John Updike: Looker

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Updike at home in  1966/Time-Life Pictures - Getty Images

Updike at home in Ipswich, Conn., 1966/Time-Life Pictures - Getty Images

I didn’t want to let the week run out without a farewell to John Updike, the Great American Novelist who died on Tuesday. Updike was also a lucid and lyrical writer about art. As a young man he actually thought he might want to be a painter, or maybe a cartoonist, and after getting his English degree at Harvard he put in a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford. In the 1980s, when he was already well established as a novelist, he started producing sly little essays about art for places like The New Republic, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. By 1990 he was writing about art once or twice a year for The New York Review of Books.

I only sat down with Updike once, seven years ago, to talk with him about Seek My Face, his novel based partly on the relationship between Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. But over the years I also spotted him a couple of times in New York museums, always expensively dressed. (Which came as a surprise. I never imagined a mere writer could have a haircut as meticulous or a long tweed coat as impeccably contoured to the body as the one I saw him in one afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art.) But when it came time to choose a name for this blog, I chose “Looking Around” partly as a nod to Just Looking, the title of his first collection of essays about art. Updike would have been the last to make claims for himself as an art scholar. What he was, was a well-informed and deeply attentive amateur in the root sense of the word — from the Latin word “amat”, meaning “to love”. At a time of so much dreadful, tinny and frankly useless academic art writing, he offered a much more appealing kind of contemplative gaze.

Updike also once wrote a short story called “Museums and Women”. (Now there’s a quintessential Updike title.) It contains one of the best attempts I know of to account for how a work of art can enter through your eyes and move along your nerve paths into your deeper understandings. Early in the story he’s describing some of the “strange, small statues” — classical nudes, mostly — that he would see on childhood visits to his local museum, “a stately pride to the third-class inland city it ornamented”.

Each, if it could have been released into life, would have stood about twenty inches high and weighed in my arms as much as a cat. I itched to finger them, to interact with them, to insert myself into their mysterious silent world of strenuous contention — their bulged tendons burnished, their hushed violence detailed down to the fingernails. They were in their smallness like secret thoughts of mine projected into dimension and permanence, and they returned to me as a response that carried strangely into parts of my body. I felt myself a furtive animal sitting in the shadow of my mother.

The title of his last book of art essays was Still Looking. If only that were true.