Robert Hughes: A Fierce Critic and Powerful Voice Now Silenced

Simon Schama on the death of an irreplaceable writer—Robert Hughes, an art critic of furious passion.

David Corio, Redferns / Getty Images

Robert Hughes’s thrilling book on the British painter Frank Auerbach, written at the peak of the author’s powers in 1989, begins thus: “Frank Auerbach’s career says little about the ‘art world,’ except that it may not matter much to a real artist’s growth.” The single sentence, set off as a paragraph announced that this was not so much an opening as a manifesto. Hughes’s prodigious gifts—his lynx-like perception, the sharpness of his analytical acumen, his raw, promethean literary power—were devoted to saving art from the art world: that fawning, narcissistic, vampirical, trivially fashionable, commodity-obsessed universe he believed was sucking the life out of the thing itself, cheapening the challenge of making great work, and flattening the distinction between novelty and originality. He wrote the Auerbach book at the close of the eighties, which he thought the most despicably meretricious of decades for art: the time of “supply-side aesthetics,” in a typically Hughesian coinage. Ronald Reagan and Andy Warhol he often announced were meant for each other: the twin, winsomely coiffed sovereigns of the realm of the deeply shallow.

Darkly pessimistic towards the end, he despaired of ever liberating art from the art world. The nineties turned out, in his view, to be still worse, though he hailed the giants—Kiefer, Richter, Freud—who towered above the pigmies. He was, like the Victorians he admired—Hazlitt, Ruskin—a fighter-writer: While he was acutely aware of the social matrix from which art arose and to which it would be directed, he was the adversary of all reductionism. Those who thought art the mere extrusion of a set of theories, positions, and class concerns, he pitied as intellectually obtuse, compensating for their inadequacy at registering the ultimately irreducible force of art itself, by shackling it to the lumbering ball and chain of social theory and wishing away (how he chortled at this) the notion of authorship, genius, beauty, those ancient qualities modern muttering had decreed were fictions. Had they never actually opened their eyes in front of, say, Cezanne’s Mont St. Victoire or Rembrandt’s Bathsheba, he once growled to me? Or were their eyes somehow locked into an inward glance, lost in the empty spaces of vain self-regard and third-rate speculation?

The Victorian patriarch of the family was Thomas Hughes of County Roscommon, no convict but an emigrant to Australia in search of better things. From running a grocery store he became The Mustard King of Sydney, and it’s tempting to think the hot tang and keen snap of English mustard passed down the line to Bob and lodged in his intellectual temper. To be sure, he was no cultural condiment but the meat of the matter itself. But the Irish-Australian stayed in him wherever he went—Italy, England, and New York—as a deeply democratic, populist instinct. Detesting insider-dom, academic or art-worldly, and despising the language, at once obscurantist and vacuous, by which those insiders sustained the exclusiveness of their priesthood, Hughes gloried in the trenchant plainness insisted on by his cynosure, George Orwell. “To see Chardin’s work en masse in the midst of a period stuffed with every kind of jerky innovation, narcissistic blurting, and trashy ‘relevance,’” he wrote, in full Orwellian mode, in a Time magazine review from 1979, “is to be reminded that lucidity, deliberation, probity, and calm are still the virtues of the art of painting.”

The same resolute belief that accessibility was not to be confused with triviality, and that hard, complex ideas could be delivered in language that was not ashamed to trigger delight at the same time that it yielded illumination, informed his television masterpieces The Shock of the New and American Visions. In Shock, time and again Hughes gave huge audiences moments of startlingly fresh insight into the ancient warhorses of modernism that he somehow made seem self-evident. The sequence on Seurat, for instance, reflected not just on Those Dots, but on the overall composition as the ambition of a modern painter, obsessed with the frieze and a kind of monumental gravity. And suddenly the compositional weight of the work made perfect sense. It was not the flicker and mottle, the instantaneity of Seurat that ultimately mattered, but the massive statuesque immobility of those figures. Modernism may have been a heady project, but it could never escape the paradoxical longing to become museum classics.

To work this magic—to bolt together keenness of perception and eloquence of reading—you need to be an exceptional writer, a quality not invariably on display in the work of art criticism. More’s the pity, he thought, for the challenge of writing about art—as of writing about music—is peculiarly daunting. It is above all an act of translation: the conversion of image into prose with an inevitable loss of substance as one kind of expression is turned into the other. Given this inescapable flaw, the justification for doing art criticism is the opportunity to bring before readers enough of the essence of the work to encourage them to go see for themselves, as well as provoking them to think anew about the implications of that encounter. That provocation inevitably involves an element of performance. Even when the Abstract-Expressionist paladins of 1940s and 50s New York (the Bergs, Green- and Rosen-) affected ascetic remoteness, they were in fact performing.

Bob Hughes not only made no bones about his own prose performance—despite his commitment to Orwellian simplicity, he reveled in his muscular, swashbuckling sentence-fashioning: shamelessly exhilarated by its energy surge, high on its wit. Open almost any page of the anthology Nothing If Not Critical, or The Shock of the New, or American Visions, and you will be lit up by the dazzle. But the light is always put at the service of exactness. Illumination for Bob was pleasure. On Picasso’s erotically loaded paintings of Marie-Therese Walter: “In the paintings her body is re-formed, not so much as a structure of flesh and bone but as a series of orifices looped together by that sinuous line: tender, composed, swollen, moist, and abandoned. The point is not that Picasso managed to will himself into the thoughts of this woman. He was interested in no such thing. Instead he depicted his own state of arousal, projecting it on to his lover’s body like an image on a screen. Her body is re-composed in the shape of his desire and the paintings that result describe a state of oceanic pleasure.”

