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.