Robert Hughes passed away, as you may know by now, last night at age 74. He was a great art critic, one of our greatest, but much more than that, too.
First, on art, if you are at all interested in 20th-century art and have never read The Shock of the New, you must must must. It's like being interested in American literature without having read Huck Finn. Hughes covers everything, explaining the development of abstract painting in part as a response to the invention of the camera, which made artists think, "Well hell's bells, what are we good for now?"; to architecture and design; to the shift from Paris to America; so much else. Just brilliant.
I don't know that I've ever read anyone whose writing is as simultaneoulsy erudite and accessible as Hughes's. He just had an utterly ingenious way of taking the reader by the hand and saying: "Okay. You're curious enough to pick up this volume, which means you know some stuff. You want to know more? Buckle up!"
So many of his judgments either stuck or became instantly memorable for precisely those flashes of accessible erudition. His withering assessment of the architecture of Albany, New York became definitive. And his line about the artist Meret Oppenheim's regular cup and saucer that she covered in fur is outrageous and imperishable: "the most intense and abrupt image of lesbian sex in the history of art." Now THAT is a great critic: I would not have thought of that myself, but yes!
I didn't read that much of his non-art writing, to be honest. Barcelona. Oh, and The Culture of Complaint. This was a book people on the left were supposed to hate, and most did, but I loved it and agreed with most of it. One of the best political books by a basically non-political writer I've ever read.
And finally, there were little gems he tossed off here and there. When The Phantom Menace came out, those of you who were around may recall that the press was just orgiastic about it, both as Event and (generally speaking) as a movie. Hughes took to the pages, oddly, of the New York Daily News, probably at the behest of Ed Kosner, who was the paper's editor at the time (and his friend, I'm guessing), and rained more piss on the thing than a battalion of Australians after downing 20 cases of Foster's. I found it here. You have to read it. Jar Jar Binks: "a wrist-flapping, deer-faced twit of an alien with the voice of a Jamaican drag-queen."
He was a towering figure.