Robert Hughes, pugnacious art critic, author and TV host, dies at 74

Robert Hughes, who brought a muscular, confrontational writing style to the genteel world of art criticism, and whose books and television programs on art and the history of his native Australia brought him a worldwide following, died Aug. 6 at a hospital in the Bronx. He was 74.

His wife, Doris Downes, released a statement saying her husband “had been very ill for some time.” His health had been somewhat precarious since a near-fatal car accident in 1999.

(Frank Johnston/The Washington Post) - Robert Hughes’s 1987 book about the settlement of his native Australia, “The Fatal Shore,” was considered a masterpiece and became an international bestseller.

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Mr. Hughes had wide-ranging interests and published a memoir, a book about fishing and biographies of artists, in addition to two monumental surveys of art history. His 1987 book about the settlement of Australia, “The Fatal Shore,” was considered a masterpiece and became an international bestseller.

But he may have been best known as a pugnacious critic, mostly for Time magazine, who gleefully punctured reputations throughout the art world. He once pummeled critical darling Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at 27, in an essay titled “Requiem for a Featherweight.”

One of his favorite targets was Julian Schnabel, who was famous for affixing broken plates to canvases and smearing them with paint. Mr. Hughes wrote that Schnabel was “to painting what [Sylvester] Stallone is to acting — a lurching display of oily pectorals — except that Schnabel makes bigger public claims for himself.”

Controversy followed Mr. Hughes for decades, as he accused academic critics and the art establishment of being intellectually fraudulent and commercially shameless. There was no doubt, as art scholar James Hall wrote in Britain’s Independent newspaper in 2003, that Mr. Hughes was “the world’s most famous — and infamous — art critic.”

He established his name in 1980 with “The Shock of the New,” a book and television series about the growth of modern art. Critic John Canaday called “Shock” ­“easily the best book to date on ­twentieth-century art.”

Mr. Hughes traveled more than 250,000 miles around the world to film the eight-part documentary, which was viewed by an estimated 25 million people when it was shown on television.

Affable and authoritative, he delivered witty axioms in a ringing Aussie accent that made art history a subject of excitement and expectation. Vincent van Gogh, he said, “was the hinge on which 19th-century romanticism finally swung into 20th-century expressionism.”

He presented himself, in the words of the New Yorker, as “an engagingly combustible critic, who throws off ideas and opinions like a bonfire throwing off sparks.”

Another resounding success came in 1987 with “The Fatal Shore,” in which Mr. Hughes delved into the settlement of Australia by a large number of convicts expelled from the British Isles. Book critic Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post praised “The Fatal Shore” as “a magnificent history, with a richness of detail that is as mesmerizing as it is horrifying.”

Mr. Hughes returned to the airwaves in 1997 with a second book and eight-part TV series, “American Visions,” about the development of American art. He spent four years on the project, traveling around the United States and at one point spending a night sleeping on the floor of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, near Charlottesville.

His effort was generally well received, but Boston University art historian Patricia Hills noted in a review in the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Hughes appropriated the insights of other scholars and that his “macho approach” could be “dismissive” of contributions from women and minorities.

In 1993, he published a book of essays, “The Culture of Complaint,” that was an indictment of identity politics and what Mr. Hughes saw as rampant “political correctness” in society at large.

He was criticized as an unwavering traditionalist fighting an unwinnable battle against the rushing flow of modern tastes. He was charged with being an “elitist” — an epithet he accepted with a certain pride “in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense,” he wrote in his 2006 memoir, “Things I Didn’t Know.”

As “a cultural critic,” he added, “my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today.”

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes was born July 28, 1938, in Sydney. He was born into a prominent family active in politics and law, and his father died when Robert was 12.

He studied art and architecture at the University of Sydney, where he was at the center of a progressive circle that included feminist writer Germaine Greer, filmmaker Bruce Beresford and poet and critic Clive James.

After trying his hand at painting, Mr. Hughes began to write criticism for newspapers in Australia. He left his homeland in 1964 and lived in Italy before settling in London as a freelance critic. He rode a motorcycle and, as he recounted in his memoir, freely indulged in a life of sex and drugs.

Still, he managed to write two early books, including a study of religious imagery in Western art that caught the eye of a Time magazine editor. When the editor called for an initial interview, Mr. Hughes was so suspicious that he hung up, thinking he was being recruited by the CIA. Nonetheless, he moved to New York when Time said it wanted a critic who could write about art in way that everyday readers could understand. Mr. Hughes moved from London, bringing his bare-knuckle prose style with him.

He “raised the standards of magazine criticism to new heights,” Yardley wrote in The Post in 2006, “and demonstrated conclusively that it is possible to write serious criticism in a mass-market publication.”

In 1999, Mr. Hughes was nearly killed in a head-on highway collision in a remote part of Australia. He had dozens of broken bones and was in a coma for several weeks.

Mr. Hughes accused the three men in the vehicle that struck him of being drug dealers, and the circumstances of the crash were argued in prolonged court proceedings. In 2003, Mr. Hughes pleaded guilty to reckless driving and was fined the equivalent of $2,500.

In the meantime, Mr. Hughes’s second marriage, to Victoria Whistler, ended in divorce. In 2002, his son and only child, Danton Hughes, committed suicide at age 34. (His mother was Mr. Hughes’s first wife, Danne Emerson. The marriage ended in divorce.)

In 2003, he married painter and St. Mary’s County native Doris Downes. Besides his wife, survivors include two stepsons; two brothers; and a sister.

In a state of despair while recovering from his injuries, Mr. Hughes said the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828) appeared to him in a hallucinatory dream.

“I severely doubted whether I was going to be able to recapture my powers of concentration,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2003. “Thanks to writing about Goya, I was able to.”

His 2003 biography received some of the strongest reviews of Mr. Hughes’s career. In the introduction to the book, he described the circumstances of his recovery and the meaning he attached to the project.

The result, biographer Jenny Uglow wrote in the New York Times Book Review, was “dazzling, disturbing and intensely personal. . . . The personal note gives Hughes’s scholarship and technical analysis a raw, quick edge. We feel the painful immediacy of Goya’s work, as if we had one skin less.”

Mr. Hughes enjoyed hunting and fishing. He was not a serious collector of art.

“I don’t think that critics should collect,” he said in 1985, “because then they tend to find themselves in a net of obligations to artists and dealers that may be to the detriment of their own work. Besides, it is very restful, after a hard day in museums, to come home and look at a nice blank wall.”

 
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