The off season is upon us, and no one wants to labor too hard over their reading during what remains of the sunny months. To this, the collection of previously published, shorter writings offers a breezy alternative. Perusable, digestible: the critical essay keeps one’s mind in the game without asking more than a passing investment.
One could do no better than to pick up John Updike’s Still Looking: Essays on American Art (Knopf, 2005, 222 pp., $40), the sequel to the author’s 1989 collection Just Looking: Essays on Art (Knopf). Updike, the venerable man of letters, has been playing the role of gentleman art critic for some 30-odd years, dipping into major exhibitions at the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art, "conscientiously squinting at each work," as he humbly puts it, "scribbling my notes, attempting afterwards to phrase the story that any exhibition, especially a retrospective, silently tells."
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the story the novelist so often finds is that of a man’s life (there are no women artists among the 16 essays compiled for Still Looking -- excepting a cameo by Georgia O’Keeffe in a text on Alfred Steiglitz). The 13 souls gathered here -- along with three lesser articles about group exhibitions or surveys -- are all those of American artists, as the work’s title connotes. They span from John Singleton Copley to Jackson Pollock, with a capsule piece on Andy Warhol -- hardly more than a page -- tagged onto the end. "I feel surer of my footing on American terrain," Updike writes, clearly happiest among the pre- and early moderns.
"These early American modernists," he writes in the beginning of his piece on Marsden Hartley, "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. . . . Now that the magnificent monotones of the New York School have themselves sunk into art history, we can be more patient, perhaps, with the conflicted impulses of American art between the wars." Updike’s gestures towards the "magnificence" of the New York School aside, he has a special interest in what could be called American art’s adolescence. Our author is clearly attracted by youthful struggle, a ripening too tender, too awkward to be gilded with glamour.
As to the essays themselves, they are a blend of conventional biography -- an archive of facts and events is uniformly unloaded in the opening paragraphs of each text -- and pure, disinterested connoisseurship, which Updike embraces with extended, at times tedious, descriptions of individual works. But the value here is found in the way the novelist draws from the artwork an account of a fellow countryman’s strengths and weaknesses, his successes and failures, his self deceptions and his bitter honesties -- and all the multifarious instances in which these qualities pose as their opposites.
A grand figure, a Whistler or a Pollock, submits most readily to this sort of dissection. Whistler, the "crepuscular decadent" who "wasted so much of his talent on theorizing and posturing," was "an early modern master of projecting the artist’s own image" and of hiding his acidic insecurities beneath it. And Pollock, who as a youth was "more interested in being an artist than in making art". . . "is a heroic American, no doubt, in creating himself from scratch," though the artist’s 1999 MoMA retrospective made clear to Updike "how close [Pollock] came to leaving just scratch behind." "There is an American tendency," he continues, "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."
That’s a fact Updike knows by heart, well rehearsed as it is in both his fiction and his criticism. With art, he exercises his visual discrimination from within the empowering mantle of the New York Review of Books, where most of the texts compiled here were originally published -- and the number of works deemed to achieve the balance and poise of a true masterpiece is surprisingly few. The reasoning that compels such distinctions may seem unorthodox at times, but this, we feel, is what the man is paid for. For example, in his review of the National Gallery of Art’s 1995-96 retrospective of Winslow Homer, he writes, "Of the two spectacular large sea-scenes from the mid-1880s, The Life Line (1884) seems a bit melodramatic, monochromatic and, in its death-defying coupling, ill-defined. But Undertow (1886), displayed in Washington with many preliminary sketches, is a masterpiece arising whole from all its labor of contrivance. It was based, evidently, on a successful rescue Homer witnessed in Atlantic City in 1883; if the two young women are not dead but unconscious it removes something of tragedy from the scene, but heightens the eroticism. Have any painted figures ever been more thoroughly wet than these?"
Yet it is with artists like Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and Albert Pinkham Ryder that Updike feels most at home. In the stories of these hardscrabble, Depression-era painters, who were too poor and too provincial to live fashionable lives, he can identify a spirit generic to American art, "the same impassioned engagement with materials, the same demand for a morality of representation, the same aversion to what Hartley called a ‘compromising softness’." Pretty language, and proven to have meaning when Updike carries through on his promise to evince these qualities. In Ryder, for example, whose addled pictures earned him status as the only American painter whom Jackson Pollock claimed to care a fig for, the author does a convincing job of demonstrating how, exactly, these gruffly painted, bucolic landscapes -- little, muddy, now-decaying things -- presage the giant Abstract Expressionist steps to come. But Updike is careful not to stop and be satisfied there, where so many less empathetic professional onlookers are. As he puts it, "it is not a sufficient compliment to say of an artist that he anticipated artistic developments of the future: this would reduce his function to a kind of soothsaying. His duty is to the contemporary Zeitgeist, to push at its envelope where it can be pushed, and to communicate with the living."
