Always Looking: Essays on Art


In this posthumous collection of John Updike’s art writings, a companion volume to the acclaimed Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), readers are again treated to “remarkably elegant essays” (Newsday) in which “the psychological concerns of the novelist drive the eye from work to work until a deep understanding of the art emerges” (The New York Times Book Review).

Always Looking opens with “The Clarity of Things,” the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities for 2008. Here, ...

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Always Looking: Essays on Art

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In this posthumous collection of John Updike’s art writings, a companion volume to the acclaimed Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), readers are again treated to “remarkably elegant essays” (Newsday) in which “the psychological concerns of the novelist drive the eye from work to work until a deep understanding of the art emerges” (The New York Times Book Review).

Always Looking opens with “The Clarity of Things,” the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities for 2008. Here, in looking closely at individual works by Copley, Homer, Eakins, Norman Rockwell, and others, the author teases out what is characteristically “American” in American art. This talk is followed by fourteen essays, most of them written for The New York Review of Books, on certain highlights in Western art of the last two hundred years: the iconic portraits of Gilbert Stuart and the sublime landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, the series paintings of Monet and the monotypes of Degas, the richly patterned canvases of Vuillard and the golden extravagances of Klimt, the cryptic triptychs of Beckmann, the personal graffiti of Miró, the verbal-visual puzzles of Magritte, and the monumental Pop of Oldenburg and Lichtenstein. The book ends with a consideration of recent works by a living American master, the steely sculptural environments of Richard Serra.

John Updike was a gallery-goer of genius. Always Looking is, like everything else he wrote, an invitation to look, to see, to apprehend the visual world through the eyes of a connoisseur.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

One of his editors hailed John Updike (1932-2009) as "one of the most elegant and coolly observant writers of his generation." He displayed those talents in several fields, most notably fiction; but even though Updike insisted "my mother didn't raise me to be a critic," this self-professed amateur managed to create several books of enduring art criticism, of which this posthumous volume is the third. As in his Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), Updike's eclecticism shines brightly; his subjects range from Gilbert Stuart and Eakins to Pop Art, Norman Rockwell and Richard Serra. Essays that show the gift of unforced clarity.

