Remembering Robert Hughes, 1938-2012

'What Hughes brought to the page was, yes, his smarts and a painter’s eye but also a vivid and slangy muscularity'

Hughes. (Courtesy Time Life/Getty Images)

It’s normal, I suppose, not to remember the first meeting with a friend. And always to remember the last. I got to know Bob Hughes in the London of the later ’60s—O.K., “Swinging London,” a term that began slipping into ironic usage as soon as it was coined—this being a city in which Australians, not being burdened by Brit passive-aggression, stood out. Martin Sharp of Oz magazine was at the front of my building, Germaine Greer was across the corridor, and Bob and Danne Hughes were around the corner in a Chelsea square.

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They had not been in London long, but Hughes, an outsize fellow with a flop of brown hair and a crackle of caustic humor, already had a perch writing about art in the quality papers. The Hugheses were almost theatrically hospitable. I seem to remember Danne taking the entire Living Theater—then on a not particularly triumphal visit to London—under her wing. But then the ’60s were over and, poof, they too were gone.

They had gone to New York, of course, Hughes as a hire of Time. I later heard—not from Bob—that somebody at the Luce juggernaut had been impressed by his first book, Heaven and Hell in Western Art. Bravura stories soon began to reach us about Hughes arriving for work on a motorbike in leathers.

More to the point was his work. What Hughes brought to the page was, yes, his smarts and a painter’s eye but also a vivid and slangy muscularity that was and is rare enough on the crime or sports pages of the popular press, let alone the arts desk. It was remarkable in a news mag, and not just Time readers paid attention, but the art world, too. And in due course Hughes was contributing well-wrought pieces to The New York Review of Books.

In 1980 Hughes opened up another media front with The Shock of the New, his BBC Time Life television series, an eight-parter on art, which began with Impressionism and ran through to postmodernism. It was accessible, without dumbing down, and edgy—check YouTube for the nude photo sequence that elucidates Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and his analysis of the masturbation references in The Large Glass—without being titillating. The series became a bestselling book. And, duly, a house on Shelter Island.

By this time, I was in Manhattan myself and seeing a fair amount of Hughes, who had a loft on Prince in what was not yet SoHo, in a building where his neighbors were John Loring, design director of Tiffany’s, and the great reportage photographer Mary Ellen Mark. He was very much enjoying being Bob Hughes, as when the elevator door opened while his place was still under construction, disgorging a bevy of collectors and a female art consultant. He told me of showing the art aficionados around, explicating the “installation” of buckets, concrete-mixers and whatever, but said that, as the elevator doors were closing, he spotted “a gleam” in the art consultant’s eye.

Hughes was nothing but helpful. Indeed, he sent me down from his office to see Time’s Henry Anatole Grunwald, who, misunderstanding the purpose of my visit, politely asked which section of the mag interested me (I was actually under contract to New York). I was beginning to write about the art world consistently, and he was hugely helpful about that also, volunteering both robustly Hughesian commentary—“Sandro Chia has the guts of an earthworm”—and anecdote. He told me that he had called Lucian Freud to commiserate after the artist’s painting of Francis Bacon had been stolen in Germany. “They must really like you, Lucian,” he had said. “I think they really like Francis,” Freud had replied.

But it was around then that Act II was beginning. It would be darker than Act I.

I write above that Hughes had a painter’s eye. This is exact. He had been a painter and a working cartoonist before he left Australia in his 20s, but he never spoke of this; I have never seen the art and no one has ever described it to me, so this non-career may be irrelevant. But one thing is sure. With the rise of the art world of the ’80s—the power, the money, the Vanity Fair profiles—Bob Hughes took off on a flamboyantly adversarial course. For years he had derided Hilton Kramer—writing of his “industrial-strength prose”—but now, oddly, they were fighting the same fight. Which was against much of the more interesting new art.

Andy Warhol was one target. I was told at the time that Hughes’s piece about “the white mole of Union Square,” which was published in The New York Review of Books, was one of the few attacks that actually shook Warhol, usually a veteran at absorbing negative energy. Other targets, like Julian Schnabel and David Salle, were attacked both in full-pagers in Time and in the “SoHoiad,” an elegant Alexander Popesque diatribe in rhyming hexameters, also published in The New York Review of Books (Mr. Salle becomes “David Silly” and Tony Shafrazi “the squat vandal”). He memorialized Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist he considered a particularly meritless success, with a piece in The New Republic titled “Requiem for a Featherweight.”

It happened that I took a different view of these artists, as I made plain in my writing at the time. In London it is quite normal to have extreme disagreements with friends on issues like art and politics, but other things are shared, and friendships endure. These dynamics are often different in the U.S. I was invited to one Hughes birthday on Shelter Island and was impressed to see the reclusive Bruce Nauman at one of the tables. The next birthday, no invite for me.

Act III was the darkest. In 1997 Bob Hughes was appointed one of 100 “National Treasures” in Australia and was swiftly profiled in Tina Brown’s New Yorker. Two years later he was in a horrible car crash in Australia, driving on the wrong side of the road, and was in a coma for months.

It did not seemingly deplete his writing energies. In 2004 he described Lucian Freud as “The Greatest Artist” in The Guardian but took the time for a side-swipe with, “Nobody knows more clearly than Freud himself that he is not a reborn Rubens … That kind of rhetoric is for boastful dolts such as Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons.”

I was in London in 2008 just before Damien Hirst’s Sotheby’s auction. Hughes, who was known to be ailing, took the time to mount attacks—worse than any he aimed at Schnabel—at Mr. Hirst, both in The Guardian and in the course of a documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse. In a fragment of this now circulating on YouTube, he tells Alberto Mugrabi that Warhol was “the stupidest man I ever met.”

This is worse than wrong, as anybody who has ever read Warhol’s Popism memoir can plainly see. It is sad. Christopher Knight, writing in the Los Angeles Times at the time, chose to see Bob Hughes’s whole career, so brilliant and so determined to take the battle to these über-artists, as a career strategy, a way to elevate an art writer’s ordinary prospects, to create his “own Hirstian style bubble of lucrative celebrity.” But this is wholly wrong too. Bob Hughes meant every word. He always meant his words. He will be remembered for those in his terrific books, like those on Goya and Barcelona. He will also be remembered as a brilliant, if sometimes brilliantly wrongheaded protagonist in our Art Wars.

I last spoke with Hughes at an art gathering of some nature. He was with Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, who was then still at Gagosian Gallery, so it was a while back. I shall remember him as a good friend in an early chapter of my life. And that—a series of chapters—is what any life really comes down to.

Remembering Robert Hughes, 1938-2012