The gift of great writers, whether of fiction or not, is to bring life to their subjects -- another of Updike’s talents which is not lost in his art criticism. Each of the artists on Updike’s list is brought forth, his historical moment in tow, to the level field of the author’s prose, where he is made available to once again communicate with the living and given a sympathetic, persuasive accounting, a kind of spiritual analysis. Updike finds the master theme writ large on the walls of retrospective exhibitions, and though this discovery is repeated again and again throughout the book, it is with variations so great from character to character that no pleasure is sacrificed in recognizing its return.
"We have allowed the arts to become a kind of dumb show in which so-called values that would be considered discriminatory at best in everyday discourse take the stage to enact lingering myths of hierarchy," he writes in the book’s first essay, a piece on the abstract paintings of a Papua New Guinean tribe called the Maisin. "There is more at stake [in this]," he continues, "than the success or failure of individual careers. The ways we define and categorize art say much about our society as a whole, about our willingness to accept difference, to welcome change and to find joy in the present. . . . For this very reason, these categories and definitions should not go untested."
For Rinder, who organized two U.S. exhibitions of Maisin paintings -- known as tapa -- their work is emblematic of the values he brings to his life as a curator. "These exhibitions, in museum contexts, called into question the boundaries between art and craft, between trained and untrained artistic practice, and -- because the tapa were made for commercial markets -- between so-called "high" and "low" art. Although [the Maisin’s] practice, strictly speaking, fell outside the boundaries of art as I was taught to define it, I found greater formal skill, greater imaginative refinement and far greater social relevance in their work than in virtually any other visual material I have dealt with in the well more than one hundred exhibitions I have organized." This is quite a claim, especially coming from the curator who oversaw the 2002 Whitney Biennial. One wonders if, in the 16 essays to follow, such bold and lofty praise will be cheapened by promiscuity.
Rinder, thankfully, does not offer these accolades lightly -- though the Maisin aren’t the only artists included in the book who, in their relatively unranked, wildcard status within the mainstream art world, would stand to benefit from the endorsement of a major curator like this one. Rather than simply voicing his commitments, Rinder enacts them, putting his gift for inventive thinking to work in support of his subjects. "Art essays that stick solely to the thing itself have a hard time being anything other than a user’s manual: four legs, one top, eight screws -- a table. . . . I enjoy making far-flung connections, relating contemporary works to the art and thought of other times and cultures."
And so the reclusive quilter Rosie Lee Tompkins is paired with Hans Hoffman and the modernist, Anglo-European tradition -- not in order to legitimize her practice, but to "discourage a complacent view that delimits her work a priori because of her purported cultural heritage and chosen medium." Downtown queer-cinema auteur Jack Smith is paired with Edouard Manet, for related reasons, and the late conspiracy junky Mark Lombardi’s schematic drawings are brushed past both Friendster and, most improbably, the paintings of John Currin -- all while Lombardi is posed as a kind of information-age John Henry battling single-handedly against the much more powerful database analysis system, the Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness program.
This same strategy serves to refresh our eyes to some of the more thoroughly canonized artists in the book as well. Sophie Calle meets ancient Skeptic philosophy, for instance, and we are invited to consider Luc Tuymans in light of Julia Kristeva and Stephen King. As is evident, most of the materials Rinder works with in his texts are familiar to a college graduate. It’s the arrangements that are original.
Rinder is a good writer, but his job is curating, and one of the book’s shining points, the 1995 essay In a Different Light, lets us in on how he goes about his work. The text, which accompanied an exhibition of works expressing gay and lesbian sensibilities, offers a kind of step-by-step narrative of how he mentally conceives and structures a sizeable group show -- a process that comes off as rigorously intellectual, and a genuine labor of love. Moreover, in our 20-20 hindsight, evidence emerges in this ten-year-old text showing a curator helping to give shape to the ideas that would follow. "For many artists in their 20s and early 30s. . . the very definitions of sexual identity are in flux. . . . Queerness -- as opposed to gayness or lesbianism -- or, for that matter, straightness -- is becoming a term that subverts or confuses group identification rather than fostering it. . . . So, while the present moment seems to mark an historic watershed for gay and lesbian art, this extraordinary creativity may be happening not because of a solidifying of gay and lesbian identity, but precisely because of a crisis in that identity." Queer has been all the rage in identity theory for some time -- it’s all but old-hat -- but in ‘95 the author was working at the edge, experimenting with novel ideas, fulfilling in practice his earlier promise to push at the categories and definitions we bring to art.
The book, then, will teach its reader about a few unfamiliar artists and a few theories and ideas, but when it’s all said and done, what lingers is a sense that Rinder’s voice -- clear, plainspoken and even, in a way, brave -- is one to be trusted, and is thus worth our attention -- now where can I get my hands on one of those tapa?
ABRAHAM ORDEN writes on art from Chicago.