Robert Hughes was perhaps the most irreverent art critic of his generation. He was not sucked into the ethos of the post 1960’s art world. Nor was he the puppet of art market forces, which dominate the present contemporary art scene.
Born Robert Studley Forrest Hughes in Sydney, Australia, on 28 July 1938. Hughes was educated at the Roman Catholic St Ignatius College and Sydney University, where Germaine Greer was a fellow student. He left before completing his Architecture course. For a while he painted abstract expressionist paintings. which he called, “Australian De Kooning’s”. He worked as a political cartoonist with a local newspapers. Then, after reporting on an exhibition for a journal that had just fired its regular contributor, he became a full-time art critic, financing his apprenticeship through the sale of his own pictures.
In 1964 he moved to Port Ercole in Italy where, having seen the Piero della Francesco frescoes in Arezzo, he gave up serious painting: “I realised… I could never give my own work a decent review.” He began to travel extensively throughout Europe studying medieval and Renaissance painting, sculpture and architecture. He spent time in London, sampling the Sixties counterculture. He then moved to New York his hometown for more than 40 years.
Hughes could be savage, but he was never trivial. His vision was the X-Ray Specs of art criticism! There was purpose to his outbursts of condemnation. His judgments were sometimes merciless. On Jeff Koons, he stated: “Koons is the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary. He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond.” On Gilbert & George he stated they were among the “image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism”.
In the public mind Hughes was best known for his 1980s television series ‘The Shock of the New’. A brilliantly lucid extrapolation of the Modernist revolution from Impressionism up to date. it had the kind of impact on the popular audience that Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ had a decade and a half before. More than just great television, ‘The Shock of the New’ and its accompanying book is probably the greatest general work on its subject. Its title has already gone into the language as the catch-all summing up art from 1870 to 1970.
“What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890? Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.” ―The Shock of the New
Hughes was married three times. With his first wife, Danne Patricia Emerson they had a son who died in 2002 . The marriage was dissolved in 1981, and in the same year he married (dissolved 1996) Victoria Whistler. He is survived by his third wife, Doris Downes, and two stepsons.