Robert Hughes was charming to meet. A robust conversationalist, he was witty, wide ranging and courteous. In my experience he never tried to dominate even when he was the dominant personality at the table. We met over the years accidentally and casually—good acquaintances rather than friends. The more successful he became professionally, the more likeable he was as a man. You could not ask for a better companion at lunch or dinner. His eye-popping, outsize TV personality was held in abeyance in personal encounters.
His international reputation as an art critic was made over his 30-year stint at Time, 1970–2001. Like many others, I would scan the contents page at airport newsstands. If Hughes had a piece in it that week, I would buy it, confident of being entertained and instructed, an acerbic shaft in the bland pages of that once invincible newsweekly. He may not have been the most influential art critic of the age but he was certainly the most prominent. Over the decades of his American career he became, in his words, ‘a card-carrying member of the New York literati’, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the New Republic—significant promotions from middlebrow Time.
What established Hughes’ reputation was less the eminence of his perch and more the verve of his language, his epigrammatic style. Alex Katz’s large vapid figures were ‘the Norman Rockwell of the intelligentsia … everything that makes the arts-and-leisure section of American life such a nice place to be’. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was ‘virile kitsch’ and most famously, ‘Caravaggio was one of the hinges of art history: there was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same’. Behind the stylishness there was an intellectual energy and drive. In addition to the bi-weekly art journalism, there was the stream of substantial books. The Fatal Shore was simply the best and the best known of them. There was the lively, workmanlike Barcelona (1992), the ratty Culture of Complaint (1993) and the immense American Visions (1997). Even after his catastrophic car crash in Western Australia in 1999, harrowingly recounted in the first chapter of his memoir Things I Didn’t Know (remorselessly titled ‘A Bloody Expat’), books continued to flow from his desk, though not quite at the same pitch as before. The memoir was a mortal disappointment, marred by an uncertain tone and a halting, disjointed structure. Hughes roundly and explicitly decried ‘the unabashed quest for the truth of the self … a dead end’. The unexamined life, however, became the anecdotal life and so it continues to be in a lengthy fragment from the next instalment of memoirs, which concludes the hefty anthology of Hughes’ writings, The Spectacle of Skill (2015).
Re-reading Hughes in and outside this selection, one is struck by the recurring rancor of Hughes’ critique. Its headwaters can be traced back to the lengthy introductory essay to his earlier collection of essays, Nothing if not Critical (1990), ‘The Decline of the City of Mahoganny’. Part threnody, part jeremiad, it descants and details Hughes’ disenchantment with New York, the city and its art world, declaring the 1980s as ‘the worst decade in American art’. The disillusionment is all the more bitter because the young Robert Hughes in Sydney circa 1960 looked towards New York as the gleaming centre of all that was new and bold in contemporary art. ‘One saw the triumph from afar. In Australia one’s response to it came as a sigh—a resignation to one’s known cultural irrelevance.’ The enemies that had robbed New York of its critical allure were money and the media, ‘Sodom on the Hudson’.
His observations and prophecies of New York’s collapse as a centre of art have not been borne out. He claimed that in 1990 ‘not one great artist was at work in Paris or New York’. What happened to Frank Stella or Richard Serra in this riff? His glowering prophecy that a rapidly escalating art market especially for works from Manet to the present spelled the end of major exhibitions has been confounded time and again. Within the last ten years Die Neue Galerie has mounted Van Gogh and German Expressionism; the Metropolitan has weighed in with a mammoth masterpiece-studded Impressionism and Fashion and last year MoMA put on the largest survey ever of Picasso’s sculpture. The list of important exhibitions in New York museums could run on and on.
In the fragment of unpublished memoir, Hughes writes as though citing chapter and verse of the corruption of art critics in New York (and London) from Clement Greenberg and David Sylvester to Henry Geldzahler and Barbara Rose, who solicited works of art from artists when they wrote about them, thus accruing valuable collections. They could be converted to cash when times were hard. But this converts art-world gossip and rumour to hard fact as Hughes sheepishly admits ‘proof was extremely difficult to muster’.
The effect of the mass media, the lust for publicity, fame and celebrity is as great an enemy of the City of Mahoganny as money is. Andy Warhol, a particular bête noire of Hughes’, becomes the poster child for this symptom of decline and fall. ‘Warhol was the first American artist to whose career publicity was truly intrinsic. Warhol was the only one who embodied a culture of promotion as such. He enjoyed a striking success as a commercial artist … He understood the tough little world … where the machine of fashion, gossip, image bending and narcissistic chic tapped out its agile pizzicato. He knew packaging and could teach it to others.’
