Robert Hughes, 1938–2012

The pugnacious popularizer of fine art

Robert Hughes brought a bare-knuckled approach to the rarified world of art criticism. The Australian critic and historian could write ecstatically about great painters, but took more pleasure in pummeling modern artists he considered crass or uninspired. He slammed pop artist Jeff Koons as “the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary.” And when Jean-Michel Basquiat died from a heroin overdose in 1988, Hughes wrote a scathing critique under the headline “Requiem for a Featherweight.” “You can’t blow bad art out of the skies,” he said in 1987, “but you can punch a small leak.”

Hughes was born in Sydney, the grandson of a former mayor of the city and the youngest son of a lawyer. After studying art and architecture at the University of Sydney and dabbling in painting, he covered the Australian art scene in the late 1950s before leaving for Europe in 1964. “He quickly became a well-known critical voice, writing for several newspapers and diving into the glamorous hedonism of ’60s London,” said The New York Times. He later said that he was so high on drugs when Time called to offer him a job in 1970 “that he thought it might be a trick by the CIA.”

He worked for three decades as Time’s chief art critic. In the early 1980s, the BBC and PBS made him a TV star with The Shock of the New, an eight-part documentary on the rise of modern art that was watched by 25 million people. “He was the benevolent enabler of Everyman’s epiphany,” said Still, Hughes “always considered himself not merely an art critic but a writer, ‘one of whose subjects was art,’” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). He wrote books on the history of Rome, on Barcelona, and, in his 1986 best seller, The Fatal Shore, on Australia’s settlement by British convicts.

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Writing about the Spanish painter Francisco Goya, Hughes said that his brilliance lay in his “vast breadth of curiosity about the human animal and the depth of his appalled sympathy for it.” The same might be said of Hughes himself.

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