Right on the heels of Gore Vidal’s passing comes word of the death of another protean, two-fisted talent: Robert Hughes, whose deeply informed, bluntly opinionated writing on art is a model for all would-be critics; and whose deceptively informal, elegantly crafted prose is an example all writers should study.
In the Seventies, when newsmagazines still felt obliged to be comprehensive in their coverage of world news and culture, Hughes stood out in Time magazine like a Hell’s Angel gunning his Harley in the middle of a daycare center. But Hughes was an intellectual biker, one who had seen, studied, and thought deeply about everything in modern and classical art. His 1991 collecti0n Nothing If Not Critical is a showcase for his range: short takes on masters new and old, with room even for a guarded appreciation for Norman Rockwell. He was adventurous enough to embrace new artists and work of genuine value, but grounded enough to resist the fads that swept the art world.
This educated independence made him the ideal truth-teller for the Eighties, when investors looking for something to do with their Reagan-fattened bank accounts sent art prices into orbit, and the graffiti scribblings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the crockery-encrusted wall hangings of Julian Schnabel were the toast of SoHo. (When Schnabel made his filmmaking debut with a hagiography of Basquiat, Hughes called it “a film about our worst dead artist, made by our worst living one.”) He called Jeff Koons “the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary. He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond.” Nothing If Not Critical ends with a long satirical poem about the art scene, modeled on Samuel Johnson’s London, that pulls off the dual feat of honoring its model while devastating its targets.
A native of Australia, Hughes moved to Italy in 1964 and then settled in London, where he apparently did his share of swinging. (In his 2006 memoir Things I Didn’t Know, Hughes claimed to have caught the clap from Jimi Hendrix through a shared bedmate.) He relocated to New York for his Time magazine gig and made the city his home base for the rest of his life.
Hughes became something of an international celebrity in 1980 when the BBC series aired The Shock of the New, his magisterial history of the rise of modern art; he administered a shock of his own in 1987 with The Fatal Shore, a breathtakingly readable history of the United Kingdom’s colonization of Australia. It shouldn’t have been a surprise: any good art critic (any good critic, for that matter) is partly a historian. He combined the two skills again in Barcelona (1992), which like all great cities is as much an art object as a metropolis, and his book-length study of Francisco Goya (2004), an artist who opened his work to unfolding history in ways few others have matched.
Not all of his work was stellar: five-finger exercises like Culture of Complaint and A Jerk on One End felt out of date five minutes after they hit the bookshelves. Hughes narrowly avoided death in a 1999 car crash, but the aftermath left him with lingering health problems that probably contributed to his untimely death. They certainly accounted for the numerous lapses that turned his recent study of Rome into a small publishing scandal, and made the book an unworthy successor to his brilliant study of Barcelona.
Here is a clip of a highly watchable 60 Minutes piece on Hughes from 1997.