Re-Rendering in Words What the Artist Rendered in Pigment: ‘Always Looking: Essays on Art’

A tentative consensus seems to be coalescing around the legacy of the late John Updike, and it isn’t a terribly attractive one. Updike, it would appear, was too suburban, too sexist, too white, too male and definitely too old — which is to say, at one point, he made the mistake of becoming old — to pass muster with either the Academy or posterity. (Obviously, sexism is a bad thing, but if some of Updike’s young rivals, one of them now deceased, are to be believed, ageism is like, totally okay.)

But all of this PC nitpicking about Updike’s legacy, particularly in his fiction, paints only a very partial picture. He certainly did have his problems with sex, both in terms of portraying it in his fiction and in, well, doing it, and his worldview was indeed provincial, even when he tried his hand at writing about terrorism, or Africa, or the future. But his central fault, I think, is one that has escaped most of his critics, and it had nothing to do with the tendentious sociological and politically correct critiques that he endured in his later years. Updike’s problem, in his fiction and non-fiction alike, was a matter of scale and proportion.

Updike was, from his very first short story, very much like a little boy enchanted with his first working spyglass, its powers of magnification and even more so his own ability to alter the angle and clarity of what he saw by repeatedly moving the instrument from side to side and sliding it in and out (ahem.) For that is exactly what Updike proceeded to do throughout his career. A moment after he would touch the reader with a psychological insight of astonishing sensitivity, particularly in his short stories, he would ruin the moment by focusing with preternatural clarity on some detail that would have escaped the notice of virtually any other writer.

But maybe other writers passed over these moments for good reason – because the detail in question was literally beneath notice. Oftentimes it was a labial wrinkle or a gluteal mole or an unusually shaped breast or something of that sort, or an exceedingly subtle gesture or expression indicative of an inner psychological state that would have been better expressed – as we well know, because Updike had, in fact, already expressed it – through dialogue or action.

One would think that when Updike turned his attention from the multiverse of human interaction to the unilateral world of art, wherein the artist affects the viewer but the viewer cannot directly return the favor, that his attention to precisely rendered detail would have been somehow more apropos. But this presumes that it’s in every case necessary for Updike, and other art critics, to re-render in words the detail that the artist has already rendered in pigment.

And so this is why reading his posthumous collection of essays on art, Always Looking, as well as his two previous volumes, Just Looking and Still Looking, are such curiously empty experiences. It’s one thing for a Clement Greenberg, say, to use his verbal powers to attempt to persuade us of the value of something whose aesthetic appeal is not, shall we say, immediately evident (Franz Kline, for example.) But Updike favored artists who possessed an aesthetic appeal that it was never necessary for viewers to be hectored or intellectually intimidated into admiring. In this latest and last volume, for example, Updike considers, with superb intelligence and some degree of superfluity, artists such as Degas, Monet, Magritte, Klimt and Vuillard. The closest Updike gets to the kind of art that needs to be explained rather than experienced is Richard Serra, and here, not surprisingly, Updike is gently skeptical of this second-hand metal-bender’s actual contribution to our aesthetic.

Otherwise, however, Updike explains in hyper-perceptive terms what we already know through our own two eyes and in our skin. Here, for example, is what Updike has to say about Rene Magritte, the Belgian visionary whom everyone, from the hoi polloi to the graphic artist in search of inspiration to the professional critic, already knows and loves:

“All these divagations of style paid off, after 1950, in characteristic paintings done with a new spaciousness of effect. Absence, Magritte’s original theme, became something like presence. A comic petrifaction, which seizes bottles and fruits and lightning bolts and men and lions, becomes the occasion of a triumphant return of congenial grisaille, in a flecked, skilled trompe l’oeil of stony metamorphosis (The Haunted Castle, Memory of a Journey.) Huge boulders now, instead of trinkety bilboquets, serve as stand-ins for human presences (The Invisible World).”

But Magritte was more of a thinker and a dreamer than he was a painter per se, and thus this passage reads as overwritten and insecure, as if Updike was trying too hard to impress the art community and trying even harder to explain the deliberately inexplicable, which is to say Magritte’s eerie images.

Even worse is when Updike attempts to explain what is already “explained” by the painting itself. Here he is on Gustaf Klimt:

“Dazzling in the amount of gold and Geld lavished upon it, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (another portrait, less dazzling, followed in 1912) repels critical judgment. Does its subject’s lush, heavy-lipped, dark-browed, green-eyed face, beneath a black blob of hair and above a silver-encrusted collar, a pale stretch of upper chest, and a rather anxiously wrung pair of skinny pale hands, really mesh with the astonishing efflorescence of perspective-free patterns – eyes, spirals, squares, streaks, and splotches, ostensibly related to the wistful sitter’s dress, robe, and armchair? Or does she look like a decal stuck onto a collage of tinselly wrapping paper?”

Well, yes, to answer your too-tentatively posed question, she does.

And yes, we can see this for ourselves.

And yes, you are indeed correct that, as a result, this painting repels critical judgment. Though not in this case sufficiently so, it would appear.

Sometimes, Updike’s critical judgment is both acute and very much called-for, as when he expresses the unease I and presumably others have felt about Monet’s over-praised cathedral and haystack series:

“Though the polychrome suite of facades (of the cathedrals) is interesting, like a row of fancy pastries, we are perhaps too conscious of the willed violence and daring of these transformations. Not a religious man, or a city man, Monet brought to his subject here little of the love that touches his most casual scrubbing-in of sky and vegetation. The cathedral is dissolved not only in the shifting light and weather but in the painter’s basic indifference to it as anything but a sunstruck cliff, a contoured excrescence turned into colored dough by this rendering.”

This book, and Updike’s other volumes on art, badly needed more of this sort of mildly iconoclastic observation. They are still lovely volumes, and how could they not be, filled as they are with reproductions of works like Degas’ meltingly beautiful Wheatfield and Green Hill and Sargent’s Smoke of Ambergris and Vuillard’s La Table de Toilette. But one feels that the attention to detail on display here would have been better suited to phenomena that are far less on the surface that brushstrokes on canvas, such as the bewildering and maddening complexity of human emotion. No, not moles and not mons and not even, for that matter, Monet, but emotions. It’s at that level of magnification, and not in mere “looking”, where Updike’s genius is most likely to live on.

RATING 7 / 10