John Updike:

The Art Book as Belles Lettres

In the interest of “full disclosure,” when John Updike reviewed Jed Perl’s book “New Art City” for the front page of the New York Times Book Review, he took care to confess “I myself have a book of art reviews, infinitely modest, coming out this fall.”

He did not mention, however, that both books came out under the imprint of Alfred A. Knopf, which I take care to mention here, not because the review of one of that firm’s books by another of its authors amounts to a serious conflict of interest in the notoriously incestuous publishing business, but because Knopf, a mainstream house that also published Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s “de Kooning,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction last year, has now outdone all the competition specializing exclusively in esoteric art texts by putting out the three best art books in recent memory.

Maybe this means a new trend toward publishing art books by real writers, rather than incomprehensible, purposely obscure jargon-happy tomes by art historians who wouldn’t know a decent English sentence if they choked on it; or maybe not. In any case, like “de Kooning,” (reviewed at length in these pages awhile back), Perl’s “New Art City,” and John Updike’s “Still Looking” are that rare and wondrous thing: truly readable art books.

Before I try to explain why this is so, it might be useful to refer the reader to an essay called “The Poet as Critic,” by John Yau, himself a poet and art critic, in the May/June 2005 issue of The American Poetry Review. Crucial to Yau’s piece is the point that throughout 1960s, “the writing that appeared in ARTnews and Art in America was very different than the kind that appeared in the pages of Artforum. “ The main reason for the difference was that since the 1950s, ARTnews, particularly, had a policy of assigning poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and later Peter Schjeldahl (now the art critic for the New Yorker), to review exhibitions, while Artforum, which started in San Francisco in 1962, favored more academic art-historian types such Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and Barbara Rose, who genuflected at the altar of the curmudgeonly formalist critic Clement Greenberg.

Although Yau, a more moderate sort than the present writer, does not put it quite so bluntly, this meant that the reviews in ARTnews were lively and highly readable while those in Artforum (where, in Yau’s words, “writing for the general reader, even if this figure is a fiction, was regarded as frivolous”) were deadly dull in a manner which has pretty much become the model for most art writing today.

This tendency took hold after Artforum moved to New York in 1967 and, as Yau sees it, the art world suddenly became “a place for specialists armed with degrees.” The academic trend persists today to the point where Jerry Saltz, the art critic for The Village Voice, felt it necessary, in a recent piece on his critical stance, to come clean and confess, “I have no degrees” as though wondering if that might somehow disqualify him for a position he has filled more than adequately for the past seven years!

In fact, as a former artist who stopped painting and eventually came to the conclusion that writing about art rather than making it was his true calling, Saltz seems infinitely more qualified than most art historians who have never picked up a brush to appreciate and describe the process of artmaking from the inside out, so to speak. And the same can be said in spades about John Updike, who after graduating from Harvard with no degree in art history attended the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England although his innate good taste compelled the famous fiction writer, poet, and essayist to downplay his first collection of art criticism, published in 1989, with the somewhat disingenuous title “Just Looking.” (This coyness persists in his designation of the new book as “infinitely modest,” which you know he can’t mean when he sizes up the competition in a field where good writing is the exception rather than the rule.)

Writerly considerations aside, just how much Updike knows about art should have been obvious to anyone who read his review of Jed Perl’s “New Art City” in the Times Book Review (although I should admit I couldn’t get into “Seek My Face,” Updike’s roman a clef about Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, which seemed a tawdry misuse of such knowledge). Indeed, Updike nails Perl’s book so well that we lesser lights are left with not much more to say, other than that it is a great read, filled with good insights into the work of celebrated as well as underappreciated artists, piquant anecdotes about the New York art scene during its most crucial years, and lots of black and white photographs and reproductions that no one concerned with contemporary American art should be without.

Updike is especially on target when he notes Perl’s affection for “such relatively undersung achievements as Joan Mitchell’s scrubbily brushed abstractions, Nell Blaine’s nearly naive still lifes, Leland Bell’s heavily simplified nudes, and the obscure Earl Kerkam’s worried, often incomplete portraits, expressing ‘a quieter yearning’ as opposed to de Kooning’s ‘rgonzo, exhibitionistic romanticism.’”

In quoting such passages, Updike not only reveals Perl’s courage in running against the critical current but gives us a taste of his winning verbal audacity as wellespecially in that last bit about de Kooning, where the word “gonzo” lumps him with the kamikaze journo Hunter Thompson, an off-the-wall but oddly apt comparison!

Updike can be picky, as real writers will, when he notes that “Perl coins compound adjectives as if hyphens were raining on his word processor.” Yet, giving credit where it is due, he extols Perl “as a fiercely fluent word-spinner” and acknowledges that “he comes laden with a staggering knowledge of American artists and their critics from, say, 1948, when de Kooning had his first one-man show and Jackson Pollock began to drip in earnest, down to 1982, when Donald Judd began to colonize the flat wilderness of Marfa, Tex., with 100 same-sized aluminum boxes.”

Unlike his review of Perl’s book, Updike’s “Still Looking” did not make the front page of The New York Times Book Review. It was given so-so placement on page 14, where it was written up by a middling photography critic named Geoff Dyer, who seems oddly intent on upstaging the subject at hand by quoting long, glowing passages from Updike’s fiction. Dyer actually begins his piece with the loaded question, “So, does this feel like a sideline, like a great novelist moonlighting?”

