Shortly before he died,
I doubt anyone who has lingered in the wing of American fiction Updike generously endowed before he passed away in 2009 could fail to appreciate the writer's own felicitous Sargent-like eye for utterly precise detail, often domestic and intimate, coupled with a work ethic and productivity that could make any of our hard-laboring, thin-lipped forefathers look like loafers.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
Those qualities should serve as a necessary foundation for any good art writer, a side vocation that Updike pursued most notably in the pages of the New York Review of Books. Two collections of his essays on art appeared during his lifetime. "Always Looking," a copiously illustrated new collection of 16 texts, is like the final installment in a trilogy in more than the sets-of-three sense, as many of the same characters who populated his earlier omnibuses — such as
You have to tip your hat to him that he often tried his best to do his looking amid the patron-stuffed galleries of
What's most disappointing about the essays collected in "Always Looking" is that one senses Updike's heart just isn't in the art. Several, like the 1994 review of the Guggenheim museum's Lichtenstein retrospective, are appallingly slight, doing more to confirm received opinion than to, well, look with a little more care. Frequently Updike seems more patrician than puritan. The review of an exhibition of Max Beckmann's late paintings at the short-lived Guggenheim
In the more successful essays, Updike keeps the hermeneutics thankfully at an arm's reach. He seems on firmer ground in his reviews of exhibitions by Degas and Monet and Vuillard, the last a lovely portrait of a psychologically shattered artist who senses "reality as one big nature morte." Here, too, his literary and artistic insights cross-radiated each other, as Updike nicely offers a comparison of the
Indeed, when Updike is at his most convincing on art, you sense the pleasure he is taking in looking at a canvas. Where his prose can seem almost unaccountably bashful here at times, in "The Love of Facts," a review of Frederic Church's landscapes, his sentences mirror his relish of the Hudson Valley painter's work (he often prefers Church's preparatory sketches to the finished Technicolor panoramas) but also its borderline vulgarity. "Church was a painter termed … Barnumesque; he was drawn to subjects with an element of spectacle — flaming sunsets, glaring icebergs, erupting volcanoes … jungles, deserts. He performed the task, already being assumed by photography, of bringing visual news of a shrinking world's exotic sights. In his major work he did not generally trust — as did Vermeer, Chardin, and the Impressionists — painting to make its won spectacle out of ordinary, proximate existence."
It feels as if Updike himself trusted his observations most securely in his lengthy essay on the portraits of Gilbert Stuart, where he did what most of us do when we visit an exhibition of portraits — that is, to try imagining the life behind the sitter and the relation of painter to subject. Of a portrait of the elderly Lydia Pickering Williams, Updike wrote that "her little sunken mouth, half smiling like that of the Mona Lisa, is what we fasten on … as if it might start to speak, perhaps voicing a version of her dry recorded opinion 'that she was too old, & that in a few years, the portrait would be transferred by her grand children to the garret.'" It is an irony that, when it came to art, one of the most attentive eyes of American life in the latter half of the 20th century should have found its most appealing sights in the early part of the 19th.
Eric Banks is president of the National Book Critics Circle.
'Always Looking: Essays on Art'