Still Looking: Essays on American Art

Still Looking: Essays on American Art

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by John Updike

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When, in 1989, a collection of John Updike’s writings on art appeared under the title Just Looking, a reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle commented, “He refreshes for us the sense of prose opportunity that makes art a sustaining subject to people who write about it.” In the sixteen years since Just Looking was published,


When, in 1989, a collection of John Updike’s writings on art appeared under the title Just Looking, a reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle commented, “He refreshes for us the sense of prose opportunity that makes art a sustaining subject to people who write about it.” In the sixteen years since Just Looking was published, he has continued to serve as an art critic, mostly for The New York Review of Books, and from fifty or so articles has selected, for this richly illustrated book, eighteen that deal with American art.

After beginning with early American portraits, landscapes, and the transatlantic career of John Singleton Copley, Still Looking then considers the curious case of Martin Johnson Heade and extols two late-nineteenth-century masters, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Next, it discusses the eccentric pre-moderns James McNeill Whistler and Albert Pinkham Ryder, the competing American Impressionists and Realists in the early twentieth century, and such now-historic avant-garde figures as Alfred Stieglitz, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Elie Nadelman. Two appreciations of Edward Hopper and appraisals of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol round out the volume.

America speaks through its artists. As Updike states in his introduction, “The dots can be connected from Copley to Pollock: the same tense engagement with materials, the same demand for a morality of representation, can be discerned in both.”

On Just Looking

“Some of these essays are marvelous examples of critical explanation, in which the psychological concerns of the novelist drive the eye from work to work in an exhibition until a deep understanding of the art emerges.”
—Arthur Danto, The New York Times Book Review

“These are remarkably elegant little essays, dense in thought and perception but offhandedly casual in style. Their brevity makes more acute the sense of regret one feels to see them end.” —Jeremy Strick, Newsday

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
… Mr. Updike writes as an avid amateur, a first-class appreciator who wants to give the reader his own reactions to individual artists, recording what he sees as their emotional palettes, their stylistic tropes, the long (or short) arc of their careers … if the reader approaches Still Looking simply as a gifted writer's impressionistic museum tour, it does not disappoint. At its best, the book performs the lovely alchemical trick of translating pictures into prose, images into words.
— The New York Times
Library Journal
Celebrated for his fiction, Updike is also a gifted art critic. Here he presents 18 thorough, highly informative essays on American art and artists that present the reader with historical, biographical, and at times quite technical information about the works he analyzes. The artists discussed range from late 19th-century masters Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins to avant-garde figures Alfred Stieglitz and Elie Nadelman. Updike acts as the reader's personal museum guide, explaining the work of art being viewed (227 full-color illustrations are included), inviting all the curious to see what he sees, and offering brilliant and at times humorous commentary, as when he describes the subjects of John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark by noting, "Both have similarly gaping mouths, and appear equally at a loss as to the next step in their relationship." It is precisely this humor as well as Updike's gifted writing and thought-provoking analyses that make these essays so inviting and enjoyable. Accessible to both the art enthusiast and the lay reader, this is highly recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/05.]-Wesley A. Mills, Empire State Coll., SUNY at Rochester Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The undauntable Updike (Seek My Face, 2002, etc.) sails gracefully through another series of exhibition reviews. Like its predecessor, Just Looking, this presents Updike the critic at his breezy and clever best, combining vast accounts of the American character with acute perceptions of individual artists and paintings. Updike's topics are driven by the museum exhibitions he has been asked to review over the past 15 years, but they come together surprisingly well in an idiosyncratic, yet coherent history of American art. In a series of some 20 gem-like essays, none more than a dozen pages long, Updike takes us on a tour of American painting (plus one outlying sculptor, Elie Nadelman), from 18th-century Copley through fin-de-siecle Warhol, rendering each artist a vivid character in his own right as well as a figure in a sweeping national panorama. As always, Updike's prose gambols and gavottes and sometimes skirts the wearingly playful. As always, his strong tastes and confident judgments of American culture are on display-joined now by his unexpected willingness to pick up lightly some of the terminology of recent academic criticism. (Copley's "queer" subtexts are briefly considered, as are the "genderized" categories of 19th-century nature painting.) But it is in his deft dissection of individual painters and paintings that Updike shines. Perhaps no other critic of his time combines so well the draughtsman's eye for technique with the poet's sense of the meanings and intimations a silent work of art can make. It's impossible to come away from this without an enriched sense of the depth and power of painting. Updike gives us the fading art of criticism at peak performance.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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8.29(w) x 10.30(h) x 0.89(d)

Meet the Author

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker and since 1957 has lived in Massachusetts. He is the author of more than fifty books, including collections of short stories, poems, and criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Howells Medal.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
March 18, 1932
Date of Death:
January 27, 2009
Place of Birth:
Shillington, Pennsylvania
Place of Death:
Beverly Farms, MA
A.B. in English, Harvard University, 1954; also studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England

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Still Looking: Essays on American Art 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Though not widely known, brilliant American novelist John Updike has a life passion for the art of painting, even to the point of studying the making of art at the Ruskin School of Fine Art in England. It is this preoccupation with simply looking at art, especially American art, throughout his life that makes this short collection of essays so intriguing and so alive with the words of a writer instead of those of a scholar or critic. Some of these essays reference his published essays or art reviews from earlier years ('Just Looking') while the bulk of this book is composed of his very well observed paintings by his favorite artists and art topics: the study of the development of landscape in American painting, the comparison of Albert Pinkham Ryder with Jackson Pollock ('Americans, with their basically millennial expectations, admire holy fools, especially in the arts, and Ryder is our holy fool of painting'), his evaluations of Winslow Homer ('With Homer we feel no waste...He beautifully exploited his talent and his days...'), Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper (his favorite American painter), Whistler, Childe Hassam, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, Arthur Dove, and Andy Warhol. He rages against the period of Abstract Expressionism (!), comparing it to the parallel in American thought processes and mental needs of the time. Where Updike differs from other commentators on art is in his degree of passion. His obsession with painting informs all of his writing and while some of the essays go on a bit too long, they are never less than wholly felt. This book can be read as an Updike digression, as a scintillating book of art criticism, or as a look at American art history from the stance of a novelist. Whatever approach appeals to the reader, this is a fine, well written, and exceedingly entertaining book. Recommended. Grady Harp