Of course, the question is irrelevant when the moonlighter writes about art far more insightfully, not to mention with infinitely more grace, than most full-time critics. Nothing demonstrates this better than Updike’s superb essay “Oh Pioneer!” written on the occasion of Arthur Dove’s 1998 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This is an important piece because it rightfully identifies Dove as “the first American abstract artist,” a fact which is rarely acknowledged, since we tend to forget that there was any significant nonrepresentational painting in this country before the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. Suffering a similar fate to his near-contemporary Charles Burchfield, Dove, along with Marsden Hartley (the subject of another superb essay in this book) and Georgia O’Keeffe are generally treated as minor Yankee curiosities, just one giant step ahead of the regionalists, but altogether beholden nonetheless to developments in Europe. While nobody would deny that European modernism expanded the aesthetic consciousness of these painters faster than a tab of Owsley acid, it’s also true that they developed ways of abstracting forms and colors from nature by direct observation that were distinctly American.

Updike gets this point across when he writes “In 1909 Dove returned from a year and a half in France and, according to Helen Torr, ‘when he returned he spent much time in the woods analyzing tree bark, flowers, butterflies, etc.’” He also employs his novelistic gifts to give us a vivid picture of how this “well-combed, white-shirted, scarcely smiling refugee from the upper middle class” who had been disinherited by his father, a brick manufacturer and contractor after he “not only declined to become a lawyer but gave up commercial illustration for pure painting” lived and worked “in such marginal accommodations as an old farmhouse in Geneva, New York, without electricity or running water, a small former store and post office on stilts in Centerport Harbor on Long Island, and, for seven years, a forty-two-foot yawl that he shuffled about the Long Island Sound.”

And he earns his wings as an ace art reviewer with passages such as: “His leap liberated Dove to seek out the underlying forms and impulses of naturethe flow, the bubbling tumble, the thrust and concentric swelling of growth. In the next ten years he produced a series of works in pastel, charcoal, and (rarely) oils that, though cautious in color, are bold in their removal from the figurative. Plant Forms (c. 1912) and Sun on Water (1917-20) are especially pleasing, and typical in their oblique allusions to natural phenomena. Plant Forms applies a smoothing microscope to the minute strands and barbed thrusts and eggy ovals in the botanical seethe; Sun on Water perpetrates in charcoal’s gray a stained-glass fragmentation of solar reflection and refraction.”

Updike ends the essay on an almost elegiac note, modifying his enthusiasm with sober reservations and summoning one of those memorable quotes every good writer saves up like strands of silken string for just such occasions: “Dove is a pioneer of abstract painting but not one of its heroes; his canvases remained sub-heroic in size, and his mainspring remained received sensation rather than vatic promulgation. Now Dove seems all the more worth cherishing in his edgy, earthbound failure to enter the happy but faraway land where, in the words of Clyfford Still, the most vatic of the Abstract Expressionists, ‘Imagination, no longer fettered by the laws of fear, became as one with Vision. And the act, intrinsic and absolute, was its meaning, and the bearer of its passion.’”

The “emblematic life” of an artist arguably even more vatic than Clyfford Still is given the Updike treatment in the punningly titled “Jackson Whole.” Take this analysis of “Pollock at his peak”: “It was a high peak, but a perilously narrow one, sharply falling off on every side. The advantages of the drip technique for Pollock were manifold: the absence of brushwork eliminated the expectation of figuration, surreal or otherwise; his clumsiness and muddiness as a painter were wiped away in bursts of muscular action and pure industrial color. But, being so subjective a way of working, with hardly any guidelines to be found in the history of art, drip-painting leaves the viewer with his own subjectivity.” And the denouement is, again, right on the money: “There is an American tendency to see art as a spiritual feat, a moment of amazing grace. Pollock’s emblematic career tells us, with perverse reassurance, how brief and hazardous the visitations of grace can be.”

As one might expect, given the waspish background he shares with the artist under discussion, Updike is especially insightful as he strolls through the Whitney’s 1995 exhibition “Edward Hopper and the American Imagination,” stopping before Hopper’s 1927 oil Lighthouse Hill to notice how “There is no toylike smoothness and regularity here, as in the stylized landscapes of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, yet light and air are given a crystalline firmness; one cannot imagine a single brushstroke other than it is, including the pale hooks of cirrus cloud next to the lighthouse.” Yet, for all this, he handily dispels the popularly held notion of Hopper as plein-air realist recording only what he sees by emphasizing that the artist worked from sketches, finishing his paintings in the studio, and adding, “Without turning to an inner reality, Hopper could not have created Hoppers. They give us a now-historic world, with its Automats and empty roads and gilded movie palaces, preserved by a still potent intimacy.”

Updike then proceeds to give us a jarring contrast to the mellower America the artist depicted, introducing in the very next sentence a sense of the annoyingly automated present: “While the centrally housed video at the Whitney unignorably droned and shuffled its iconography of ‘American imagination,’ Hopper’s quite personal silence spoke.” And then straight on to the here’s-looking-at-you, kid-clincher: “Having stood before each of the fifty-nine canvases displayed on the third floor, this viewer at the elevator door had an impulse to run back in again, as at some lovelorn parting, and make the encounter yield a final word torn from the depths of what Henry James might have termed ‘the so beautifully unsaid.’”

a Art writing of this caliber harks back to the great tradition of belles lettres as practiced by Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Guillaume Appollinaire, and other poets of the 19th century French salons, which inspired and informed the art criticism of New York School poets who thrived in the heyday of ARTnews, before the territory was overrun by hordes of little clement greenbergs from the halls of academe, brandishing their degrees like bludgeons to beat back lively discourse and bury it under the stupefying weight of their incomprehensible rhetoric. They, in turn, were followed by a new wave of obscure postmodern theoreticians, schooled in Baudrillard and Derrida, who muddied the waters even more with all their death-of-the-author decostructivist horseshit.

One can only hope that future critics will take heart from the work of John Updike, as well as the infinitely more modest prose of Jed Perl (to apply Updike’s own term more aptly), and make writing about art once again worth reading.

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Ed McCormack