It is as much the man, the performer, the ring master of the Factory who enrages Hughes. He has surprisingly little to say about individual works by Warhol. Instead Hughes seizes on the grandiose claims made by others such as John Coplans—normally a shrewd and reserved commentator—who windily asserted that ‘by choice of imagery [Warhol] forces us to squarely face the existential edge of our existence.’ To how many other artists could this claim be attached from Francis Bacon to Anselm Kiefer?
Hughes grudgingly allows that Warhol’s best work came in the mid sixties but he does not stop long enough to examine the matter. Warhol’s imagination of disaster—the ferocity of the race-riot images, the violence of his car crashes, the deathly silence, nothingness, emptiness of the electric chair series, the public portraits and narrative sequence of Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of JFK—are plenty to give any critic pause for reflection. In the new memoir Warhol’s world becomes the target of Hughes’ critical rage: ‘Through the middle of this bunch of zonked-out hermaphrodites, gibbering, rubber-lipped starlets and coarse masochists, Andy wandered like a Polish whore pretending to be Mary Magdalene …’ Here criticism passes into vituperation and the reader inclines to question the author rather than accept the characterisation or the critical verdict.
The diatribe became Hughes’ favoured mode of discourse and he typecast himself as a writer of tirades. He became famous for his demolition jobs. The extended essay beyond the confines of Time was the chosen genre and the New York Review of Books the venue. You began to read Hughes to see what he would come up with next. The Warhol essay appeared in 1982. Five years later he would do the same on Julian Schnabel—a wholly different and lesser figure than Warhol—in the New Republic. They brought Hughes fame and notoriety beyond the world of art. To be sure the rise of Julian Schnabel in the 1980s on both sides of the Atlantic was a spectacle to behold, ‘propelled by a megalomaniac, painfully sincere belief in his ever present genius and future historical importance’.
Once again the age, the fatal decline of the City of Mahoganny, is as much to blame as Schnabel’s shortcomings. ‘Everybody wanted a genius and in Schnabel our time of insecure self-congratulation and bulimic vulgarity got the genius it deserved.’ Schnabel’s ‘flatulent self-congratulation’ gives way to his ‘impregnable self-esteem’. Hughes’ piece had been prompted by a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in the autumn of 1987 and the appearance of Schnabel’s memoirs. Hughes ended his philippic with the rhetorical question: ‘Did the Whitney Museum and Random House really mean to celebrate Thanksgiving by serving up this turkey?’
Astonishing and amusing as this was nearly 30 years ago, why reprint it today? Schnabel was no threat to Western civilisation to justify this lampooning overkill. As with the Warhol essay, Hughes’ mentalité becomes the object of interest. Such demolition jobs disfigure Hughes’ critical stance. They are both so obviously ad hominem attacks that they miss their marks. Warhol continues to excite serious critical interest and interpretation. How is it that an artist who used the most mechanical means of production and who claimed an affect-less art should retain such a vivid artistic identity posthumously? As for Schnabel, some serious collectors such as the architect Philip Johnson collected him extensively but he is seldom (if ever) seen on the walls of the Whitney or MoMA.
Hughes on Warhol and Schnabel cannot easily be set aside as examples of rhetorical overreach. As inflated as the art of the 1980s (and as dated), they reveal Hughes as the Nietzschean man of ressentiment. In The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche writes:
Imagine, on the other hand, the ‘enemy’ as conceived by the rancorous man! For this is his true, creative achievement: he has conceived the ‘evil enemy’, the Evil One, as a fundamental idea, and then as a pendant he has conceived the Good One—himself.
Earlier in the same work he speaks of ‘… the rancor of beings who, deprived of the direct outlet of action, compensate by an imaginary vengeance’.
Such a fate befell Robert Hughes: he became known for ‘imaginary vengeance’. When he writes approvingly of an artist, his observations may be true but they are rarely exceptional. On an Edward Hopper cityscape Hughes writes, ‘You know that this is a slice of life, that the buildings go on beyond the frame, that he has slipped a sense of time into his space …’ Sometimes Hughes’ powers of characterisation fail him. For example, he remarked about Leon Kossoff: ‘an obdurate grandeur of invention is coupled with a deep sense of tradition: what other painter now alive can embed groups of figures in deep space with such conviction’. The gritty London painter of Willesden Green is hardly recognisable.
