an overview of American art, called “The Clarity of Things,” in which Updike considers what makes Gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer, Norman Rockwell and others distinctly “American.” At the start of this chapter, he points out how John Singleton Copley’s early work — his most American — has a linear or “liney” quality, which British artists noted as a flaw. Copley would eventually move to London and acquire a more European, brushy style of painting. But Updike links this pictorial or compositional difference to a philosophical and cultural change. He writes that when Copley left America to live in England, the work changed: “Moving from America to England, Copley passed from an art whose soul was empirical to one whose soul was conceptual, societal, and theatrical.”

As a writer on art, I know how difficult it is to pack so much into one sentence! But Updike does this time and again… and does so almost without you noticing.

This is evident in some of the first lines of his essays. They’re provocative in a way that makes it impossible not to read the next sentence. In the second essay, he writes “As a painter, Gilbert Stuart was just barely American.” In the essay on Monet, he exclaims, “One goes to a Monet exhibit curious as to what a bad Monet would look like.”

But he’s not just in it for the quick witticism or aphorism on art that’s easy to explain or describe. One of my favorite chapters is on Max Beckmann, a notoriously difficult artist to describe quickly or explain easily. In fact, he points out how the artist himself dismissed those who did not understand his work, requesting that his art dealer return his masterpiece, Departure. “Take the picture away or send it back to me. … If people cannot understand it of their own accord, or their own inner ‘creative sympathy,’ there is no sense showing it. … The picture speaks to me of truths impossible for me to put in words.”

Yet, Updike does just that: using words to demystify a difficult group of artworks by this brilliant German expressionist. He eloquently reveals just what Beckmann is getting at in his work: “The triptychs present a patchwork of opulent color in which the pallor of flesh flickers tantalizingly.” Updike goes on to note how Beckmann was one of the few modern painters to make “bare skin electric” and that this Old Master quality and his love of flesh is what keeps “his painting from being the ‘two-dimensional spatial experience’ that amounts, he said in 1928, to mere ‘applied art and ornament.’”

For professional artists, this collection of essays, along with his two early anthologies, Just Looking and Still Looking, offers countless concrete examples of how to write effectively and provocatively about all aspects of art. From his descriptive passages to his summations of art theories and concepts, Updike reveals that great fine-art writing often begins with something that most artist do instinctively: A period of careful, concentrated looking and reflection.

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