Stirred to eloquent fury by what he thought was contemporary art’s entrapment by the public relations industry, Hughes was happiest when away from its garish posings and off by himself considering the incommensurable power of a particular master. “Never go to openings,” he counseled me when I became the New Yorker’s art critic in the 1990s. “It’s just white whining. Go when a show is being installed or with the public.” This aversion to the glitz was not his only sin against form. Hughes delighted in an unrepentant, deeply unfashionable allegiance to ancient notions of genius—not in the simple-minded sense of a pantheon of supermen, but in the assumption that there was indeed something unmistakably heroic about the needful sweat involved in creating art. He was one of the last romantics of tough toil: both its celebrant and its exemplar, and he despised cheap facility and outsourced execution as a betrayal of the principles of the craft.

A gifted carpenter himself, he was happy to confess his admiration of manual skill—and to insist on the sheer labor needed to achieve true artistic power. That inexplicable miracle of a work’s force field, instantly registered as a tremor on our senses, he thought not a pathetic fantasy but the perceptual truth. And it could not be achieved with anyone else’s sweat. Strenuousness, what Renaissance theorists understood as difficolta—both conceptual and technical—would never of itself guarantee great achievement, but without it, without respect paid to the rugged work needed to extract from the recalcitrant raw material the shape and substance of a particular vision, the result was likely to be facile, and its imprint trivial and fleeting.

Hughes’ sticky-fingered relish for the material texture of life, for its savors and flavors, its warp and woof, always immersed in the thick of being, and the skilled gusto with which he set it all down, ought never to be mistaken for indifference to complex ideas and deep analysis. Bob’s beef with much (though not all) of conceptual art was the vacant banality of the concepts. Jenny Holzer’s visual utterances he memorably compared, and not to her advantage, with the homilies embroidered on an embroidery sampler. He could, if he chose, do dueling discourse at dawn with the best of them, but he preferred instead to invite the regular Janes and Joes who thronged the Met or MoMA into the subtle web of his thought, and let them emerge more thoughtful, more attentive, before the work itself. He was the benevolent enabler of Everyman’s epiphany.

Bob could be a good hater, but mostly he was fierce in his loving. The object of that loving was homo sapiens even when he gagged incredulously on the cruelties of which it was capable. That deep compassion for the rest of us, living and dead, glowed through the pages of his imperishable masterpiece The Fatal Shore, the history of the convict settlement in Australia, in which both the victims and the martinets are sketched in all their massively tragic indomitability. But some of the most beautiful passages of that book fix on the landscape itself, where the terrible theatre of atrocity and endurance was played out. “On top of the cliff, the soil is thin and the scrub sparse. There are banksia bushes with their sawtooth-edge leaves and dried seed cones like multiple jabbering mouths. Against this austere gray-green the occasional red or blue scribble of a flower looks startling.” And Hughes of course knew his koalas: “not the winsome cuddly teddy bears of the Qantas commercial but slow, irritable aldermanic creatures with furry ears and a boot-heel nose which ate two pounds of fresh gum leaves a day, and when captured, scratched furiously and drenched the offending hand with eucalyptus-scented piss.”

It took a force of nature to understand how geography and power broke against each other in the Australian epic. And Hughes met his own appalling calamity in 1999 – described in terrible detail in his memoir Things I Didn’t Know—a head-on collision that he was lucky to escape alive, but from which he never quite repaired his broken body. The nightmare alienated him from Australia—especially after he was put on trial for responsibility for the accident—an estrangement not helped by his intemperate but loudly broadcast view of the proceedings. The shadow was long and lasting, though in the pain of Goya, he found an affinity that let him write a magisterial book and make a haunting, spellbinding television film. Ten years earlier, reviewing a well-meaning Goya show in Boston that attempted to turn the master into an exemplary liberal, Hughes gently demurred, arguing correctly that the painter was as much pulled by the demons of the pueblo as committed to exorcising them in the name of a Spanish Enlightenment.

He ended the piece with a statement of the kind of bleak truth he always refused to duck. “The liberal message was that . . . Man is born free but is everywhere in chains. Goya’s message late in life is different. The chains are attached to something deep inside human nature: they are forged from the substance of what, since Freud, we have called the id. They are not the “mind-forged manacles” of which William Blake wrote: they are not a social artifact that can be legislated away or struck off by the liberating intellect, they are what we are. In the end there is only the violated emptiness of acceptance of our fallen nature; the pining of the philosophical dog whose master is as absent from him as God is from Goya.”

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Those of us who bitterly mourn him not only as an irreparable loss to art writing and history but also as a friend and inspiration—our old high-voltage mate who turned the intellectual temperature up in any room he entered, and whose lovely, rich Aussie voice sounded from that barrel of a chest made us merrier, wittier, cleverer, better natured than we actually are—want him to have ended with something other than Goya’s awful Nada, the world turned to slurry. We hope that he knew how he’d changed the game, opened eyes, sharpened perceptions—how he ensured we never confuse value with auction price, how he’d shared the eureka with us who would never have got it by ourselves, how this most gloriously profane adventurer in the life of the mind and art was an incomparable blessing for us all.