Entertainment & Arts

Robert Hughes: 'He took no prisoners'

Australian art critic Robert Hughes has died in New York after a battle with illness. He was 74.

Image caption Hughes' books The Shock Of The New and Nothing If Not Critical are classics in the field of art criticism

To a bright young Australian of Robert Hughes' generation (he was born in 1938) it could appear life's rewards and excitements were waiting elsewhere.

Like Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and Clive James he left Australia and, in his mid-twenties, settled in London. By then he had already published his first book, The Art of Australia. In Britain, Hughes advanced his reputation writing for The Times and The Observer, among others.

Turning thirty, he was becoming one of those rare arts journalists who were read for pure pleasure: You didn't need to know much about painting to enjoy the elegance, wit and pugnacity of Hughes' writing.

He also reported for BBC television, on 'swinging London' as often as the arts.

Ever ambitious, he saw his career really take off when he moved to New York in 1970 as art critic for Time magazine. Most of the rest of his career was in America. He was the right critic in the right place at the right time. The New York art world provided him with plentiful material - and Hughes wasn't slow to speak up when he felt art was empty, pretentious or just plain dull.

At Time, he recorded the contemporary art market with a mocking scepticism.

Here he is on the American artist Jeff Koons: "Koons really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it.

"He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can't imagine America's singularly depraved culture without him."

Hughes took no prisoners, accrued admirers and made enemies.

He was always keen to show he could report on much more than painting, sculpture and architecture.

A disastrous episode in his US career occurred when he emerged as co-host of ABC television's new current affairs show 20/20 in 1978. The programme was supposed to take TV news in a radical new direction but the critics hated it. After a single edition, he and his co-host were sacked.


His next excursion into TV was more successful, however.

In 1980, he wrote and presented the eight-part BBC TV series about modern art, The Shock of the New. In America it was a big hit on public television.

Coming a decade after Kenneth Clark's more stately series Civilisation, Hughes brought a freshness and dynamism to his account of how radically art had changed from the 1860s onward. Despite the odd, acerbic insight, his delight in the creativity of the likes of Picasso, Braque or Miro was obvious.

In the series Hughes took care to place art in the context of new technology and social attitudes. His writing skills combined with a memorable screen presence and no-nonsense delivery.

Hughes was a natural journalist and his style was a long way from Lord Clark's patrician tones.

Image caption The critic's TV presence was authoritative and engaging

In 2004, he would revisit the topic for the BBC in The New Shock of the New. By then, his views on contemporary art had become even more acerbic.

Between the two series, in 1987, he published The Fatal Shore - a long account of Australia's colonisation by Europe. It came at a time when Australians were looking more closely at their history and was widely praised. The sheer quality of its writing made it a best-seller elsewhere, too.

In 1998 his book American Visions summed up everything he knew about the art of his adopted country.

In 1999, visiting Australia, Hughes was involved in a serious car accident which he was fortunate to survive. To his fury he was charged with dangerous driving and later vented his spleen against his native land in a way which alienated some. The accident left him with impaired mobility.

"It was a life changing event," said his niece, Lucy Turnbull. "Climbing out of that experience was a very, very hard one, and one that was possibly never fully achieved."

He married the American artist Doris Downes in 2001 but, the next year, tragedy struck when Danton, the son of an earlier marriage, killed himself at the age of 34.

Though now less often seen in the media, Robert Hughes continued to write with a flair and insight which delighted critics and readers. He published a book on Goya and, in 2006, came out with a well-received book of memoirs.

Last year Robert Hughes published what was to be his last book, Rome. It is fitting that his final work was about a city he loved so much: He was by nature an enthusiast with an appetite for art and life who thought it pointless to live without passion.

More on this story