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The Novelist in the Gallery

The proper American character and the unadorned truthfulness in the blunt presence of Copley’s New England sitters arouse and amuse the aesthetic but also the social interest of the novelist. He pauses before these portraits and waits: “If one attends sufficiently to the surfaces, the interior takes care of itself: this could be the moral of Copley’s American portraits.” In Copley’s later, more elaborate English work these virtues are less evident. Updike feels disappointed by this change and sees it as a loss. Art historians, with their concerns for formal analysis, which usually excludes judgments of taste, might speak here of stylistic development. But Updike is disturbed by the new, fashionable brilliance of Copley’s brushstrokes, and what he calls “the Englishing of John Singleton Copley” is “in some ways a disappointing process.” Still, in front of Copley’s most popular painting, Watson and the Shark, from 1778, he gives one of his subtly observant accounts:

Watson, fourteen years old at the time of the actual incident—bathing in Havana Harbor, he was attacked by a shark, but was rescued—is naked, with the build of a mature man. He and the shark, who share the watery foreground in exactly equal proportions, both have similarly gaping mouths, and appear equally at a loss as to the next step in their relationship. Above them, a small boat has somehow not yet sunk under its load of nine alarmed passengers, who variously reach, stab, and stare. Above them, the harbor of Havana, which Copley took from prints, presents a towered silhouette under a sweeping Gainsboroughesque sky. Watson’s right leg, which was historically bitten off below the knee, discreetly trails off the painting’s lower edge; whether we are witnessing the shark’s assault or Watson’s rescue is unclear.

He then returns to the ambivalent interrelation between Copley’s original Americanism and his adopted “Englishing.” In Watson and the Shark, he writes, “American literalism meets European history-painting in a Gothic, virtually Boschian dream,” and he dwells on the revolutionary effects of this great and moving piece of American art, which became a landmark in the general evolution of history painting: “Romanticism was on the way. Copley’s placement of a black man…set a precedent not only for the black soldier in The Death of Major Peirsonanother of Copley’s history paintings—“but for the Negro figure in Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1817).”

Epic Homer,” the essay on Winslow Homer, strikes a different note, but here again the American character is the dominating theme. I am not sure if Updike with his refined taste and his preference for the more subtle and idiosyncratic products of art is wholly at ease with the robust qualities of Homer’s work. But he finds telling words and metaphors to praise him. He describes him as a man “who determinedly focused on the plain life and unadorned scenery of the democracy,” and even says: “Homer was painting’s Melville,” a comparison not everyone may be ready to share. He cites Henry James, who had written of Homer:

We frankly confess that we detest his subjects—his barren plank fences, his glaring, bald, blue skies, his big, dreary, vacant lots of meadows, his freckled, straight-haired Yankee urchins….

Updike responds in a way characteristic of his appreciation of “Americanism in art.” “James,” he insists,

was too European…. He could never quell his sensation that there was something intrinsically unworthy in American subject matter. Only the pure, dry American soul, caught in the toils of Old World corruption, pleased him; that soul’s plain and provincial furniture he gratefully eased from his mind.

Updike closes his essay with more cautions and appraising words on the artist’s American character, unspoiled by the refinements of the Old World:

He beautifully exploited his talent and his days; a sense of strain and extravagance attends only the massive exclusion, from his art and, increasingly, from his life, of what might be called European civilization. To a degree no longer possible, he lived as the New World’s new man—self-ruled, resourceful, and beginning always afresh.

The novelist who describes in his fiction the fate and the destiny of American characters has, as an essayist, a special curiosity about the work of queer and unconventional, not always successful, artists. One of Updike’s most sensitive essays deals with Albert Pinkham Ryder, whom Jackson Pollock, before becoming famous himself, had called “the only American painter who interests me.” Ryder’s visionary paintings are nowadays largely ruined, “cracking, shrinking, wrinkling, bubbling, sagging, darkening, alligatoring agglutinations of pigment.” There is something self-destructive about them, which seems to fascinate Updike, who finds in Ryder’s work a specific American kind of heroism and mysticism. “Americans,” he reminds us, “with their basically millennial expectations, admire holy fools, especially in the arts, and the full-blown Ryder, combining Whitman’s beard with Emily Dickinson’s reclusiveness, is our holy fool of painting.” Updike likes such comparisons between painters and writers; whether in words or images, both express for him the same American beliefs and sufferings. The essay on Ryder is significantly called “Better than Nature.”

The title of another essay, “Heade Storms,” is still more laconic. The slumbering yet tense landscapes by Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) arouse Updike’s admiration, because in their silence, their stillness, they never become showy or melodramatic as is often the case with Albert Bierstadt, the German immigrant, or the muscular Winslow Homer. Updike describes Heade’s painting Approaching Thunder Storm from 1859 in an unforgettable sentence: “Against the utter black, a sunlit man and dog have a cartoonish sharpness of shape and color, as if transposed from a Breughel onto an American beach, whose grasses are highlighted with stabs of the brush handle.” In such phrases, ekphrasis, the description of a painting, becomes a kind of poetry, yet this poetry remains always precise, always connected with Updike’s intense, watchful looking.

Updike has never taken part in the factional battles of the art world, never followed fashions and trends, and he certainly has never paid attention to the art market; he avoids a partisan tone in his judgments, but gives the impression of being perpetually curious. He finds a place for marginal or even disturbing artists. Such a case is that of Marsden Hartley (1877– 1943), the early American modernist, who got in touch with Kandinsky in Germany and lived there in the first year of World War I. Updike describes him as “homosexual, homely, egocentric, shy, slow to develop as an artist, pious in an Emersonian-Episcopalian way.” He looks closely at his painting The Warriors from 1913, in which Hartley intermingles the spiritual dreams of the Blue Rider group with motifs from Prussian militarism. Updike is admirably patient with such an odd combination: “Just as one should not hasten to patronize Hartley’s positive view of a more innocent Germany, one should not rush to read anal symbols into his celebration of military manhood.” He is too serene, too intelligent to spoil his looking by political or moral censorship.

