Robert Hughes, the fearless art critic some are calling the greatest of our time, has died. Hughes' imposing presence and unsparing criticism will be immediately recognizable to anyone who's seen his eight-part documentary The Shock of the New (1980). Whether he was praising artists or tearing them to shreds, his opinions were always original, and his way of expressing them was distinctively ornate.
Born in Australia in 1938, Hughes moved to England in the 1960s, where he wrote for a number of British dailies. In 1970, he secured a position as Time magazine's art critic and moved to New York. But Hughes will most likely be remembered as much for his work in film as his writing. Aired on the BBC and PBS, The Shock of the New traced modernism's development from impressionism through pop art. As with Hughes' articles and books, the documentary was as accessible as it was excoriating.
Throughout his career, the curmudgeonly Hughes grouped Andy Warhol with "image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism and the identically titled bok that spun off from it." (See, 'The Rise of Andy Warhol,' The New York Review of Books February 18, 1982.) Jeff Koons was another favorite target: "He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida." He liked Damien Hirst even less, quipping, "Isn't it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce?" But Hughes' prose was just as rich for artists that met his approval. Of Lucien Freud, he wrote, "The way Freud perceives a form and builds it up from oily mud on a piece of cloth; the way he constructs analysed equivalents to reality—all that, at best, is inspiring."
Hughes died at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx after a long stretch of illness. He is survived by his wife Doris Downes. Here's Hughes in fine form, eloquently and stylishly summarizing his uncompromising view on modernist art:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.