Rabbit runs - straight to the fine arts exhibit

John Updike uses his writing skills to explore his first love: the visual arts.

John Updike may be America's most accomplished living novelist. His penetrating psychological portraits have earned him critical acclaim (one Pulitzer prize for "Rabbit is Rich" and a second for "Rabbit at Rest") and popular recognition (two Time Magazine cover stories).

He is also a prolific and perceptive art critic. A first book, "Just Looking," was published in 1987, and in the intervening two decades he has, by his own count, published some 50 additional essays. Many of these have appeared in the New York Review of Books and run as long as 3,000 words, making them far more detailed than the reviews one finds in the local newspaper.

Knopf has gathered 18 of Updike's essays about American art and published them in Still Looking - a small, well- illustrated volume.

Though they vary in length, all the essays deal with temporary exhibitions of American art. With three exceptions, the essays focus on individual artists. Updike writes about all eras of American art - from the colonial portraits of John Singleton Copley to the late 20th-century works of Andy Warhol - but the majority of the essays deal with artists who were active from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.

Some of his subjects are well-known while others are less likely to be recognized by the casual museum visitor.

So we learn about Winslow Homer and Martin Heade, Jackson Pollock and Arthur Dove, Thomas Eakins and Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Two of the artists were born in the United States and moved abroad (Copley and Whistler); two were born overseas but spent their careers on these shores (Alfred Steiglitz and Elie Nadleman); and most of the rest spent at least some time studying abroad.

It's a diverse and, at first glance, unrelated group of artists. But Updike maintains that the history of American art is more connected than it appears. In large part, this is because the American experience itself is such a powerful force in shaping the vision of the individual artists, regardless of whether they were American-born or not.

In his words: "The dots can be connected from Copley to Pollock: the same impassioned engagement with materials, the same demand for a morality of representation, and the same aversion to what Marsden Hartley called a compromising softness...."

The essays start with an arresting first sentence ("At times in his letters, Thomas Eakins sounds as cranky and as ingeniously folksy as Ezra Pound") that pulls the reader into the piece. He then sets the artist (or the theme of the exhibition) in context and finally describes the highlights of the exhibition, often in the order in which they appeared.

Before launching his career as a writer, Updike studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford England. So he brings the novelist's gift for writing and the knowledge gained by professional training to the business of reviewing art exhibitions.

The result is terrific: The essays are uniformly thoughtful, focused, original, and provocative. They are completely free of academic jargon and bias. Many readers will wish that they could see the exhibitions after having read his essays. That's no longer possible but the essays are so carefully crafted that they stand alone and reward a careful reading.

Some of the essays are more insightful and informative than others. Those on Ryder, Hartley, and Dove are particularly valuable as they deal with artists who are frequently overlooked and about whom comparatively little has been written. The two about Edward Hopper are fascinating - it's hard to imagine having something new to say about that icon of 20th-century art, but Updike does.

The extensive illustrations enhance the volume considerably. The reproductions are unusually sharp and clear. Not every work he cites is reproduced, of course, but a significant number are. In the end, it is the crystalline prose and the nuanced, precise observations that distinguish this volume. As a result, the book will appeal to those who know little about art history as well as to those who are frequent museum visitors.

The more expert reader will not always agree with Updike's views. For example, he tells us that Ryder was "the most forged painter of his time" and in another essay says that Winslow Homer was "the best American watercolorist of all time." Well, maybe.

There are, of course, few absolutes in art appreciation so it's easy to agree or disagree. Art is supposed to provoke an emotional and an intellectual response. In sharing his reactions with the reader, Updike encourages his audience to look more closely and think harder about the artist and his place in art history. In the end, this small volume educates, informs, and engages. It's hard to ask for more.

Terry Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

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