Eloquent, knowledgeable, urbane; who wouldn’t have wanted to stroll through an art exhibition with the late John Updike? Always Looking, a collection of review/meditations on various big ticket shows, primarily retrospectives, were mostly written for The New York Review of Books. It joins and complements the earlier Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005).
Updike, whose astonishing output numbered over 60 volumes, never ceased to delight in the music and magic of the written word. In his review of “Degas Landscapes,” which was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1994, he says: “On the Cliff arrests us with its steep upward mass of grassy hill abruptly thrust into a concave piece of clear blue sky, sky that looks stuck and unreal until we step back and see it resolve, with the blotches of fuscous green that wander up the hillside, into a rectangle of perfect high summer in its elemental duotone.”
John Updike. Photo courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf/Random House
In short, there is a clarity of description throughout. He took his assignments seriously and wrote them in formal, although conversational prose that doesn’t digress or escort us away from the subject at hand and down some errant trail of personal interest. He is also cordial throughout, even when he doesn’t seem enthralled by the artist, which appears to be the case with the later, repetitive work of Roy Lichtenstein.
Who does he write about? Gilbert Stuart, for starters, who realized that there was quite a market for portraits of George Washington. He painted at least 100 versions, some or even most presumably copies, and pretty much sold them all. This doesn’t mean he neglected our subsequent heads of state, since there are also portraits by Stuart of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.
Although Updike himself doesn’t make the connection, an argument could be made that Frederic Edwin Church and Richard Serra (both of whom are reviewed separately) share a similar grand, spacious vision. Church was a painter of spectacles, and his canvases depicting Niagara Falls or South American jungles all but swallow up the viewer. Serra’s mighty steel sculptures – as enigmatic as Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” – are also grandly Romantic, sublime and Wagnerian at the same time. As Updike notes about “Sequence” (“two intertwined S-shapes with a sinuous path between them”), the work “can be walked through but not visualized.”
A note on the illustrations, of which there is a generous allotment: They are handsomely reproduced. Those that accompany “The Love of Facts,” Updike’s review of “Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church,” are more vivid than those in the show’s own catalogue (one exception being the curiously out of focus “The Hudson Valley in Winter from Olana”).
A review of “The Clark Brothers Collect: Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings” (2006) reminds us that the collectors with the deepest pockets are usually the founder or beneficiaries of large and successful companies; and in this case Sterling and Stephen Clark had money to work with that originated with the invention – and efficient marketing – of the Singer sewing machine. The same might be said for Ronald S. Lauder, whose mother Estée Lauder, amassed a fortune through cosmetics, thus enabling him to purchase Gustav Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” for $135 million. That portrait subsequently became the keystone of an exhibition (2007-08) at the Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York, a review of which is also included in Always Looking.
The usual suspects (or subjects) include Monet, Degas, Magritte, plus the lesser known Intimist painter Édouard Vuillard, whose works (interior scenes, mostly) have a quiet, melancholy resonance, domestic life filled with brushstrokes, and all of it fading away even as we hold it gently in our mind’s eye.
By way of contrast, there are the brutal, harsh, crowded and colorful forms – teeming with ambiguity but also passion – created by the German Expressionist Max Beckmann.
Although there is nothing particularly controversial or contentious in these pages, which some readers may find discouraging, we have, once again, been on an excursion with a true gentleman and enlightened guide. When we part company with him there’s a wistfulness that colors our farewell, because this time it’s forever.