John Updike’s death from lung cancer in January 2009 hit Julian Barnes in a way that seems to me well-nigh universal: “I thought we had him for another 10 years.” And too, there was in Barnes “a feeling of disappointment that Stockholm had never given him the nod.”
We find Barnes’ emblematic rue in his Updike essay in “Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story” (Vintage, 243 pages, $15.95 paperback original) but you could have found it throughout the literary world’s immediate reactions to Updike’s death.
All of which has made posthumously appearing books by Updike a singular prospect, simultaneously melancholy and satisfying – an echo from a conversation with him that his silent readers kept on having with his disembodied voice, even though we know it can’t last forever.
In the case of a suicide like David Foster Wallace, the final fiction “The Pale King” was presented to us unfinished and, therefore, all the more tragic, while Wallace’s final essay collection “Both Flesh and Not” is a climactic sampler of completed work, a cruel punctuation mark ending a career both voluminous and way too short.
Updike left behind him a vast and gloriously varied oeuvre, the way the 19th century writers did. Even so, though, a vague intimation of its incompleteness unavoidably afflicts all Updike readers (as it may not with David Foster Wallace, whose final act seems like a battered Roberto Duran saying “no mas,” a refusal to come out of his corner.)
Which is why a new posthumous volume of Updike’s art criticism, edited and collected by Christopher Carduff, is every bit as welcome as the much larger and vastly more expected volume of predominantly literary essays in the last Updike collection “Higher Gossip.”
If Updike’s writing on art was out of his work’s mainstream, it was because it came from the headwaters of his sensibility.
Writing about art became an alternative Updike that many mistakenly thought presumptuous and overreaching but which he and many readers could clearly see was a connection made to his earliest self, which was almost equal parts cartoonist and writer.
As he writes here in the charming opening fragment in tribute to the “Big Little Books” series of his book-collecting youth “they were chunky little volumes sold for ten cents, made up of single panels from a comic strip opposite a short page of narrative text. My transition from wanting to be a cartoonist to wanting to be a writer may have come about through that friendly opposition, that even-handed pairing of pictures and words.”
To go from Big Little Books as a subject to the gigantism of “many square meters of curved steel” in the retrospective exhibit of sculptor Richard Serra is a book-length journey that doesn’t seem the slightest bit strained.
Updike was always telling us as minimalistically as possible in the titles of his collections of art criticism what was going on: “Just Looking,” “Still Looking” and now, appropriately (and posthumously) “Always Looking.”
Updike, to many, was the great American realist of his time, one who should have received the (Nobel) “nod from Stockholm” at least a decade ago, especially when you consider that his essays on so many of the international writers who subsequently went on to win the most venerated of all literary prizes can be read as the basic texts from which the wordings of the final awards pilfered with shameless regularity. (Read Updike’s mammoth essay collections to find some of the earliest and best appreciations in English of those who’d become Nobelists not that long after.)
That’s what makes Updike’s art criticism, in comparison, even more personal in its way. These are the sights and thoughts of a more private Updike, less concerned with the public Updike always conscious of a major PLACE in the literary world.
What could be more Updikean, though, than the world of American art that begins in an essay here whose perfect Updikean title (from a Jonathan Edwards sermon) is “The Clarity of Things?” John Singleton Copley, he writes, was “all his life a striver and with what I think of as a typically American trait, a learner.”
It is here, in this look at a kind of American artistic mirror, that Updike sets up a brilliant “liney/painterly dichotomy” that neatly applies to him too as a writer: “The primitive artist is more concerned with what things ARE than what they look like to the eye’s camera. Folk art tends to be liney … (lacking) a convincing atmosphere and a third dimension.”
The master of “the eye’s camera” ends, after telling us about paintings by Homer, Eakins, Benton and Sheeler, to praise Norman Rockwell – yes, Norman Rockwell – as being “liney” but “also painterly in (his) fond lavishness; this most successful of twentieth century commercial artists also painted art for art’s sake.”
That’s what happens when a good writer is always looking for looking’s sake. He’s seeing what others don’t – even what they might refuse to.
Who can resist Updike’s version of Gilbert Stuart’s Washington portraits? “Stewart … jostled the president into animation by talking about horses; but Washington like today’s supermodels, wears the blank look that resonates deeply with the public. He is our first and greatest supermodel.”
Or Updike on Frederic Edwin Church’s paintings of Niagara Falls with “an instrinctive American mode of naturalism whose trend is to be tragic… Nature could never again be Christianized.”
Certainly, famous erotic celebrant Updike will see vaginal shapes in the clothing in a Klimt painting and the “harem of languid models” in Klimt’s studio.
And he’ll write of Joan Miro’s canvas “The Farm” which was bought by Miro’s Paris friend Ernest Hemingway “One tries to look at ‘The Farm’ with Hemingway’s eyes, seeking what made him fall in love with [the painting] … He and Miro, their reminiscences reveal, were both often hungry in Paris and hungry people see with a terrible clarity.”
This is 21st century writing by a writer no longer hungry – except possibly for more time on earth.
It’s that very seeing though which now seems terrible and with a different sort of clarity than the essays themselves.
That’s because it’s gone.
Always Looking: Essays on Art
By John Updike; Knopf 204 pages, $45
Jeff Simon is the News’ Arts and Books Editor.