John Updike & Alex Colville - Two MarvellersWednesday, July 17, 2013
This will probably be a rambler of a blog, not exactly an American Motors kind of Rambler but in some ways the theme will be about stuff that is not going to be coming back.
Coincidentally today is the day I must return this delightful rambler about art, Just Looking - essays on art, written by John Updike. I never had a chance to photograph the man but I may still have an opportunity with that other writer I admire Joyce Carol Oates, after all she is still alive.
Coincidentally today I read in my Vancouver Sun (I get a daily delivered if you must know) that my favourite Canadian artist, Alex Colville died. I went to my files and was surprised that I wrote a little piece about him for the December 1995 Equity Magazine.
The slim connection between Updike and Colville (others might find many) as far as I am concerned is that Updike wrote about art and about a type of art that had been transformed to something that he Updike saw no wonder in anymore. Updike who adored John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer probably would have adored Colville, too. Colville who did not suffer fools would have admired Updike for his keen mind.
Updike’s book is delightful. I have re read it several times. I will risk the copyright hounds by placing here Updike’s opinion on the Museum of Modern Art, a museum he had seen as a boy, then as a New York City resident. He left for New England and he would then return to MOMA every once in a while as a tourist. He wrote this in the initial introduction to his book (published in 1982) called What MOMA Done Tole Me.
I moved to New England, yet often returned, a visitor now among the swelling tourist crowd, yet still a marveller, as the old masterpieces of modernity underwent an occasional shuffle in the exhibition rooms, supplemented as they were by ever bigger and prouder abstractions, and then by the grim hilarities of Pop – Rauschenberg goats and spattered assemblages, Warhol silk screens and stacked Brillo boxes – and by Jasper John’s neoclassical targets and flags and maps and beer cans and Robert Indiana’s stately lettering and Lichtenstein’s comic strips and Op Art’s dazzling brief parade of vibrating stripes and spots. Op was the last art movement I enjoyed, and Minimalism the last one I was aware of; I could not adjust to artworks that lay on the floor, brick and tiles and coils of ropes that could be accidentally kicked. Outside the museum, on Fifty-third Street and beyond, the world changes, becoming experimental to the point were nothing art could do seemed revolutionary or subversive in the way that Pollocks’ drip paintings and de Koonig’s hectically brushed portraits of women had seemed in the gray flannel world of the Fifties. Life in the Sixties and Seventies, and not merely painting, had become expressionistic performance. And the Japanese and Germans and Vietnamese and Saudis were cutting America down to size, and the art world was swamped by money bloat and by national tired blood.
Irrationally, I felt betrayed when Picasso’s Guernica, which had for so long greeted visitors to MOMA’s second floor, was returned to a suddenly democratic Spain, and again when, as part of a plan to cash in on the condominium boom with yet another midtown high-rise, the museum’s exhibition space was doubled, making it one more museum too big to wander through without getting a backache. When does modern end? It began, MOMA says in its own literature, “about 1885”; over a century has gone by, and the dignified course might be for the museum to declare itself a closed treasury, like the Cloisters and the Frick. But it has opted, instead, for a greedy open-endednes and a bigger souvenir shop; it has led the transformation of museums into gorgeous tourist traps, where once they were sober and even torpid enhancements of local civic life. The steeples cathedral of artistic faith I used to visit is still there, but as a box within boxes, its message diffused and its relics scrambled. The last time I walked through, I couldn’t find my favorite Gris, or Hid-and-Seek, or The Eternal City, or Arp’s Mountain, Table, Anchors, Nave, or that construction of paper and string that long ago had looked to my childish eyes like a kite preserved in an attic.
Below you will find that transition from assignment to reality of my little piece on Alex Colville.