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BOOK REVIEW

JOHN UPDIKE: STILL LOOKING

 

 

By Joseph Romero

NEW YORK, 2 March 2006 — More in the tradition of belles lettres than formal art criticism, this collection of American novelist John Updike's previously published exhibition reviews of American art is a source of pleasure and wit for whomever takes the time to read them.
 
Updike attributes his passion for art to a single painting purchased for thirty-five dollars by his mother during the Depression, when his rural parents could least afford it. Later,  he went on to take two courses at Harvard followed by a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.
 
Still, it seems to be his modest American farm house background coupled with his gift for elegant prose that yield, for example, amusing meditations on "The American Face" and the portraiture of John Singleton Copley — essays which convey a perceptive grasp of American nativism that are a far cry from the often turgid assessments of the art historian or professional art critic.
 
Some might argue that Updike doesn't always get it right or is ill-at-ease with his topic — Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock are a stretch for him. Also, given the time period covered by the collection (1990 - 2004), it is unfortunate that the art of preeminent African-American artists Jacob Lawrence (1917 - 2000) and Romare Bearden (1912 - 1988) is not covered — each  benefited from comprehensive and itinerant retrospectives in the United States from 2001 to 2005.

Nonetheless, his keen observation of and psychological insight into representational and figurative American art (Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper for example) demonstrate a lively and sophisticated visual literacy that few writers outside of visual arts possess today.

 

Still Looking: Essays on American Art 
By John Updike
Knopf (November 2005)
Hardcover: 240 pages 
ISBN: 1400044189
$40.00



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