For nearly half a century, John Updike has been producing books of fiction, poetry, and criticism at a rate that would make a dime-novel writer envious. In Updike’s case, however, the products of his labors continue to be elegantly styled, insightful, and, with rare exceptions, of the highest quality. Whether he is constructing a novel, commenting on foreign literature, or writing about his family, he engages his readers with his witticisms and his ability to make his prose or his poetry, when he chooses to write some, serve his bidding. His productivity has matched his breadth of knowledge, as he has published, on average, one book each year since 1957. Therefore, it is hard to think of another living writer who deserves the sobriquet “America’s most distinguished man of letters.”
Still Looking, Updike’s 2005 contribution to his canon of distinguished nonfiction, demonstrates that he is as perceptive about American visual arts as he is about American life. This volume collects eighteen of the more than fifty essays Updike has published since the appearance of his first book of art criticism, Just Looking: Essays on Art, in 1989. Most were written for The New York Review of Books and other prestigious publications, though a few were produced for inclusion in exhibition catalogs or for collections of art criticism. Two essays cover “theme” exhibits: one on representations of landscape painting, another on realism and impressionism in America. The remaining sixteen focus on the careers of individual artists. All were written after Updike visited major exhibitions in cities across the United States.
To give the book a sense of coherence, Updike has arranged his pieces in a loose chronological order, beginning with the eighteenth century painter John Singleton Copley and ending with the iconoclastic mid-twentieth century pop-art guru Andy Warhol. Most essays extend to three thousand words, allowing Updike to produce commonsense critiques of individual works and comment on the significance of an individual or movement in the context of the historical development of the visual arts in America. Updike’s running commentary demonstrates how individual paintings, photographs, or sculptures display something about an individual artist’s development. Reading the essays gives one a sense of what motivated artists as disparate as Winslow Homer, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Marsden Hartley, or Arthur Dove. One comes to understand, too, what drove James McNeil Whistler to leave his native Americafor reasons much different from Copley’s a half-century earlieror why sculptor Elie Nadelman or photographer Alfred Stieglitz are important in the history of American art even if their work has been neglected or, in the case of Stieglitz, overshadowed by his relationship with his wife, the more famous Georgia O’Keeffe.
One learns how, as with Whistler, Jackson Pollock’s being thrust into the public role of the artist affected his work and why mid-nineteenth century artists such as Thomas Eakins and Childe Hassam worked within what might at first seem a rather limited range of subjects. Under Updike’s penetrating gaze, not only do the pictures and statuary speak to readers; the artists who painted or sculpted them are also made human. Nowhere is Updike’s love of art and artists more evident than in the two essays on Edward Hopper, a painter with whom Updike seems to share some affinities. Both are chroniclers of everyday American life, finding the subjects for their art in places outside the big cities. While every essay manages to reveal something about its subject, these two seem especially poignant, as if Updike has found a kindred spirit in this artist who paints ordinary people in ordinary situations and manages to suggest something extraordinary about their lives. Anyone familiar with Updike’s fiction will immediately recognize the parallels.
Those readers more familiar with the world of the visual arts than literature may be skeptical about Updike’s qualifications for producing such books. In an age when celebrities in one field are often asked to offer criticism in areas for which they have no special competence, it is refreshing to know...
(The entire section is 1724 words.)