In addition to that, we happened to live across the street from the only artist in Shillington, a man called Clint Shilling; he was descended from the Shilling who created the town. All this was instructive. It was instructive to try to look at something in terms of line and color.
The rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg. But to see a work of art is different. UPDIKE: Trying to see and draw shows you how much there is to see and how, as we proceed through our ordinary days, how oblivious we are to the visual facts around us. The history of art demonstrates how long it took artists to focus on what was actually there before their eyes instead of what they knew was there—that is, to move from the Egyptian way of putting down an ideological notion of what, say, the human body was.
In their aesthetic, you showed the body to the best advantage, so the profile was the best way to look at the face, and head-on was the best way to look at the chest. I was in Egypt not so long ago, and our guide talked about the idealism of the mode of representation, which was static for several thousand years. They always showed the feet sideways, with the big toe outwards.
And so this swinging back and forth now, between literalism and stylization, between representation and abstraction. Malerich and Mondrian, and Arthur Dove had done it, but it was still widely assumed that the duty of the artist was to become highly skilled at giving the illusion of thereness, of texture and space and perspective, and so on. UPDIKE: And so, in a way, it was easier to try to become an artist since it was fairly clear what you were trying to do. Norman Rockwell was reigning on the covers of the Post , and he was sort of the ultimate—the ultimate at least in illustration.
COLE: In the Renaissance, you get the invention of one-point perspective, which also is not really the way we see. It is amazing how these conventions work on us as well. Of course, the human eye moves all the time. To paint in the very precise way of Holbein or Van Dyke is to freeze the seeing process in a way that is highly unreal. Visual art is very fertile ground for this kind of philosophical—existential—speculation, especially now that the abstraction has spoken up so strongly on its own behalf.
What is excellent—what is excellent about this piece of abstraction as opposed to this other piece? Why is Rothko so eloquent, for example, and Hans Hofmann not?
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Hofmann is a thrilling theorist but his paintings look like linoleum. So we are kind of adrift, I think. The last movement that I felt I dug one hundred percent was, I suppose, Pop, which was in the sixties. I recently read in the New Yorker a profile of John Currin, whose paintings are very meticulous and yet cartoonish and often bawdy.
And yet I had to read the article to really begin to understand why he painted the way he did—why he would, you know, devote Holbeinesque attention to these forms. And the shine of it and the look of it, you know, the little pimples on it, everything is there in this masterful way and yet. At any rate, Currin has all the old masterish devotion to what seemed to be basically a very ironical and kind of off-putting subject. But why not, in the post-abstraction era, have all those old skills, you know, the underpainting and the overpainting and the glazes and all that technique work in his paintings?
What it does is formalize art, removing all the annoying detours, like figures and narrative and all that. You just basically have the formal elements, light and color and the like. You just feel that some people did manage to do both things at once. You can also see the strokes; you can see the little pointilles that Vermeer uses, the individual brushstrokes. A painter was at work. The women standing alone with the window over on the left and a letter or a delicate little scales in their hands. The images speak in the way that religious symbolism used to speak to believers.
COLE: I agree with that one hundred percent.
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But it sanctifies. UPDIKE: There is a saintly feeling in Vermeer and some others—Rembrandt, too, or Chardin—where you feel that the act of putting down what you see in front of you at this point in history had a lot of cultural momentum behind it.
You were a craftsman who was going to produce something to order. Christian art was almost Egyptian in the rigor of its formulas. So, to arrive at a cultural place where you could make a living painting more or less what you wanted to is a liberation, but there is also a scary freedom to it too.
COLE: One of the things that has struck me is that there is a great tradition of art. And there was this tradition of art into art: You built on the shoulders of your predecessors.
You modified it, you changed it, but there was always art into art into art into art. But there was a huge gulf created with people like Pollock who consciously broke that tradition. But a paradox there is that he also was a news item.
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Life ran those dramatic photographs of him painting, and he had a celebrity quality that made you look at those big canvases of scribbles in a different way. There was a sexiness about Pollock the person that made his painting sensational in the same way that, around the same time, the topless bathing suit was sensational. It was a shock but somehow muffled by the very oddity of it.
But, yes, he gave a lot of value, Rockwell did, more than was asked for, in commercial art. He was an artist, a real artist in that he went beyond the requirements. He could have painted with less loving detail; he could have had fewer little anecdotal touches and facial expressions in his work.
But he went always to fill the glass to the brim—fill the whole canvas with warmth and enlivening details.
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I think Rockwell is the standout in an age of great illustrators, because he never settled for a formula, unlike many of them. The late covers he did for the Post , just before it folded were really very painterly. COLE: Well, you could see how he was trained in a classical tradition.
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I mean he could really draw and he knew how to put paint on canvas. He has his own museum. He was everything that art critics used to hate. The purpose of a Rockwell painting was to be reproduced. COLE: I am curious to hear your thoughts on Jackson Pollock and this shattering of tradition and also the importance of celebrity to art. As far as I know, none of them got very rich in their prime. Pollock struggled for money when he was alive. But the notion of the painter as a romantic figure was certainly achieved in the New York School.
But he was not a gorgeous creature the way that Pollock was, or Rothko, who, remember, committed a very bloody suicide, or Franz Kline, who drank himself into an early grave.
These men—and the movement had a macho side—were romantic, heroic. Their art was so unexpected, although there had been abstraction around for decades. They made art glamorous. They made American art glamorous to the rest of the world, which had not happened hitherto.