Clement Greenberg, whom Hughes greatly despised and oversimplified, once made the shrewd remark about T.S. Eliot as a critic that he excels not just on the basis of his taste but also ‘by his insight into the evidence of taste’. Hughes’ taste is generally sound but he rarely shows the basis of that taste. Sometimes he lapses in favour of his personal liking of an artist. ‘Rauschenberg is the genius of American art since the death of Pollock, and I am not sure that I don’t prefer the high achievements of his art to most of Pollock anyway.’ But when he goes on to describe Rauschenberg’s achievement, the argument is less than startling: ‘Rauschenberg’s references to other media aren’t just tricks. They’re an integral part of the way he connects the language of his images to that of the wider world.’
This is plodding stuff and drives the suspicion that what moves Hughes to criticism is less his enthusiasm for an artist than his ressentiment, a Hamletesque sense of outrage: ‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That I was ever born to set it right.’ When he recalls reviewing a Bonnard exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1966, he was incensed by Picasso’s dismissal of the artist—‘it’s not painting what he does’—and the obituary in Cahiers d’Art that he was admired ‘only by people who know nothing about the grave difficulties of art and cling to all that is facile and agreeable’. Hughes suspects a Marxist plot that an art ‘which strives to give and record pleasure, on no matter how complex or nuanced a level of recollection, must be superficial … that the sensuous must be of a lower order than the intellectual’. Nothing would sting Hughes to critical action quicker than a ‘politically correct’ slur on a major artist.
Ressentiment has its limitations as a spur to art criticism. When Hughes writes about Caravaggio he has some smart, sidelong observations. Of the early Roman portraits of Bacchus and other quasi-mythological youths, Hughes characterises him as ‘the painter of overripe bits of rough trade with yearning mouths and hair like black ice-cream’. But he leaves alone or deals distantly with the major religious-subject pictures. The St Matthew Cycle in the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi in Rome is passed over lightly with the observation that more tourists go to see the Caravaggios than to pray. When he turns to the Cerasi Chapel in S. Maria del Popolo with its claustrophobic pair of the Martyrdom of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul, he notes their physicality, huge forms crammed into a tiny space, but of Caravaggio’s descent into darkness, dread and disbelief he says nothing. Some revenant of Hughes’ Catholic upbringing and his struggle against it prevents him from reading the religious mystery that permeates Caravaggio as profoundly as his homoeroticism.
There is no doubt that the catastrophic trauma of the terrible motor accident in 1999 had a shattering effect on Hughes, literally. It drove him from his idyllic fastness on Shelter Island between the forks of Long Island, physically unable to cope with the demands of fishing, which had been his avocation. Of the books that came after the accident the biography of Goya is the best, if conventional in observation and approach. Goya’s graphic work and the repressiveness, cruelty and duplicity of Fernando VII stir Hughes’ ressentiment. His account of the Disasters of War and the Caprichos and their aftermath in The Execution of May 3 are vigorous and compelling—‘a long tradition of killing as ennobled spectacle comes to its overdue end’.
Some of the Black Paintings—the series painted for Goya’s house of retreat, the Quinta del Sordo circa 1820–23—stir Hughes’ rancour. The Baconesque features of the pilgrims in The Pilgrimage of S. Isidro ‘are deformed beyond grotesqueness. This is Goya’s bitter contemptuous vision of the populacho or pig-ignorant mob.’ But elsewhere and surprisingly, Hughes throws his critical hand up in the air. Of the dog buried up to his neck in sand he writes:
that dog’s terrified yearning for safety and its absent master is the misery of man in a comfortless world from which God has withdrawn. We do not know what it means but its pathos moves us at a level below narrative … here as in other rooms of the Deaf Man’s House we do not and cannot know.
It is a strange intellectual abnegation on Hughes’ part. If you are going to write a book on Goya, you have to form some coherent interpretation of the series beyond passing remarks on individual works. Only when Hughes harnesses Goya’s rage at the cruelty of the world does the book get beyond the sound and the standard.
Rancor becomes the enemy of Hughes’ wit. An undercurrent of abuse runs through his writings on art. Sometimes it’s mild, as when he calls Henry Geldzahler, first curator of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum and later a rolly poly man about the New York art world, a ‘popinjay’. Hughes accuses him of being one of ‘the most corrupt art world figures I know’. The rancor could turn nasty. In the first volume of his memoirs, Hughes described the distinguished American painter Helen Frankenthaler as ‘a card carrying Jewish princess right down to the tips of her talons’. In the later fragment of memoir, Hughes puts a fig leaf on this and calls her ‘the complete Princess juive’. Either way there is an unpleasant gratuitousness to it.
