John Updike is a man of many talents (Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, short story writer, book reviewer, art critic), and now he’s getting into the poster business—sort of. Updike, who last month presented the 37th annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in Washington, D.C., is very excited about Picturing America, the new National Endowment for the Humanities initiative to bring masterpieces of American art (or at least reproductions of them) into American classrooms and libraries via 20 double-sided posters. They are, of course, laminated—for endurance and because American teachers simply cannot resist a good laminated poster, or 20.
In his essay in next week’s issue of the New York Review of Books, Updike uses the program (and his Jefferson lecture, “a skimming survey of [Picturing America‘s] sensitively diverse set of forty artworks”) as the springboard for a sweeping discussion of American art, from the portraits of John Singleton Copley (“the first great painter cast up by our art-sparse, undercivilized, eastern-coastal New World”) to Winslow Homer‘s “arduous passages of tumbling foam and exploding spray.” Borrowing a term from painter Bejamin West, Updike sets up the dichotomy of “liney” versus painterly art:
The liney/painterly dichotomy persists to this day, and in the century since Homer’s last works it has taken many forms. The dry, burnished literalism of Grant Wood and Charles Sheeler followed the ebullient impressionism of Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase. Thomas Eakins is liney, John Singer Sargent is not; Andrew Wyeth is liney and Edward Hopper not. Among the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock achieves his signature effects with a welter of lines, and Mark Rothko achieves his by blurring all edges. Among Pop artists, Roy Lichtenstein takes the comic-strip lines and Benday to a majestic scale, while Andy Warhol remains a colorist above all. All, it might be said, employ highly personal techniques to confront the viewer with something vitally actual, beyond illusion.