Robert Hughes died on Monday. He was 74. Best known for the years he spent as the art critic for Time magazine, he also wrote for the New York Review of Books and told dramatic stories about art for the BBC and for American public television. His 2003 biography of Goya is as good a biography of an artist as I’ve read.
I value Hughes’s criticism in part because he differentiated. He had the long view, the longest view. Hughes was interested not in whether an artists work was ‘valid’ or ‘an accomplishment’ or any of the silly measures of degrees too many well-regarded critics use today. Instead, Hughes wanted to know whether an artist was good or great, and if he was great where he fit into the canon.
“After Velazquez, El Greco and Ribera, Zurbaran was the best painter the so-called golden age of Spanish painting produced,” Hughes wrote in 1987, slotting painters the way a bettor might fill out his slip at Pimlico. On what he thought was a mediocre Willem de Kooning retrospective at the Whitney in 1984, Hughes both lamented the exhibition and put the artist where Hughes thought he belonged: “By the time the show gets to Europe and other early works have dropped out, it will be patchier still; this will frustrate any hopes that the show will revise art history with a bang, installing de Kooning in Pollock’s place as the central hero of Abstract Expressionism.”
Hughes brought the same feistiness to individual artworks. “There is little question that Beckmann’s Temptation, also known as The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1936-37 is, in plastic density and dark, hallucinatory power of feeling, one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.” Well, of course there is. But for Hughes that’s the way it was, and he backed up his points of differentiation with a paragraph of reasons, of specifics that he took from the painting itself.
That’s not to say he was all decision and no struggle. When Hughes vacillated, he often shared his internal deliberations. In 1986, Morris Louis was “the last exhalation of symbolist nuance in America, the eloquent sigh of transparent color that was soon to be a period style.” And later on in the same review, Louis was derived from Helen Frankenthaler, and “[t]hus emerged the chief form of American museum art in the early sixties: The Watercolor That Ate the Art World.” But a few paragraphs later: “When Louis’s work is unwrapped from its exegetical package, quite a lot is left. These paintings are among the most purely optical ever made in America… you can see how they are painted but not imagine doing it yourself, even when Louis’s own technique is made clear.”
Hughes certainly engaged with and struggled with the ideas and the approaches artists brought to their work, with big ideas and the dilemmas they created. (This is another characteristic sadly lacking in much of today’s just-approve, don’t-rock-the-art-market criticism.) Of Anselm Kiefer Hughes wrote this in 1987: “His work is a ringing and deeply engaged rebuke — clumsy sometimes, and bathetic when it fails, but usually as pictorially forceful as it is morally earnest — to the ingrained limitations of its time. It sets its face against the sterile irony, the despair of saying anything authentic about history or memory in paint, and the general sense of trivial pursuit that infest our culture. It affirms the moral imagination.”
Hughes had standards, and woe be unto you if your efforts fell short of them. Hughes was wickedly derisive when he felt that museum exhibitions were gate-churners, unscholarly or lacking depth. A 1979 Chardin retrospective in Paris “assigns the Tuts and Pompeiis to the category of show-biz trivia where they belong.” Writing in 1988: “The trouble with the show of Donald Sultan’s work which opened at the Brooklyn Museum last week after a seven-month run in other American museums is its date. It should have begun in 1997. Then there would have been a larger oeuvre to assess, a longer career to discuss and not just a bright reputation to inflect.”
And Hughes could turn a phrase. Could he ever. “John Constable remains the great example of the Englishness of English art,” Hughes wrote in 1983. “In his work even God is an Englishman.” When a late Picasso exhibition with some very good paintings and many more bad ones received over-the-top kow-tows from critics a few years ago, I thought of Hughes’s great line on late Picasso from 1984: “Picasso appeared to have spent his dotage at a costume party in a whorehouse.” More cutting, on a 1986 John Singer Sargent exhibition at the Whitney: “In Reagan’s America, you cannot keep a good courtier down. Perhaps the rhinos and she-crocodiles whose gyrations between Mortimer’s and East Hampton give us our vision of social eminence today are content to entrust their faces to Andy Warhol‘s mingily cosmetic Polaroiding, but one would bet they would rather go to Sargent.”
I re-read several dozen Hughes essays last night. I was delighted and depressed. Delighted that we have them, depressed that we don’t have enough of him. Then again, that’s why he was so good, so valuable.