Novelist John Updike, who died in 2009 at age 76, was one of the great critics of this or any other era. What made Updike a brilliant prose-stylist -- that is, his ability to observe and meticulously describe the telling details that revealed larger truths-- also made him a great critic of art. As a young man, Updike worked as a graphic artist and dreamed of a career drawing cartoons.
In "Always Looking," a collection of 15 essays on art (most of which first appeared in the New York Review of Books), Updike's text is accompanied by almost 200 splendid photos of the artwork he's describing. The first essay, "The Clarity of Things," looks at American art and describes the struggles of early American painters such as John Singleton Copley and Winslow Homer to find their own style independent from European traditions. In asking, "What is American about American art?" Updike finds few answers until the 20th century.
Updike is not an academic writing from on high about abstract artistic concepts: He's democratic, celebrating the small-town values he grew up with and turned into great fiction. At the end of "The Clarity of Things," for instance, Updike upends conventional artistic opinion by praising illustrator Norman Rockwell, whose work is "painterly in its fond lavishness; this most successful of twentieth-century commercial artists also practiced art for art's sake."
European art, especially from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is the focus of much of this book. Updike reviews exhibitions of Claude Monet, Joan Miro, Edgar Degas and others. Observing how Monet repeatedly painted different versions of the same scene, such as the Rouen Cathedral or haystacks in Giverny, Updike tells us that these paintings expose the French impressionist's process and working methods. "The sky," Updike writes of these multiple renderings, "always a morning sky, ranges in tint from pale blue, with hints of cloud and dawn's rose, through the palest of violets to a misty white."
In perhaps his finest essays, Updike looks at American Pop Art, expressing fondness for the comic-strip paintings of Roy Lichtenstein. Updike loved how Pop Artists like Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns took everyday items and transformed them into art: "Pop Art," writes Updike, "descended from abstraction and showed us our world -- its artifacts, its trash, its billboards, its standardized romantic imagery." This is something Updike did in his novels, too, celebrating the "ordinary" details of American life. Anyone who loves art and/or great writing about art will find "Always Looking" a rich source of visual and intellectual stimulus.
Chuck Leddy is a critic in Boston and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.