Art criticism can be a turgid, opaque realm, crammed with theory and void of wit and heart. The best critics write for a general audience, not the art audience, and they have a capacious sensibility that balances knowledge of history and theory with a fresh, organic appraisal of the work at hand.
So it is with John Updike, whose posthumous volume of art criticism, “Always Looking: Essays on Art,” edited by Christopher Carduff and selected from pieces written between 1990 and 2008, vividly gambols through three centuries, from John Singleton Copley to Richard Serra. It’s the novelist’s third book of art reviews, following “Just Looking” in 1989 and “Still Looking” in 2005.
It’s a pleasure to read the work of a critic who can craft a gorgeous sentence, and that makes even the occasional misstep agreeable. This compendium sets out with a long view, a lecture Updike gave in 2008 (he died in 2009) on American art, based on 40 reproductions the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association distri-buted to libraries and schools that year. Though buoyed by absorbing historic anecdotes and pithy reflections on the paintings, Updike’s assessment that the art is either painterly or “liney” (that’s painter Benjamin West’s note about a Copley canvas, and Updike grabs on and rides it into the 20th century) is too reductive.
But most of these essays are reviews, not overviews, and when Updike stands in front of a work of art, or considers the strictures of a particular artist’s life, his critiques are grounded and nuanced. The book is packed with reproductions. You don’t have to have seen any of these exhibits to enjoy and learn from his observations (though if you have, that’s an added kick).
Updike goes looking for a bad Monet while reviewing “Monet in the ’90s: The Series Paintings” at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1990, and confronts the Impressionist master’s Custom House canvases. “Pastel flecks in half-hearted pointillism; a haze of wistful formlessness; an evenness of attention devoid of accent; the slickly unshadowed sweetness of Sunday painting ever since,” Updike writes cheekily.
He’s not a churlish critic, just a curious one. In the same review, he rhapsodizes over Monet’s 1891 group depicting a row of poplars, which Updike calls “lovely, and stingingly fresh.” He leaps forward in time to compare them to modernist Barnett Newman’s abstractions built around the vertical line, stitching a neat pleat in the accordion layers of art history.
Updike goes wherever his passions take him. He lingers on canvases, or quarrels with points made in catalog essays. In a review of interiors by the Post-Impressionist Édouard Vuillard, he objects to a writer’s psychoanalytic take on a cramped portrait of the artist’s mother and sister. That leads Updike down a fascinating road that turns out to be no less psychoanalytical, in which he explores the bachelor artist’s tendency to deflect and avoid.
He’s always game, never arch, and self-aware enough to admit his own fears and prejudices. Heading into a show of Serra’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, he admits that he was “steeled, so to speak, to cope manfully with towering masses of metal and the great weight of art-historical importance that more timely reviewers had already assigned to the sculptor and his displayed works.” He’s so taken aback to find the work playful, he trips over a toddler.
A good critic must prepare for surprise. Updike uses his eyes, his bodily response to the art, his knowledge, his language, and his keen imagination to write his reviews, which become a lively prism through which to consider the art.