The Art of Being Critical: Robert Hughes (1938–2012)

With thundering eloquence, TIME's legendary critic skewered pretensions and vulgarity, reminding anyone who cared for art that it must be anchored in tradition, craft and intelligence

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DAVID HANCOCK / AFP / Getty Images

Robert Hughes at an event in Sydney on Nov. 1, 1999

At some early point in his long career, more than three decades of it spent at TIME, Robert Hughes became the most famous art critic in the English-speaking world. This happened because he was also the best — the most eloquent, the most sharp-eyed and incisive, the most truculent and certainly the most robust. He was 74 when he died on Aug. 6 in New York City. As W.H. Auden put it after the death of W.B. Yeats: “Earth, receive an honoured guest.”

Very simply, Hughes was better than anyone of his generation in deciphering and explaining art’s great paradox and its fundamental enchantment — that a mute object, a painting or statue, can be eloquent about the world. And he did it in language that could be as rich as Shakespeare’s and as merciless as Jonathan Swift’s. You could disagree with Hughes, you could find some of his positions aesthetically reactionary, but you could not be bored by him.

(MORE: Remembering Robert Hughes, Author and Art Critic)

Sometimes the best way to convey his gifts is simply to stand back and point:

Hughes on Hans Holbein: “[He] represents the point at which German painting shook clear of its Gothic past and its folk ties, entering and interpreting the Renaissance streams of power and trade, becoming a primary instrument of self-recognition for a new Europe.”

On Francisco Goya: “[He] speaks to us with an urgency that no artist of our time can muster. We see his long dead face pressed against the glass of our terrible century, Goya looking in at a time worse than his.”

On a blockbuster show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City: “The general public, one may predict, will see very little. Its members will struggle for a peek through a milling scrum of backs; will be swept at full contemplation speed (about thirty seconds per image) through the galleries; will find their hope to experience van Gogh’s art in its true quality thwarted … Then they will be decanted into the bazaar of postcards, date books, scarves — everything but limited-edition bronze ashtrays in the shape of the Holy Ear — that the Met provides as a coda. Finally, laden with souvenirs like visitors departing from Lourdes, they will go home. Vincent, we hardly knew ye.”

Hughes was one of Australia’s most famous exports. (And his 1987 book, The Fatal Shore, is probably the best-known history of how the continent was settled as a penal colony.) After interludes in Italy, Spain and London, he arrived at TIME’s New York City offices in 1969, where it was very soon apparent that his vivid gifts would assure his place as a great critic. But it was The Shock of the New, an immensely popular eight-part television series and the still indispensable book of the same title that grew out of it, that changed everything. Tracing the history of modern art from post-Impressionism to Warhol, with detours into architecture, it was broadcast by the BBC in 1980 and by PBS in the U.S. the following year. It attracted 25 million viewers and brought him a kind of cultural celebrity that even great critics don’t achieve. Later there would be American Visions, a multiepisode history of American art and an accompanying book.

(MORE: Perspective on America)

Hughes had powerful enthusiasms. He adored Goya and Pierre Bonnard and the late, great Lucian Freud, the British painter he did much to introduce to an American audience. He was no less famous for his thundering discontents. He practiced art criticism as a contact sport, metaphorically speaking, complete with tackles and head butts, and as the years went by he found more and more to dislike about contemporary art. The postmodernism of the 1970s, with its coy appropriations from the past, struck him as trifling and academic. He liked even less the slapdash neo-Expressionism that lumbered through the galleries of SoHo in the 1980s. His dismissals of David Salle and Julian Schnabel, two of its chief load bearers, were choice. (“Schnabel’s work is to painting what Stallone’s is to acting: a lurching display of oily pectorals.”) By the ’90s he was comparing the output of New York artists to the strident and derivative late Mannerism of Rome four centuries earlier: “Garrulous, over conceptualized and feverishly second hand.” And in the art market’s periodic frenzies, he saw nothing more than a scramble for status by insecure billionaires chasing brand-name operators like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. “There is a crack of doubt,” he told us, “in the soul of every collector.”

Most art that was based on media imagery struck Hughes as thin gruel. He also found it hard to take much interest in video, much less art from the Internet. What he liked was art that found its bearings in the physical world, in nature and the human body, work of a palpable thingness. (When he called paint the “mud technology,” because pigment can be made from ground minerals, he meant it as high praise.) The carpentry of art also delighted him, the intricacies of its making. And his reverence for the legitimate breakthroughs of modernism did nothing to dim his faith in the continuing validity of tradition, the idea, as he put it, “of a present with continuous roots in history, where an artist’s every action is judged by the unwearying tribunal of the dead.”

Hughes’ life took a sharp change on May 30, 1999. While returning from an afternoon of fishing off the coast of Western Australia, he was involved in a head-on crash when his car ventured into the oncoming lane. The horrendous collision left him significantly crippled and led to two very public trials in Australia. Those trials and the related pile-on by Australian media left him deeply alienated from his home country. He left TIME a few years later to concentrate on books, including a memoir, a very fine biography of Goya and Rome, a personal and cultural history that was published last year. I became his successor — you succeed Bob Hughes; you don’t replace him — and every day his voice still sounds in my head.

Throughout his career, Hughes produced that rare thing, journalism that will last, some of the best of it collected in his book Nothing If Not Critical. Week after week, in the pages of this magazine, he was a one-man Augustan Age. To return again to Auden on Yeats: upon his death, Yeats “became his admirers.” Meaning he was kept alive by his readers. Likewise Hughes. In his lifetime, he had plenty of them. So long as there are people who love art, the study of history and the English language, he always will.

MORE: View a Complete Index of Robert Hughes’ Writings for TIME