Robert Hughes

So another one who was doing us some good is now gone. Robert Hughes was best known as the longtime art critic of Time Magazine and as the host of two wonderful television series, “The Shock of the New” and “American Visions.”

I have particularly fond memories of the latter. A few years back, I found for $5 a boxed set of the eight VHS tapes for this “history of American art and architecture,” as the subtitle has it. At the time I was spending two nights a week in Westminster, Maryland, teaching on Tuesday and Thursday at McDaniel College. It was a wonderful time, for several reasons: The job got me out of the house, the cafeteria offered unlimited food and dessert, and the excellent library stayed open late.

Often I would pig out at the cafeteria, then meander among the stacks, picking out books I’d never seen and wanted to read. Having a faculty library card, with a semester-long checkout, was the perfect perk for me.

Still, by 10 PM or so, I’d be in the house the college had generously allocated to me, and shortly thereafter I’d have a cold beer in my hand and one of the American Visions tapes running. It was quite blissful to sip a Guinness and listen to the articulate, yet loveably bluff Hughes as he discussed Monticello or the work of Winslow Homer or Jackson Pollock. I carefully rationed myself to one tape per night and only when I was in Westminster.

I read “The Shock of the New” but somehow only caught a couple of its episodes when they first aired. It, too, was good, though I still preferred “American Visions,” even if Hughes tended to be a little sentimental about our art. As my interest in Australia and Barcelona—the topics of two of his other books—is fairly faint, I’ve never read them, but probably should, especially “The Fatal Shore.” On the other hand, I have used “Nothing if Not Critical,” Hughes’s collected art journalism from Time, in occasional courses on reviewing and feature writing.

I gather that Hughes could be rather a good ol’ boy, rather like his contemporary the critic and poet Clive James, but that only made the man’s passion for art all the more endearing. I’ll miss not having him out there, ready to lay out the merits of, or lay into the questionable value of, so much of our modern art.

Did other members of the Reading Room admire Hughes? Please share your thoughts. Are there other art critics that you turn to for guidance? Kenneth Clark, I suppose, is on everyone’s list, and perhaps E.H. Gombrich, but who else in art criticism is important to you? Many thanks.

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