STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One of the best-known chroniclers of American life also turns his attention to American art. John Updike has won just about every major literary award for his fiction about work, family and home. He's the author of novels including "Rabbit Run" and "The Witches of Eastwick." He's also produced many essays and reviews during his 73 years. Among other things, Updike turns his writer's eye to famous American paintings and a collection of his essays is titled, "Still Looking." Here's NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.
SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:
The first thing John Updike saw on waking as a child in Shillington, Pennsylvania, was a painting of sand dunes his mother bought for $35 during the Depression, so art was important in the Updike home. From his earliest years, John Updike went to museums. He took art courses in high school. After Harvard, he spent a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art in Oxford, England. Even though it turned out that writing was more important to him than making visual art, he has written about art for years.
John Updike is in our New York studio.
Tell us how you look at a painting. Your book is full of good color reproductions. Let us pick one; the Edward Hopper, "People in the Sun." That's a very peculiar painting. I will you'd describe it, John Updike.
Mr. JOHN UPDIKE (Author, "Still Looking"): Yeah. It is put together of elements that don't really seem to belong together. There's kind of a grassy plain in the middle distance. In the far distance there's a rather mechanical-looking mountain range. And in the foreground, on what seems to be a cement slab, a number of people are sitting in deck chairs, all facing the sun except for one man who's reading a book. Well, these people are getting a kind of southwestern sun bath, let's assume, and yet they're fully dressed. They're wearing suits. The woman is wearing what looks like a very proper dress.
STAMBERG: People love Edward Hopper. You call him a master of suspense.
Mr. UPDIKE: Well, because a lot of the paintings do pose a kind of riddle. What's going to happen next? What are these people talking about? There's a sense of tension. Often when couples are shown, there's a sense of the curtain just having been pulled back in a lot of the paintings, pulled back on a scene that because it's static, we'll never see develop. But we can yearn for the development. We yearn to know what in time has surrounded this particular moment. But he always tells us something about the human mystery, about the sense that being a human being is a problem, is interesting, is strange, even.
STAMBERG: I hope you won't think this is a dumb question, John Updike, but what do you think the difference is between a painting and a novel?
Mr. UPDIKE: The difference, of, well, time. The painting does not exist in time. That's why we like them so much. We can look at them quickly or even totally ignore them. You can go to even an expensive art show in a couple hours. A novel takes place in time and it demands time of the reader. We seem to be into the novel that fits anywhere, involving, whereas with a painting we're always a little bit outside of it, aren't we, looking at it, looking through a window, an invisible window, in front of it? And--but it does have the great charm for modern people in being quickly absorbed, quickly assimilated, at least to a degree. We love it. I love being in museums. I find that it makes me think about my writing in a more hopeful way, because there is a certain amount of dreary circumstantiality about writing, really--you know, the grammar, the typing, the misspellings, the moving the carriages about, trying not to bore the reader. Whereas painting, it just kind of happens. It happens right in front of us, and there it is.
STAMBERG: And sometimes it tells a story, in a different way, of course. But let's talk about a painter who doesn't tell stories at all, Jackson Pollock. You look at him, you see drips, but you look at him, John Updike, and you see epic drips. You see something heroic on his canvases. What is that?
Mr. UPDIKE: The boldness of them and the consistency of carrying through on the drips, not succumbing to any convenient itch, to pictorialize or to show images that we can recognize. It's an ultimate of a kind. You can't out-Pollock Pollock. There have been very few Pollock imitators because he did it.
STAMBERG: Now we go from his drips to such specificity in Andy Warhol, and he was sort of the next big thing after the action painting of Pollock. Soup cans, Coke bottles; somebody said that these were his still-lifes. Andy Warhol said, `I like boring things.'
Mr. UPDIKE: And I responded to pop painting as homage to everyday manufactured objects that surround us. He was not fundamentally painting Campbell's soup cans in an ironic spirit, saying `Aren't they crass and cheap?' No, he was saying they are there. They are there like flowers are there or clouds or whatever, and we give them the dignity of making them into art.
STAMBERG: It's often been observed that he was being ironic, that he was making some kind of a statement and a put-down. His aim was not to elevate the soup can.
Mr. UPDIKE: If you look at his statements, they sound ironic--`I like boring things. I like things to be exactly the same over and over again.' I'm reading from my own quotations of him. In another case he said, `The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine.' And then he said, `If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface. There's nothing behind it.' That is facing the facts of modern existence. There's an awful lot of surface existence with nothing behind it. And Warhol in some way caught that and made it, at least in the paintings, into art.
I once met Andy Warhol, by the way. It was at some rich person's party in Manhattan, and he, I thought, was wearing a tuxedo, and when I tried to make conversation, remarked upon how strange it was to see him in a tuxedo. He unbuttoned his and zipped down his fly enough to show me that he was wearing beneath the tuxedo, blue jeans. This could be taken as a kind of irony. To me, I took it as a kind of revelation, and an insight in the man who--behind the tuxedo there with these blue jeans. He was a man from a humble background and he was a hard worker. I kind of feel a soul mate in Andy Warhol.
STAMBERG: It's just that he's from Pennsylvania.
Mr. UPDIKE: That's right. He is from Pennsylvania, the great unironic state. In Pennsylvania we don't go in for irony. We take everything every seriously.
STAMBERG: Thank you very much.
Mr. UPDIKE: Thank you.
STAMBERG: John Updike. His newest book is called "Still Looking: Essays on American Art." I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from "Still Looking" by going to npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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