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Updike's 'Always Looking' is persuasive art criticism

John Updike was one of the most respected and successful writers of his generation. His reputation was built on his novels and short stories; he is only one of three authors to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once (William Faulkner and Booth Tarkington being the others).

But he was also an accomplished critic, both of literary works and art, writing dozens of reviews over the years that appeared in publications such as the New Yorker.

Before his death at 76 in 2009, he had published two compilations of his art criticism, Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005). They're marvelously written in his beautiful, graceful prose. That we don't always agree with him doesn't matter; they're a sumptuous read.

A final compilation, the posthumous Always Looking, appeared in late 2012 and is a testament to how much the reading world has lost with his death. His fictive subjects were Americans but in his criticism, he roamed through all of Western art. Most of the essays in this book are reviews of specific museum exhibitions which could make one assume that they hold little interest to those who didn't see the shows.

Not the case.

Like the best art critics, Updike brings the art to you, with detailed descriptions of it along with his assessments as well as cultural references and analogies that deepen and reinforce his opinions. It helps that the book also has lots of reproductions of the art.

Though most are straight-on reviews, the book opens with "The Clarity of Things," delivered in 2008 for the 37th annual Jefferson Lecture in Humanities in Washington. In it he attempted to define American art, beginning with 18th century portrait painter John Singleton Copley and continuing with examples of 20th century artists, taking as the main characteristic "lininess" as opposed to painterly illusionism. It comes from an early criticism by a British writer who praised Copley, finding fault only with a painting "being too liney, which was judged to have arose from there being so much neatness in the lines." Updike gives this a broader interpretation as "a bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being."

Though it's masterfully written, he's too reductive in his definition. But I don't care; the joy of reading such well-crafted sentences is persuasive enough for me.

Among the personal criteria he once listed for literary criticism, he wrote, "Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste."

So here are a few of direct quotations from Updike that make my point:

On Frederic Church's painting of Horseshoe Falls: . . . the activity of the brushwork becomes the activity of the water; painting and its subject merge. A kind of doom presents itself; we invest the river about to topple and crash, its submission to relentless gravity so empathetically pictured, with a soul; the grandeur is of ruin.

On Claude Monet: The artist's little pond . . . floods his canvas with shades of green, while the arc of the bridge above the reflecting water, suspended in air, presides above the profusion and holds us firm above the immersion. The eye welcomes its mathematical curve, abrupt as a Zen riddle, amid a wealth of fluid appearance. As Monet continued for the rest of his life to paint the water lilies, he left out the helpful bridge, and modern art, in its dominant tendencies, has walked on water since.

On Max Beckmann: We are challenged, in this age of acute aesthetic impatience, wherein visual stimulations have the duration and subtlety of electric shock treatments, by works so nakedly, simply representations in pigment and yet so stubbornly withholding of easy pleasures and a clear message. Some sort of colorful struggle is going on, but in terms almost entirely selfish, with no appeal to a public, by a sensibility to whom the Self is a self-evidently potent entity.

On Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I: 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 . . ." Or does she look like a decal stuck onto a collage of tinselly wrapping paper?

On Joan Miró: Miró had the grand modernist impulse to formulate a new religion but the privacy of his materials left the iconography thin.

On Richard Serra: The holiday, playground atmosphere surprise me, armed with a notebook and steeled, so to speak, to cope manfully with towering masses of metal and the great weight of art-historical importance that more timely reviewers had already assigned to the sculptor and his displayed works. Indeed, I was so intent on properly absorbing these marvels that I tripped over a stray toddler . . ."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

Always Looking

By John Updike

Alfred A. Knopf, $45, 204 pages

Updike's 'Always Looking' is persuasive art criticism 01/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 4:40pm]
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