What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sundays With Updike: "Gradations of Black"

Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting 33 (1963), Frank Stella’s Die Fahne Hoch (1959), Mark Rothko’s Four Darks in Red (1958), Clyfford Still’s Untitled (1958), and Franz Klein’s Mahoning (1956) are five of the twentieth century’s purest abstract paintings, so opaque they seem to defy interpretation. Enter John Updike. He delighted in teasing meaning from abstraction. In his great 24-line poem “Gradations of Black” (The New Yorker, August 13, 1984), he visits the “third floor, Whitney Museum,” views these five famous abstracts, and ingeniously finds semblances in each of them.

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting 33 (1963)

He says, “Ad Reinhardt’s black, in ‘Abstract Painting 33,’ / seems atmosphere, leading the eye into / that darkness where, self-awakened, we / grope for the bathroom switch; no light goes on, / but we come to see that the corners of his square / black canvas are squares slightly, slightly brown.”

Frank Stella, Die Fahne Hoch (1959)

He compares Stella’s striped, gray-on-black, “lustrous and granular” Die Fahne Hoch to “the shiny hide / of some hairless, geometrical reptile.”

Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red (1958)

Regarding Rothko’s Four Darks in Red, he says it “holds grief; small lakes of sheen reflect the light, / and the eye, seeking to sink, is rebuffed / by a much-worked dullness, the patina of a rag / that oily Vulcan uses, wiping up.”

Clyfford Still, Untitled (1958)

He says that Still, in his Untitled, “has laid on black in flakes of hardening tar, / a dragon’s scales so slick this viewer’s head / is mirrored, a murky helmet, as he stands / waiting for the flame-shaped passion to clear.”

Franz Kline, Mahoning (1956)

And on Franz Kline’s Mahoning, he observes its “barred radiance; now each / black gobby girder has yielded cracks to time / and lets leak through the dead white underneath.”

That “barred radiance” is very fine, as is “small lakes of sheen reflect the light.” Gradations of Black is an imaginative poetical performance, unfolding a sequence of inspired interpretations in which black abstraction yields vivid representational significance.

Credit: The above photograph of John Updike is by Brigitte Lacombe.

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