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.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

John Updike's Secular Vision (Contra Christian Lorentzen)

Juan Gris, Breakfast (1914)
John Updike’s art essays are among the glories of modern literature. Of the many adjectives I’d choose to describe them – “sensuous,” “subtle,” “stylish,” “original,” “analytical,” “perceptive,” “inspired,” “addictive,” “delightful,” “detailed” – “religious” would not be among them. Yet this is the very word, the only word, that Christian Lorentzen uses to characterize Updike’s art pieces. Lorentzen, in his "All he does is write his novel" (London Review of Books, June 5, 2014), says Updike “never tired of writing about painting and sculpture in religious terms.” To my knowledge, of Updike’s roughly one hundred writings on art, only two discuss art in religious terms: his wonderful memory piece, “What MoMA Done Tole Me” (Just Looking, 1989), in which he reminisces about his youthful visits to the Museum of Modern Art, and "Invisible Cathedral" (The New Yorker, November 15, 2004; Due Considerations, 2007), an account of his 2004 visit to the new, expanded MoMA.

In “What MoMA Done Tole Me,” Updike says of the Museum of Modern Art, “I walked here often, up Fifth Avenue, to clear my head, to lift my spirits. For me the Museum of Modern Art was a temple, though my medium had become words.” Later in the piece, he says that the Museum “formed a soothing shelter from the streets outside” and that, “Within the museum, Brancusi’s statues were grouped in a corner room … and emanated an extraordinary peace and finality.” “These pet shapes,” he says, “had acquired, in the decades of the sculptor’s obsessed reworking of them, a sacred aura, which I imbibed as in a chapel, in that softly lit corner space from which one could only turn and retreat…. I was looking for a religion, as a way of hanging on to my old one, in those years, and was attracted to those artists who seemed to me as single-minded and selfless as saints.”

“What MoMA Done Tole Me” ’s most explicit expression of Updike’s religious feeling toward art occurs when he describes his encounter with Juan Gris’s Breakfast:

Breakfast, though a less sunny and matinal work than Bonnard’s The Breakfast Room, tasted more like breakfast: a stark but heartening outlay of brown coffee and thick white china, with a packet of mail and piece of newspaper at its edges. The yellowing scrap of jOURNal, which wittily includes the artist’s name in headline type, fascinated me: like the cracked green of Matisse’s Piano Lesson, the scrap was showing the chemical effects of time; it was aging away from the white of the tablecloth toward the grained brown of the table. On the table, the impudent yet somehow earnest use of commercial paper imitating wood-grain moved me, echoing here in this palace of high art the kitschy textures of my childhood exercises in artifice; and the perfect balance and clarity of this crayoned collage, together with the short life testified to by Gris’s dates on the frame (1887 – 1927), exuded the religious overtone I sought. A religion assembled from the fragments of our daily life, in an atmosphere of gaiety and diligence: this was what I found in the Museum of Modern Art, where others might have found completely different – darker and wilder – things.

What a gorgeous passage! The way Updike describes the scrap of newspaper (“aging away from the white of the tablecloth toward the grained brown of the table”) is very fine. It brings to mind Nicholson Baker’s comment about how much more Updike can do with a piece of reality than he can (U and I, 1991). Baker speaks for most of us on this point.

Updike’s moments of art religiosity seem to have been most intense when he visited MoMA. But by the time he wrote "Invisible Cathedral" (2007), his feeling appears to have waned. He says, “After seventy-five years, a life is a stretch and a cathedral may have sprouted too many chapels.”

To say, as Lorentzen says, that Updike “never tired of writing about painting and sculpture in religious terms” is a shade misleading. Only in “What MoMA Done Tole Me” and “Invisible Cathedral” did he do so expressly. Perhaps he sublimated his religious feeling towards art in his other pieces. That may account, in part, for their greatness. But Updike’s sensual apprehension of life (“Flesh is delicious,” he says, eyeing Lucas Cranach’s Eve) is also a key ingredient of his criticism – one that’s totally secular.  

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