When words are not enough

An afternoon stroll with John Updike reveals the prolific writer's passion for paintings.

updike book 88 298 (photo credit: )
updike book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Still Looking: Essays on American Art By John Updike Knopf 240pp., $40 The moment John Updike crosses the threshold of the West Wing of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, he sees something he likes and dives for it. "Looks like a Thiebaud," says the 73-year-old writer, fishing spectacles from his sportcoat pocket to examine one of the artist's pastry paintings. "I love him because he's going strong over 80." No doubt we will one day say the same about Updike. Since he published his first volume of poetry in 1958, the floppy-mopped, perpetually bemused author of Rabbit, Run and other novels has graced bookstores with a new volume every fall, sometimes two. Along the way he has become a kind of Cal Ripken of reviewing - addressing books for The New Yorker and art for The New York Review of Books, among other publications. Still Looking: Essays on American Art is his second collection of art criticism. Culled from a larger group of 50 essays, the book forms a narrative of American art over the last 300 years. Updike begins with a piece on the early portraits of John Singleton Copley, and winds up with observations on Jackson Pollock's heroic ambition. Biographical detail about the artist always finds a way into his observations - even when he is making them on the fly. "He used to work for Disney," Updike says, still standing before the Thiebaud painting. "So there's a sort of Disney element to this: the blue outlines, the elasticity of the colors... Not to sound too much like an art critic." Updike's pose in a museum has always been that of a grateful amateur, who feels beholden to the reader to instruct in return for the privilege of his platform. Before attending an exhibit, he often researches the lives of the artists whose work he is about to view. On site he takes copious notes, and prefers to go "when the public is in there - so I can gauge their reactions." "I once took a bus over to the Brooklyn Museum of Art," he recalls, "and saw Hilton Kramer expertly perambulate the room and then be gone. Meanwhile, I'm laboriously jotting down notes." WITHOUT an assignment weighing him down, Updike floats around Boston's MFA in search of delight. Dressed in a tweed jacket, yellow oxford-cloth shirt and blue tie, he paces the perimeter of each gallery dutifully, his step light and athletic. When he finds something he likes, he stops and goes silent. More often than not he glances at the wall texts "reflexively, and then hate myself for doing it." "I think you're supposed to look at the paintings and let them tell you what to see," he says, ruminating on a chaotic Rauschenberg canvas. Updike's predilections are at first not very surprising. He clearly has a shine for the Impressionists, which is understandable given his highly lyrical style of writing. As a one-time art student who spent a year at The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, he also appreciates the technical skill behind a good painting. But he is also fond of Warhol. Still Looking contains a short appreciation of the avatar of pop. "There is an uncanny, unearthly beauty and rightness to his work," Updike writes in "Iconic Andy." Standing before a Warhol portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in Boston, Updike remarks on the "sadness you see in her eyes." He once met the eccentric painter at a party. "I forget why I was there. But it was formal attire and he was wearing a tuxedo. I remarked upon it, saying I didn't expect to see him in a tuxedo, and he unzipped his fly to reveal he was wearing denim jeans underneath." A woman approaches and calls out to him. "You're John Updike, aren't you?" "I am," he replies. "Nice to meet you." He hustles along to another painting. "You go from the seer to being seen in those situations," he mutters. THERE IS a limit to Updike's range of interests. We pass through a room of conceptual art and blaring Japanese music. "I think this is a bit beyond my ken," Updike says generously, before sheepishly moving on. Part of this conservatism means that Updike came back to artists like Jackson Pollock after their peak moment of fame. He once lived in Greenwich Village, a stone's throw from the Cedar Tavern, the legendary bohemian watering hole. But one would not have found him drinking there. "Abstract expressionism was in the air back then, but I was too conservative and stupid to really know that." Eventually Updike came around, and was inspired to make the hero of his 1961 National Book Award winner, The Centaur, an expressionist painter. Updike repeated the gesture in 2003, with Seek My Face, his novel about a woman very much like Jackson Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner. Looking at one of the Boston Museum's own Pollock paintings, Updike does not much regret that he did not become a collector. Art, to him, is meant to be looked at and experienced, rather than possessed. "The closest my wife and I came to collecting was when we went to a show at the Guggenheim and went through the process of trying to buy a painting out of an exhibit. So we got a number of letters from the Spanish ambassador, they'd arrive all typed with this wonderfully huge signature. It wasn't very expensive - around $500 I think. But that was 1960s dollars, so it was expensive back then." When they divorced she kept the painting. His only other venture at owning art also involved Spain. When Updike was living in the country in the late '60s, he and his first wife bought some plates designed from an old Picasso design. They hung on his bookshelf until his daughter broke one. "We put it back together," Updike recalls, "she and I. It was a nice father-daughter project."