The New York Times Book Review
The fact that John Updike's essays engage the reader enough to agree or argue with them is a testament to how vivid they are. Reading Always Looking, we are grateful for the pleasure of having Updike's eloquent voice continue to tell us what he saw, and what he knew and thought about art.
—Francine Prose
Publishers Weekly
The previously uncollected art writings of the prolific and award-winning novelist and critic Updike, who died in 2009, are compiled in this handsome volume. The essays explore works by artists including Monet, Klimt, Degas, Miró, Magritte; the major movements of Impressionism, Surrealism, Pop art, and Minimalism; and the habits and tastes of the collectors who shape our understanding of fine art’s place in American culture. The reviews, most of which appeared in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, continue the analytical approach employed in the celebrated collections Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005) by unspooling like narrations of a museum ramble with Updike at your side. Through Updike’s lens of novelistic psychology, some of the best-known biographies of 19th and 20th century art history take on a wholly original cast. Our guide is eternally curious; informal but well-informed; adept at describing color, line, or brushstroke without falling back on jargon or metaphor. Whether he’s transported by a Monet landscape or thrown off-balance by Richard Serra’s torqued elliptical sculptures, Updike is always honest about how he is personally affected by the artwork. As the final document of Updike’s sensitive and passionate approach to art, this book reinforces the late writer’s great lesson: that we should always be looking. Illus. Agent: The Wylie Agency. (Nov.)
Library Journal
This posthumous collection of Updike's essays on art serves as a companion volume to Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005). The book opens with a sweeping consideration of "Americanness" in painting that takes readers from the Colonial period to the 1970s. However, tending as Updike did towards the monographic, the majority of essays here consist of sustained readings of canonical male Western artists: Stuart, Degas, Cézanne, and Miró, among others. Updike possessed a gift for narrativizing the viewing experience, and while readers will certainly benefit from the copious contextual and historical information that he provides, the book's strongest passages are his lucid descriptions of single works. The force of these passages is amplified by the numerous high-quality image reproductions that encourage readers to repeatedly compare the prose to the painting being discussed. VERDICT This will greatly appeal to fans of John Updike as well as those seeking thoughtful literary reflections on significant works of modern art.—Jonathan Patkowski, CUNY Graduate Ctr.
Library Journal
After Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), here's a final, posthumous volume from a writer whose art criticism was as good as his fiction. The 15 essays are taken mostly from the New York Review of Books, though readers will also find "The Clarity of Things," the 2008 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities and an encompassing statement of Updike's approach to criticism. With more than 200 color illustrations to go with commentary on artists ranging from Degas to Serra. Bravo!
Kirkus Reviews
Final musings on mostly modern art by the prolific lion of American letters. This posthumous collection of essays by Updike (Higher Gossip, 2011, etc.) has been gorgeously collected and edited by Carduff and elevated by reproductions of the artwork under review. The author was an infamous gallery-crawler with a sensitive eye for American art, and his scrupulous aestheticism is on full display here. The book opens with a sad preface in the wake of the author's death in 2009; Updike offers a full and honest remembrance of a photo of himself reading a Mickey Mouse comic at the age of 9. What follows are 13 richly illustrated essays on various art exhibitions ranging from the opening salvo, "The Clarity of Things," deconstructing the National Endowment for the Humanities' Picturing America collection, to "The Art of our Disorder," a look at a 2005 exhibition of American surrealists. But Updike reserves his most acute analysis for collections by individual artists, including Claude Monet, Joan Miró and others. These essays, like those in his earlier collections, Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), are incisive in their examinations of individual artwork but don't carry the self-conscious or cynical air that accompanies much postmodern art criticism. One exemplary essay, "Degas Out-of-Doors," takes the great French impressionist out of his traditional context: "His eccentric perspectives, his truncated compositions, his increasingly daring juxtapositions of color make us reflect, in modern style, upon the operations of perception--or, more precisely, upon the synthetic tensions that occur when a vision in three dimensions is reduced to a two-dimensional colored surface." In "Bridges to the Invisible," Updike delves into the New Objectivism of Max Beckmann, but also gives a rich description of descending into the Guggenheim's Soho cousin, which inhabited a converted warehouse rather than its celebrated main emporium on the Upper East Side. A rich trove of insights for art lovers of all stripes.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307957306
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/27/2012
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 522,934
  • Product dimensions: 8.40 (w) x 10.20 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

John Updike

John Updike was the author of more than sixty books, including twenty-three novels and dozens of collections of short stories, poems, and criticism. His work has been honored with the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Gold Medal for Fiction of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He died in January 2009.

Christopher Carduff is a member of the staff of The Library of America and the editor of John Updike’s Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Hoyer Updike (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 18, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shillington, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Death:
      January 27, 2009
    2. Place of Death:
      Beverly Farms, MA

Table of Contents


[Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities for 2008]

[Gilbert Stuart, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 21, 2004–January 16, 2005]

[Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church, at the National Academy Museum, New York, February 9–April 30, 2006]

[The Clark Brothers Collect: Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings, at the Sterlin and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, June 4–September 4, 2006]

[Monet in the ‘90s: The Series Paintings, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, February 7–April 29, 1990]

[Degas Landscapes, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, January 21–April 3, 1994]

[The Intimate Interiors of Édouard Vuillard, at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, May 18–July 30, 1990]

[Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections, at Neue Galerie in New York, October 18, 2007–June 30, 2008]

[Max Beckmann in Exile, at the Guggenheim Museum Soho, New York, October 9, 1996–January 5, 1997]

[Joan Miró, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 17, 1993–January 11, 1994]

[Surrealism USA, at the National Academy Museum, New York, February 17–May 8, 2005]

[Magritte, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 12–November 12, 1992]

[Claes Oldenburg’s Closepin]

[Roy Lichtenstein, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 8, 1993–January 16, 1994]

[Richard Serra: Forty Years, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 3–September 10, 2007]

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