One might pass it off as New York art speak but Hughes displays a similar streak elsewhere. During his demolition job on Warhol, he mockingly describes the artist’s Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century: ‘why not treat Jews as a special interest subject like any other? There is a big market for bird prints, dog prints, racing prints, hunting prints, yachting prints: why not Jew prints?’
Offering such a common anti-Semitic locution as a casual witticism does the damage. In the earlier memoir he claimed that Marlene Dietrich’s looks ‘appealed mostly to masochists, lesbians and inwardly timid Hollywood Jews’. Hughes spoke derisively of 1960s and 1970s colour field painting, ‘all luminously stained with flawless aquarelle-like washes, taking up whole white walls of crisp white interiors in the perfect Upper East Side townhouses of pristine, flawless and white Jewish collectors’. It is the Jew as punchline and there is no evading the anti-Semitism.
The most puzzling chapter in the fragmentary memoir deals with Hughes’ son, Danton. Eerily, he repeats the chapter heading he used to describe his father in the earlier memoir—‘Danton—I hardly Knew You’. Danton (1967–2003) is a sad and distressing story. He was the issue of Hughes’ first marriage to Danne Emerson, the tempestuous bohemian who regularly deserted the marriage and was ‘serially’ promiscuous. ‘Danne would find someone to fuck whenever she felt horny or, for that matter, quite often when she was not horny.’ The coruscating portrait of that first marriage gave Things I Didn’t Know its most vivid pages. She abandoned Danton, regarding him as a ‘tyrannous jailer’. Hughes freely admits his own shortcomings as a parent. In time he became ‘miserably estranged’ from his son, who seems to have been largely tended by a Sicilian au pair.
Inevitably the abandoned boy grew to become the abandoned man. At the age of 36, he took his own life. Hughes’ short, fragmentary chapter on him attempts to understand that death. There are some touching snapshots of the young Danton on Long Island:
We walked down to the beach through a tunnel of leafless thorn trees … along the pale brown dunes, covered with lavender scrub, the white path winding through them to the beach, Danton prancing and laughing in front of us, then running back to grab my hand. How I loved him, and at that moment, at last I was finding out how to be a father, and it made life so simple.
Likewise, in New York ‘He loved the gritty cobblestones of Soho walking with me to Canal St … He used the street … We would run up and down laughing, racing while holding hands, so that “neither of us could win”, he would shout—a charming idea …’ But when it comes to describing Danton’s life beyond childhood Hughes remains at a painful loss. As he probes the relationship, he comes too late to the realisation that Danton loved him and accepted him as a father.
After the accident when Hughes lay critically ill in a Perth hospital, ‘splayed like an insect pinned down at every limb in a giant shadowbox’, Danton flew from Sydney to be with him. At the bedside he read to his unconscious father from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Danton was chased away by Lucy Turnbull, his cousin, on the grounds that his presence would further stress the ailing Hughes. A Cloud of Unknowing penetrates right into the memoir. About the only concrete narrative we get about Danton is a precise description of how he killed himself. His life is a series of fragments in both early and late memoirs. Hughes pines for the dead son: ‘My hope is to recall more of Danton, as painful as the memories may be for me, so that his life can be remembered properly. He deserves more but it’s too late for that now.’ But the hope goes unfulfilled. Danton remains lost to his father and to the reader: ‘in the end it was not my fault’ is Robert Hughes’ chilling conclusion.
The elephant in the room in this essay is the absence of any reassessment of Hughes’ most famous book, The Fatal Shore. Substantial excerpts are included in the new anthology, including an extract from the key central chapter, ‘The Geographical Unconscious’. The book is Hughes’ masterpiece and retains that reputation on re-reading. The marvellous concreteness of his historical imagination is evident in every chapter:
In eighteenth century strategy, pine trees and flax had the naval importance that oil and uranium hold today. All masts and spars were of pine, and flax was the raw stuff of ships canvas … A first rate ship of the line needed immense quantities of spar timber. The mainmast of a 74-gun first-rater was three feet thick at the base and rose 108 feet from keelson to truck—a single tree, dead straight and flawlessly solid.
In the intense concentration of his narrative, he had found the perfect ‘objective correlative’ of his reflection on the founding of Australia. His rancour was set aside in the immense labour of sustaining a text of such length. My admiration for the book is a great today as it was when it appeared 30 years ago.