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-siècle 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.