Art criticism today is regularly lamented as being "in crisis": subordinate to the market and divided between journalists and academics, with consistently less room for the poets and writers who originated the form. The curious fact about John Updike, however, is that he seems unaware of the firestorm yet conscious enough to duck for cover at every turn.
In a somewhat disparaging New York Times review of New Republic critic Jed Perl's recent book, New Art City, Updike offhandedly plugged his own new publication, referring to it as a forthcoming "book of art reviews, infinitely modest." Coming from a well-decorated novelist who's been writing about art for a couple of decades, this aside sounds baldly disingenuous. And yet it rather aptly sums up the approach found in Still Looking: Essays on American Art. This collection serves as a sequel to 1989's Just Looking: Essays on Art and includes eighteen "essays"—mostly three-thousand-word reviews of temporary exhibitions—originally published in the New York Review of Books. Devoted to art from the colonial to the contemporary period and arranged chronologically, they function as almost a minisurvey of American art.
Updike describes his methodology as follows: "The effort of an art critic must be, in an era beset by a barrage of visual stimulants, mainly one of appreciation, of letting the works sink in as a painting hung on the wall of one's home sinks in, never quite done with unfolding all that is in it to see." This system seems to hold more true for exhibitions of the work of long-dead artists whose work as been legitimized by history than that of emerging artists. Further, Updike rarely considers it his duty to consider other aspects of exhibitions, for instance, the manner of presentation. Instead, he trudges through museum galleries, relating in book-report fashion what he has seen and read in the catalogues, that undisputed province of the "experts." Updike's descriptions of the works can be wonderfully vivid, as one would expect from a poet-novelist. Yet he rarely steps outside the mind of the fiction writer; his objective instead is "to phrase the story that any exhibition, especially a retrospective, silently tells."
Paralleling this narrative is the "story" of the artist, who, in Updike's hands, often feels more like a fictional character than a historical person. And not just any character: an American character. For where Updike feels most comfortable is in attempting to distinguish what is undeniably American about artists from John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, James McNeill Whistler, and Winslow Homer to Alfred Stieglitz, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, and Jackson Pollock. Still Looking is an odd project in this age of pluralism, and certain readers might cringe as Updike endeavors to discover whether there is such a thing as "an American face" in portraiture; whether Jackson Pollock's was an "emblematic life"; or if Warhol can indeed be considered an American "icon." The greater effect of these investigations, however, is to undercut Updike's claims to be "just looking" at art. For while his critical project might be termed "infinitely modest," its underlying ambition—to nail down American truths and particularities—is anything but.