Monday, April 12, 2010

Seek My Face

Seek my face
by John Updike

John Updike’s Seek my face is set as a fictitious 2001 interview between Hope Chafetz, the venerated doyen of the New York post war Art scene, and Kathryn D'Angelo, a stylish and ambitious, young journalist - ostensibly sent by some Manhattan publisher to collect firsthand the memoirs of this witness of a vanishing movement in art. The setting is the Vermont farmhouse where Hope lives in self imposed seclusion. Hope Chafetz is is 78 years old, a painter, three times married, twice widowed, once divorced. What makes Hope such an interesting subject for interview is that despite being a painter of some reknown, she happens to have been married to and friends with most all the significant characters of the American post war Art scene. Updike loosely bases her character on the real life personality of Lee Krasner, with bits of Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan thrown in for good measure. Hope’s first husband was Zach McCoy- the fictitious counterpart to Jackson Pollock, the brilliant and self- destructive icon of abstract expressionist action painting and their relationship was complex and for Hope, abusive. Like the real life Pollock, Zach McCoys star burn swiftly and brightly , only to end in a alcoholic stupor on a stretch of Long Island highway during the 1950’s. Husband number two, Guy Holloway, was the penultimate Pop artist of the era- a combination of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, with bits of James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenburg and Claus Oldenburg mixed in. His Midas touch was for her a curse, their relationship being torn apart by his success and their marriage ended in shambles during the 1970s, after 17 years, and three children. Her third husband was Jerry Chafetz, a businessman and collector of art, and with whom she enjoyed a decade of marriage before his death in the late 1980’s.
In real life, Krasner was a much different personality than the one portrayed by Updike in the character of Hope, and despite this fanciful rendering, Updike brilliantly captures the art scene of post war Manhattan and the personalities that inhabited it. The timeline of Hopes’ recollections follow the supporting characters in Krasner’s life and are expertly woven into the novel, as Updike subtly changes the names of the personalities with such cleverness and humor as to allow the reader to match their identities with the real historical person. Updike creates a living personality in Hope Chafetz, through which the artistic mileau of New York during the post war period is recreated. In fact, to a great extent, these personalities are amalgams of these real life artists. Although most definitely acquainted with the real artists, except for Pollock Krasner was never married to any of these artists. Updike uses the historical Krasner as a template onto which he projects the character of Hope Chafetz. Hope functions as the embodiment of the New York post war art scene , and it is her life story that becomes the theme of the novel. Updike’s research into this period is not only profound but also sympathetic, and his portrayal of this time is rich in texture and color. His expert craftsmanship and profound understanding of language, allows the reader to believe this work is historically factual, which lends great authenticity to his characters. The inner dialogue of Hope Chafetz, is the voice through which most of the novel is told, and is replete with all the mannerisms and idiosyncratic obsessiveness of a real person. This stylistic rendition adds vulnerability to Hope’s personality, which only enhances the reader’s identification with her. The strong development of the Hope’s character minimizes the almost preposterous storyline of her occupying almost by accident, the central nexus around which all of modern American art is constructed.
Updike's title comes from Psalm 27 "You speak in my heart, and say 'Seek my face'. Your face, Lord, will I seek.” Seeking the face of God implies that through the act of creating Art, one is engaged in the most sacred of actions. Paradoxically, the artistic characters that inhabit the novel, create their Art in what would appear to be more of a selfish cathartic response- all about the self and not about God. Even Hope herself declares, "God's non-existence is something I can't get used to, it seems unnatural." Perhaps the notion that God as an external force separate from the Self is no longer valid. Seeking the Self now becomes the creed of the abstract artist. "That was the thing, back then," Hope says, "that everybody talked about - getting the self out, getting it on canvas. That was why abstraction was so glamorous, it was all self."
In all great Art, the artist disappears and the viewer ceases to be. They in effect merge and what remains is the universal, the vibrating energy that lingers. It is not so much the skill of Rembrandt’s modeling that we are captivated by, it is the light which reveals the human condition and strikes a chord of universal emotive power. To Hope and to Updike as well, the abstractionists were seeking to dissolve themselves away with process unimpeaded, and to distill the universal power of the action of the painting. Not all of them succeeded, for as their personas grew and they became famous in their own time, it became impossible to see the genius in their work anymore. Their own celebrity and their own consciousness of their fame, occluded the sacred process.
The prevailing theories of modern Art are a reaction to our modern era has left no place for an external all controlling deity as had been the case up until now, and the vacuum was quickly filled by the Self or super thou. Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Post- Modern art movements evolved from themes that originated in the nineteenth century. The industrial revolution, photography, existentialism, the utter destruction of European cities and cultural icons, all influenced the philosophies behind post war art theory. These themes all contribute to the crescendo of modern artistic response as evaluated in Updike’s, Seek my Face. Perhaps the most important of these themes is the transmutation of God into Self and the dissolution thereof, for truth in Art to be attained. It reveals how modern abstract Art strove to explore ways of sublimating the self to reveal what it considered to be true expression. Further, it demonstrated how a true expression as so demonstrated could become subverted by its own popularity, thereby changing the very nature of how the artist views and expresses the Self.

No comments: