Sebastian Smee

The fine art of appreciation | 4 March 2006

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Still Looking

John Updike

Hamish Hamilton, pp. 222, £

John Updike is, among one or two other things, a model art critic. Observant, sympathetic and knowledgeable, he also writes at a useful remove from the polemics that rack today’s art world. His status as an honorary non-combatant in the contemporary art wars owes something to his literary fame, to be sure. But it is also the result of a mildly disingenuous decision on his part to maintain an amateur’s attitude in a world beset by experts. Unlike most jobbing art critics, who are inclined to carve out partisan stances, Updike is content to appreciate both the painted, atmospheric delicacy of Hopper or Whistler and the nihilistic wit of Warhol or Duchamp, without worrying that one way of appreciating art puts in jeopardy the other.

His amateur credentials are emphasised in this collection’s introduction, which opens with a discussion of a painting bought by his mother shortly after he was born and passed on to him when she died. Reproduced on the facing page, it is a simple, lovely image of sand dunes, sea and sky. The painter, Alice W. Davis, was a virtual unknown; and yet Updike attributes his lifelong love of art as much to the work’s talismanic presence in his home as to his early painting lessons, the art courses he took at school and Harvard and the year he spent in Oxford at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.

The real point of its inclusion here has to do with Updike’s approach to art criticism: ‘The effort of an art critic must be, in an era beset by a barrage of visual stimulants, mainly one of appreciation,’ he writes, ‘of letting the works sink in as a painting hung on the wall of one’s home sinks in, never quite done with unfolding all that is in it to see.’ This is a good, working description of an art critic’s role — so long as the idea of appreciation can be stretched to encompass more negative discriminations.

For Updike, this proves to be no problem. It is surprising to see, beneath the gentlemanly tone of his prose, how sharp and unsentimental his judgments can be. Of at least three canonised heroes of American art, Thomas Eakins, James McNeill Whistler and Jackson Pollock, he is quite dismissive. Still, even Updike’s sternest criticisms are balanced by a sensitivity to the artists’ aims, an acknowledgment of what they did best, and an awareness of the different milieus in which they worked.

The artists here are all American, and the reviews, most of them written for the New York Review of Books, are arranged chronologically according to the lifetimes of the artists, so that we begin with John Singleton Copley and end with Warhol, via the likes of Winslow Homer, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Arthur Dove. The decision to limit the book to reviews of American artists (Updike’s recent art reviews for the NYRB have also addressed non-Americans, from El Greco to Max Ernst; similarly, his 1989 volume of essays on art, Just Looking, was not restricted by nationality) is a happy one, for it allows a few broad ideas about American art to assume wider implications. Satisfyingly, these ideas emerge organically rather than programmatically, in reviews written in no particular order over many years.

Chief among them is the tension between modes of visual expression that are specific, surface-loving and descriptive on the one hand and abstract, mysterious and inchoate on the other. What Updike describes as the ‘American tendency to see art as a spiritual feat, a moment of amazing grace’ is counterbalanced by ‘our native particularist grain’ in a square-off that grows ever more fascinating.

Updike is not just dabbling in these subjects. His reflections on the tension between beauty and the sublime in a review of American Sublime, an exhibition which came to Tate Britain in 2002, reprise ideas that were explored in his 2002 novel, Seek My Face. That flawed but absorbing novel was in turn prompted by his reviews of the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998-99 and several Arthur Dove shows in New York in 1998. Updike’s natural sympathy is more with description and earthbound beauty than with abstraction and the sublime, as any reader of his fiction will know, but his exploration of the entire subject, in these reviews as well as in Seek My Face, is engrossing.

The whole book is generously illustrated, and of course arresting verbal images rise from every page. In Copley’s ‘The Death of Major Peirson, January 6, 1782’ (1782-84), ‘the central group clusters an excessive number of men in a campy clot of solicitude around the inverted figure of the major’. (One looks to the reproduction and it is exactly so.)

In Hopper’s ‘Early Sunday Morning, 1930’, ‘the dawn comes rakingly from the right. It arrives stealthily, while the windows still sleep, and we think of the inhabitants behind those curtains, dreaming or groggily stirring as the day, like an ambitious merchant, is already setting up shop.’

In the paintings of Thomas Eakins ‘our sense of an intelligence exerted is not always balanced by the sense of a moment captured’. Whistler, meanwhile, is arrestingly described as ‘a piquant loner, a crepuscular dead end’: ‘To think of [his] nudes in relation to Degas’, or his faces in relation to Sargent’s, is to confront an almost frightening lack of interest, of that excitement that generates specificity.’

Something similar — a preference for the general over the specific — limits the achievement of Pollock, according to perhaps the most provocative review in the book. To Updike, the public reverence for Pollock is not baseless but it is certainly suspect. Andy Warhol, on the other hand, is described as ‘an ill-educated dyslexic who became the wittiest image-maker since Duchamp and the wittiest voice in American art since Whistler’. ‘His fifteen minutes are still stretching; there is an uncanny, unearthly beauty and rightness to his work.’