ALWAYS LOOKING: ESSAYS ON ART
By John Updike
Edited by Christopher Carduff
Alfred A. Knopf, $45, 204 pages
Reading reviews of art exhibitions in distant metropolises can evoke envy for pleasures and excitements that are impossible to share because the locations are too far away. So a collection of exhibition reviews could seem frustrating rather than enticing, especially when the once-assembled pictures have returned to their homes. But it's excitement rather than frustration that seizes the reader of "Always Looking: Essays on Art" by the late John Updike because these reviews are so intelligent, well-informed and beautifully written.
Most focus on exhibitions in New York and Massachusetts. The first, however, derives from the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities delivered in Washington, D.C., in 2008. Called "The Clarity of Things," it celebrates a collection of reproductions of 40 American paintings suitable for display in schools and libraries. "What is American about American art?" Updike asks.
He begins by considering John Singleton Copley, the Boston-born artist who soared above the static portraits of earlier American painters with pictures that highlighted sitters' personalities and lingered over the textures of velvet coats and lacy satin gowns. Sir Joshua Reynolds praised Copley's work, though noting "a little Hardness in the Drawing An over minuteness." Similarly, the American Benjamin West said Copley's "Boy With a Squirrel" was "too liney. there being too much neetness [sic] in the lines."
Updike suggests that being "liney" comes from commitment to verisimilitude. The downside evident in early American paintings, including some of Copley's, is flatness and lack of atmosphere. "They are, as it were, two-and-a-half dimensional," he writes. Tracing lineyness in other American artists, including Thomas Eakins, Grant Wood and the early Winslow Homer, he shows how Homer later became more painterly. "We cannot but be conscious of the paint itself, of thick white dabbled and stabbed, swerved and smeared into place," he writes of Homer's "Undertow." Defining its painterliness as the opposite of lineyness, he explains, "Thing and idea are merged in the synthesis of artistic representation."
As his other essays make clear, Updike loves the exposed brush strokes, globs of paint and lightly sketched areas of painterly pictures. Equally he admires the skills of the classically trained. Gustav Klimt's drawings reveal his "dark secret," he writes, adding that Klimt "was a superb draughtsman in the academic manner, a master of its most rigorous requirements." Conversely, he demurs from the general admiration of Klimt's golden 1907 "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer," asking, "Does its subject's lush, heavy-lipped, dark-browed, green-eyed face, beneath a black blob of hair and rather anxiously wrung pair of skinny pale hands, really mesh with the astonishing efflorescence of perspective-free patterns -- eyes, spirals, squares, streaks, and splotches Or does she look like a decal stuck onto a collage of tinselly wrapping paper?"
Such questioning -- rather than outright attack -- is typical of Updike's approach. After graduating from Harvard, he spent a year studying art at the Ruskin School in Oxford. That training is evident in his well-informed, discriminating and affectionate commentary. So are the interests and talents that made him turn his hand from graphic art to fiction. He often describes painters and others with a novelist's eye.
Noting the William Orpen portraits of Sterling Clark and his brother Stephen, he writes, "Sterling in a high collar and dark suit, looks upright, prim, stern, and stuffy, whereas Stephen, slouching with a cigarette in hand, his seamed face half in shadow, appears somewhat louche and shifty. In fact, it was the other way around."
The description of the dutiful Stephen and the adventurous Sterling draws readers into their history as collectors. Perhaps Sterling's latent primness comes out in his refined taste for what he called "fancy pictures," while Stephen's louchness expressed itself in his greater enthusiasm for the up-to-date. Whatever the case, in Updike's hands they become archetypes of rival brothers -- yet the reader never loses sight of their paintings assembled in the 2006 exhibition "The Clark Brothers Collect" at the Sterling and Francine Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.
While the talents of the novelist and the would-be artist fuel these essays, their shape and luster display Updike's lithe prose and masterly expository skills. Most of them are models of the essayist's art. Most of them also entice readers by, in effect, taking them by the hand and leading them through the exhibitions room by room. Often we are aware of the very gallery, as when we trace the downward helix of the Guggenheim as Updike walks its Roy Lichtenstein exhibition. Similarly, his discussion of Claes Oldenburg's "Clothespin" in "A Case of Monumentality" takes into account the context of the Art Institute of Chicago's Doric gallery. The effect is to console us for exhibitions that have passed, and not least because of the lavish illustrations that add to the delights of this volume.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.