Robert Hughes, Eloquent Australian Art Critic and Historian Who Pulled No Punches, Dies at 74

Hughes in front of Picasso’s ‘Guernica.’ (Courtesy Ted Thai/Time-Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Robert Hughes, the pugnacious art critic and historian whose specialties ranged from Francisco Goya and Lucian Freud to the histories of Australia and Rome, died on Monday in the Bronx at the Calvary Hospital. He was 74. According to The Australian, he had been ill for a long period.

Beginning in 1970s, well before contemporary art became a mainstream aspect of popular culture, Mr. Hughes was a genuine anomaly: an art critic with a large public following. He published widely in print, never fearing controversy, and released numerous books. He became art critic for Time magazine in 1970, where he was “often a traditionalist scourge during an era when art movements fractured into unrecognizability,” as The New York Times put it.

Mr. Hughes seemed to thrill at the opportunity to lambaste artists and exhibitions that did not meet his approval. His 1987 takedown of Julian Schnabel—a particular target of his pen over the years—remains unforgettably damning. He wrote of the artist in The New Republic:

Everyone wanted a genius, and in Schnabel our time of insecure self-congratulation got the genius it deserved. There was a more than accidental correspondence between Schnabel’s success in meeting the nostalgia for big macho art in the early eighties, and Sylvester Stallone’s restoration of American virtù through the character of Rambo.

But beyond its sheer efficient brutality, the hallmark of Mr. Hughes’s writing was it unwavering belief in the power and importance of art criticism. Reading his collected book of essays Nothing If Not Critical (words spoken by Iago in Othello) as an art history student, I was astounded by the vitality of the genre. Art criticism, in his hands, becomes the most interesting game in town, even if one completely disagrees with some of his opinions, like his dislike of Warhol’s art.

Mr. Hughes was born on July 28, 1938, in Sydney. He studied art at the University of Sydney and, according to The Times, painted while writing for a journal called The Observer (which has no association with this paper). After school he traveled in Europe and settled in London in the 1960s, writing for newspapers there.

Among the books that followed were Heaven and Hell in Western Art (1968), The Fatal Shore (1987), which is a history of Australia, The Shock of the New (1991), adapted from a popular BBC and PBS television series he created, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1998) and Goya (2004).

Mr. Hughes was, according to published accounts, as captivating a presence in life as he was on the page. In a yearlong diary published in the summer 1977 issue of Art in America, a fellow critic, David Bourdon recalled running into Mr. Hughes and his son in New York. While Mr. Hughes’s son attended a tutoring session, they repaired to a nearby bar. Here’s Mr. Bourdon on the encounter:

He is a colorful sport who, at his most voluble, appears to be giving spirited imitations of the three pet parrots he brought from his—and their—native Australia. Hughes fumes about Newsweek‘s Doug Davis scooping him with a four-page color essay on Rauschenberg. In a histrionic moment of soul-searching, Hughes wonders whether he should accept a $25,000 fee to give a testimonial to Australian wine. I didn’t know he liked drinks that don’t burn on the way down.

Despite numerous health problems stemming from a car accident in 1999, he continued to work. Last year his latest book Rome was released, which Observer critic Will Heinrich called a “freewheeling, massive, magisterial, alternately ponderous and pyrotechnic new history of the city.”

Read Anthony Haden-Guest’s remembrance of Robert Hughes.

Robert Hughes, Eloquent Australian Art Critic and Historian Who Pulled No Punches, Dies at 74