A Splattering of Art History ; the Wife of a Famous Drip Painter Tells All - Too Much

By Charles, Ron | The Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Splattering of Art History ; the Wife of a Famous Drip Painter Tells All - Too Much


Charles, Ron, The Christian Science Monitor


Two years ago, the British novelist A.S. Byatt wrote what the publisher called "a novel" about a man collecting notes for a biography on a famous biographer. "The Biographer's Tale" was one of those stultifyingly complex productions you're proud to have endured because you don't want to admit you've been had.

In his review of Byatt's novel for The New Yorker, John Updike predicted that "the patience of all but a reader superhumanly tolerant of extended digression will creak and snap under the load of near-random texts, assembled by an author whose love of collection, of assembling and ordering, in this case quite overpowers any urge to tell a smooth story."

If only he'd remembered that commentary when writing "Seek My Face."

Updike's latest book boasts another one of those super-clever premises we've come to expect from him since he finished writing great novels about what it means to be an American man. The story covers just a single day-long interview. Kathryn, a young writer for an online magazine, has finagled an audience with 79-year-old Hope in her Vermont retreat.

As a painter, Hope has won a smattering of awards and hung her work in some of the finest museums and galleries, but she knows her real interest to the world is the fact that she was married to two of the towering artists of the 20th century.

In the introductory note, Updike admits, "It would be vain to deny that a large number of details come from the admirable, exhaustive 'Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,' by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith." Indeed, Hope's first husband, Zack, is a dead- ringer for the famous drip painter who drove his car into a tree during his last alcoholic bout of depression. Her second husband, Guy, sounds like an amalgamation of several modern artists, but mostly he's a weird cross between Ward Cleaver and Andy Warhol. (Fifteen minutes of that would be plenty.)

The book starts in the morning when Kathryn switches on her Sony tape recorder, and it ends in the evening when Hope and her interviewer (and Updike's readers) are exhausted by the uninterrupted flow of so much reminiscence, small talk, critical theory, and gossip.

As a breezy summary of modern art in America, "Seek My Face" beats the paints off the pretentious catalog text at the Guggenheim. After all, it's got Updike's unparalleled style, his witty piercing of social behavior and private anxieties, and free reign across a canvas that's 50 years wide. But as a novel, it suffers the considerable constraints of its static setting. The action takes place only in a series of rushed anecdotes and digressions - "Now, where was I?"

Under the relentless eye of her interrogator, Hope brushes through the details of her first marriage, providing a memorable warning against living with someone who considers himself a great artist. Zack courted fame while spurning its protocol. He thirsted for praise, but attacked his supporters. He needed his wife's devotion, but rejected her love. She talks frankly about their sex life, too, and what little she leaves out, Updike supplies in unseemly, humiliating flashbacks.

With a lingering mixture of resentment and affection, Hope describes their tumultuous marriage in the middle of "the historical moment, the explosion when everything came together and America took over from Paris, and for the first time ever we led world art. …

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