Time magazine art critic, credited with changing the genre, diesThough it probably would account for little more than a drop of paint on the grand canvas of his career, one of the last public exhibitions of the work of Robert Hughes during his lifetime came in Duluth.
Though it probably would account for little more than a drop of paint on the grand canvas of his career, one of the last public exhibitions of the work of Robert Hughes during his lifetime came in Duluth.
That was last February and March, when the Duluth Art Institute and the Zinema Theater co-hosted eight Saturday morning screenings of “The Shock of the New,” a BBC and PBS art history series by the Australian college dropout who became a cultural renaissance man credited with changing art criticism forever.
Hughes, Time magazine’s art critic for 31 years, died Monday after a long illness at his longtime home in New York, his wife, painter Doris Downes Hughes, said. He was 74.
Also the author of a bestselling epic about Australia, “The Fatal Shore,” a 2006 memoir, “Things I Didn’t Know,” and last year’s “Rome: A Personal History,” Hughes was widely regarded as the world’s most influential art critic, armed with a biting wit that could rip a master’s work to shreds while remaining accessible to the common reader.
“He was a true delight. He could cut through any kind of art world BS that was ladled upon him,” said Duluth Art Institute curator Anne Dugan, who arranged the screenings last winter. “He was a wonderful gift to the art world in a time it really needed him.”
Ken Bloom, director of the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth, shared that praise.
“He spoke to us in a way that had meaning, rather than the professional jargonizing that no one can understand,” he said.
Hughes was born in Sydney on July 28, 1938, in a family of successful lawyers and public officials. His father died when he was 12, leading Hughes to become “an expatriate, a political skeptic, an atheist, a liberal, a voluptuary, and, in most ways, a disappointment to the ethos” of his father.
He studied architecture briefly and dabbled as a painter before leaving his homeland for Europe, where he spent the 1960s indulging in its sex-and-drug culture, though still managing to produce two art books. He was under the influence of that lifestyle when he got — and almost squandered — his big break: a call from Time Magazine to come to America, which he at first thought was a setup by the CIA. Fortunately, they called back.
The original host — for a single episode — of ABC’s “20/20,” Hughes far more successfully fronted the “Shock of the New,” dissecting for 25 million viewers modern art from the building of the Eiffel Tower to the series’ release in 1980. He revisited the material in 2004 in “The New Shock of the New.”
Along the way, he gained a reputation for blasting art-world luminaries such as Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons, whom he felt accentuated commercialism and celebrity over the modernist creative standards he cherished.
Yet he could be reverential to others, such as Matisse for his floor-to-ceiling creation of France’s Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, despite the fact that Picasso, who Hughes praised, deplored it, and Swiss architect Le Corbusier, whose work Hughes panned, admired it.
“Art is all subjective,” Dugan said. “It’s important to have people challenge what is put up on a pedestal, literally and figuratively. It doesn’t mean those challenges are always right.”
Bloom said that Hughes strived for the preservation of truth and humanity and had little patience for group-think orthodoxies, cultural or political.
“I think he was very anti-ideological,” Bloom said. “He was a romantic and I think that’s hard to give up.”
Despite that romanticism, Hughes faced adversity in recent years. In 2000, he was acquitted of reckless driving after almost having been killed in a head-on car crash that injured three other people. The next year, his second marriage ended and his only child, Danton, committed suicide at 33. Hughes credited his third wife, whom he married in 2001, with getting him through those crises.
Yet, he said, those troubles led him — even at the top of the criticism world — to a deeper understanding of art.
“Perhaps,” he wrote in the introduction to “Goya,” published in 2003, “if life is fully experienced, there is no waste. It was through the accident that I came to know extreme pain, fear and despair; and it may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair and pain cannot fully know Goya.”
Material from McClatchy Newspapers was incorporated in this report.
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