Thursday, August 9, 2012

Robert Hughes (1938-2012), Art Critic

Robert Hughes in 1999. The New York Times once proclaimed him the world's most famous art critic.
Robert Hughes in 1999. The New York Times once proclaimed him the world's most famous art critic. / DAVID HANCOCK/AFP/Getty Images
Robert Hughes -- a sometimes lacerating reviewer who may have commanded a larger audience than any other art critic in history, reaching the masses through Time magazine and documentaries for the BBC and PBS -- has died. He was 74.

Hughes, who also authored "The Fatal Shore," an acclaimed history of his native Australia's founding as a British penal colony, died Monday at Calvary Hospital in New York City after a long, unspecified illness, according to a statement issued by his wife, painter Doris Downes Hughes.

The critic rose to star status by introducing TV audiences to the development of 20th-Century modernism in "The Shock of the New: A Personal View," an eight-hour series that ran in Britain in 1980 and the U.S. in 1981.

Hughes became known for blasting new art-world luminaries such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons.

"What we are seeing, in the last years of the 20th Century, is a kind of environmental breakdown in the art world," Hughes wrote in "Nothing If Not Critical," a 1990 collection of his essays for Time, the New Republic and the New York Review of Books.

Hughes had fervent adherents. In 1987, when he lectured at Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles, 1,400 listeners greeted his broadsides against the commodification of art "with hoots and hollers and stompings of the feet, all of which grew in fervor and intensity as the preachment pressed on," according to a 1990 account in the Los Angeles Times.

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes was born in Sydney, Australia, on July 28, 1938, the grandson of a former mayor of the city, and the youngest of four children of a lawyer who, he later wrote, was a "righteous and inflexible man ... a war hero who shot down 11 German planes in the First World War, a fiercely orthodox Catholic, and an intense patriot."

Although his father died when he was 12, Hughes saw his adult life as a form of rebellion: "I became an expatriate, a political skeptic, an atheist, a liberal, a voluptuary, and, in most ways, a disappointment to the ethos he lived by."

After studying architecture and dabbling as a painter, Hughes began covering the Australian art scene in the late 1950s. He left his homeland in 1964 at the urging of a mentor. Time magazine hired him in 1970.

Despite some traumatic times, Hughes remained productive in his last years.
In 1999, while filming "Beyond the Fatal Shore," a multipart TV documentary about contemporary Australia, Hughes was almost killed in a head-on auto collision in which three people in the other vehicle were less seriously hurt. He was tried and acquitted of reckless driving.

In 2001, the second of his three marriages ended in divorce, and his only child, Danton, a son from his first marriage, committed suicide at age 33.

Hughes credited his third wife, whom he married in 2001, with getting him through those crises.

Hughes told Britain's Daily Telegraph in 2002: "Looking at pictures is one of the ways in which you increase the pleasure ... of living in a visual world. ... It's not a narcotizing pleasure. It's the pleasure of having more sense made of our experience of the world."

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