Sometimes Updike the art critic is amused. His brilliant, witty essay on the Polish-American sculptor Elie Nadelman (1882–1946) has the rhythm of a scherzo: “The bronze of a hefty, hunched nude alleged to be Gertrude Stein makes us smile, but her Junoesque mass is something Nadelman will circuitously recover through the coming decades of distinct outlines and smooth surfaces.” Concerning Nadelman’s later career, when the sculptor became more and more successful but also fashionable, we read:

The Nadelmans in their financial heyday collected folk art with an omnivorous zeal, on the theory that the formal basis of all art would emerge from a sufficient accumulation. In the meantime, Nadelman’s shapely sculptures bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the battered dolls that can be found on flea-market tables.

Updike observes and then describes the deterioration of Nadelman’s statuettes, their cheap adaptation to the taste of a fashionable clientele, as he would recount in one of his novels the slow moral dissolution of one of its heroes. But even in this case Updike is far from condemning. The essay on Nadelman ends on a tragic note:

As the stick of his rocket descended, Nadelman’s figures seem to sink back into the all-dissolving waters of being. Perhaps, having early turned against the amorphous ethos of Symbolism—Munch’s swooning women, Moreau’s luminous nebulae—the sculptor yearned to revert to it, an inner world devoid of formal logic.

Updike’s essay on Marsden Hartley begins with an acute historical observation: “These early American modernists have been overshadowed, much as the size of their canvases was dwarfed, by the Abstract Expressionists and the Pop artists, whose spectacular scale and international impact made their American predecessors look indecisive—parochial spirits wistfully caught between imported Cubism and native mysticism.” Updike closes his essay on Arthur Dove (1880–1946) in a similar tone: “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.” But then Updike makes a plea to look afresh at the paintings of this overshadowed pioneer: “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.’”

Updike’s essays on American art are a homage to the native character of this art, to its intrinsic, underivative values, to its modest flowering in the days before the New York School became the glamorous center of the international art scene and of an overheated art market. Admitting that many of these old American paintings are not masterpieces, he feels deeply attached to their home-grown truthfulness. His subtle prose tries to protect them against oblivion in the whirlwind of fashionable exhibitions and against the versatile chatter of art criticism. His essays are great examples of sensitive discretion. In one of them, entitled “Early Sunday Morning,” he remarks of the art of Edward Hopper, “He is, to use a phrase generally reserved for writers, a master of suspense.” This telling sentence could as well refer to the most subtle of his own essays on American Art.

In “Walls That Talk Too Much,” his review of the 1994 exhibition “American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915” at the Metropolitan Museum, he begins by saying, “The Megashow gives way to the talk show—an art exhibit where more time is spent in absorbing the pedagogic text on the walls than in looking at the pictures.” A few lines further he continues mournfully:

…Museums are turning scholarly, delving into their and their fellow institutions’ copious reserves of less than supremely fashionable works of art to assemble purposeful lectures through which we walk as if galleries were paragraphs and paintings were slides of themselves.

It is ironic that a great master of language is reminding curators, art historians, and art critics that the visit to a museum or to an art exhibition should be an occasion for looking, a pleasure for the eye and not an hour of instruction and indoctrination, modeled on the seminar. Updike is deeply convinced that in any writing about art the word should submit to the image, the pen to the eye. In the same review he insists on the distinction between “painting” and “depiction,” a distinction that some art historians, who specialize in what used to be called the social history of art, too easily forget:

Impressionism arose partly in response to the crisis imposed upon the pictorial arts by the arrival of photography; painting was driven to seek out those things that only it could do. The overt art of painting slowly replaced the covert skills of depiction. As one moves through the rooms of this show, giving one’s eyes a rest from the incessant wall-notes with an occasional peek at the paintings, the essential distinction emerges as not that between Impressionism and Realism but that between painting and depiction.

Updike has a Proustian sense of time. On his way through the art of the hectic twentieth century he stops somewhere around 1970. Confronted with a restless visual scenery which unfolds more and more like a gigantic television screen, he has decided to remain old-fashioned and to stay with his early dreams of beauty, quietness, and silence. The last extended essay in Still Looking, about Jackson Pollock, contains a forceful, intense description of the Pollock saga, the dramatic, unhappy, and self-destructive life of a great artist and his tragic early death. Updike turns once again to his favorite, fateful topic: the American character in art. But his tone is now becoming doubtful and broken. Pollock is for him “a heroic American, no doubt, in creating himself from scratch.” For a moment one is reminded of Updike’s essay on Winslow Homer. But then he goes on: “…What this inclusive show”—the Pollock show at MoMA in 1998 and 1999—“makes clear is how close he came to leaving just scratch behind.” Later Updike cites a passage from the late Kirk Varnedoe’s catalog:

Along with Walt Whitman and a few others…Pollock stands in an entirely different class, as someone powerfully understood, at home and abroad and for better and worse in his grandeur and in his misery, to represent the core of what America is.

With gentle irony the novelist plays down the somewhat inflated words of the distinguished curator and reminds us of Pollock’s wavering career between glamorous triumph and alcoholic annihilation: “Is-ness,” he begins, “is all. 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.” Two more pages are still to come in Updike’s collection, on Warhol, here called Iconic Andy. It is a somewhat sad and resigned homage to the American genius in art of another time. His last sentence reads: “His”—Warhol’s—“heritage is all around us, whenever reality feels like a television show and art like a silk-screened Weegee.”

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