SO, does this feel like a sideline, like a great novelist moonlighting? Is it possible to shut your eyes to the fact that John Updike is the lauded author of God knows how many works of fiction, to look at this book as if he’d staked his reputation on it? Actually, we don’t have to be too reductive: “Still Looking” is a companion volume – a sequel of sorts – to “Just Looking,” a collection of Updike’s writings on art published in 1989. “Still Looking” is more substantial (most of the essays weigh in at a hefty 3,000 words) and, because Updike’s gaze is geographically restricted, more unified. It amounts, in fact, to a highly selective chronological survey of American art. Updike knows a lot about art – Updike knows a lot about a lot – but what comes through strongly is his undimmed eagerness to keep learning.
The down-home approach is, naturally, quite compatible with insights of the highest order, insights that (as the Rabbit series reminds us) are not a million miles away from insights of the lowest order. But Updike is right to observe, in John Singleton Copley’s portrait of 1796, that John Quincy Adams looks “as though he might have the beginnings of a cold.” To me this had always seemed just another boring old portrait; Updike brings it to life.