Monday, February 02, 2009

I'm back, after two weeks spent putting my new show at the AAC, PUBLIC/PRIVATE, in order. I will have installation shots/clips for you this week; in the meantime, you can read all about the show here. (Yes, the website needs to be updated.) Thanks to everyone who came to the preview and to the reception!

Among the things I missed: John Updike died last Tuesday. In the wake of obits and appraisals, I've read plenty about Rabbit Angstrom and Henry Bech, but not so much about Updike's art criticism, which appeared in the New York Review of Books, and was mostly gathered into two books, Just Looking and Still Looking.

Updike's criticism was informal, and not without its limitations: He did better with representational art, particularly by Americans. And when he could weave the artist's biography into the consideration--particularly if, like the best-known characters in his fiction, that artist was a flawed figure, having experienced disappointment, failure--then the piece inevitably worked.

I always enjoyed his 1986 appraisal of John Singer Sargent from Just Looking, and had the first paragraph in mind when I saw the show that came to the NGA back in 1999:

Americans like in their artists a touch of the hermit crank, of the ascetic; Homer and Hopper had it, and Eakins and Pollock. But not John Singer Sargent: he was too facile, too successful, too professional, too European. The most fashionable of artists in his portrait painting prime from 1887 to 1907, he turned to murals as a path to higher realms and instead covered his name with a certain polite dust. His death in 1925 (like his life, apparently painless) prompted two large retrospective shows the following year, at the Royal Academy in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but no tribute as generous has been launched for sixty years...the [Whitney Museum] show is not apt to change people's minds about Sargent, or to secure him a place higher than his present honorable position as the creator of some spectacular canvases yet a man who, in the statement formed by his total career, somehow misses. "Yes," Henry James wrote to Thomas Bailey Aldrich in 1888, "I have always thought Sargent a great painter. He would be greater still if he had one or two little things he hasn't--but he will do."

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