Updike the Synthesizer

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_10 Feb. 04 17.54 Updike gave a lecture on American art last year at the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was called “The Clarity of Things: What is American about American Art.” Updike discussed how American painting finally managed to become American. Most of the early American painters were tradesman. They knew how to paint, but they didn't know how to be “painterly.” As Updike put it, they were “liney” in the beginning.

A line is a child’s first instrument of depiction, the boundary where one thing ends and another begins. The primitive artist is more concerned with what things are than what they look like to the eye’s camera. Lines serve the facts.

Liney is how you paint when you know how to render individual things but you don't have the skill to make the depth and perspective cohere into a scene, to blur some of the hard lines in order to create a work of art. Still, there was something about liney painting that was true to the American experience. Speaking about the liney paintings of mid-18th-century painter John Singleton Copley, Updike said, “In the art-sparse, mercantile world of the American colonies, Copley’s lavish literalism must have seemed fair dealing, a heaping measure of value paid in shimmering textures and scrupulously fine detail.” But as America developed, so did its painters. They wanted to be able to paint like the masters across the sea. As ever seems the case in America, they had mixed-up desires: They wanted to be just as good as the Europeans and yet uniquely American. So American painters had to learn the subtle lessons of the craft all over again. Aesthetic problems that, in Europe, had been tackled and resolved in the early Renaissance became contemporary. Eventually, the American painters found a way. During the 19th century, they started making paintings that could easily have been created by European masters but for the slightly rougher subject matter of an American wilderness largely untamed. In doing so, they gained in skill at the expense of their specific style. To become better painters, they had to stop being so American.

More here.