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Television's Minister of Modern Art Passes On
August 8, 2012  | By Eric Gould

This summer has seen some notable figures pass on, most recently Gore Vidal and director Chris Marker. Now we can add to the list Robert Hughes, art critic for Time Magazine, who passed away on Monday at the age of 74. Hughes was a prolific critic of modern art, but also the author and narrator of two documentary series on art that will most likely live on as landmark examples of when television turned its lens on art and triumphed.

The details of Hughes' early life could have been created by a screenwriter set on inventing an art critic of international reputation: Born in Australia to a prominent family, he wrote two books on art by the age of 25. In the '60s he moved to Britain, where he was a bohemian decked out in Austin Powers-like get-ups and freelanced for The Sunday Times and The Observer. In 1970, Time magazine searched him out in London and hired him as an art critic. He moved to New York, and America would eventually become his full-time home. He wrote frequently for The New York Review of Books.

Hughes gained notoriety for his surgical insight and direct, low-brow iconoclastic bluster. Articulate and easy in front of audiences, he was hired as co-anchor of ABC's 20/20 news magazine in 1978. His premiere was not well received, and he was fired after one show.

Based on that appearance, he would make television documentaries on art. While working on one, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America in 1996, he suffered a nervous breakdown.

Following the 20/20 debacle, Hughes would eventually publish more books on art, memoirs and a novel.  He became known for high-seas fishing adventures off the coast of Long Island where he had his second home. He would be seriously injured in a highly-publicized 1999 auto accident in his native Austrailia for driving on the wrong side of the road.

During his more than 30 years at Time, Hughes authored hundreds of articles on contemporary art. He would become widely known as a passionate devotee of the early modernists, whom he held in highest regard for their sincerity and achievements.

But he would become notorious for his attacks on painters emerging in the '80s who, he believed, gained wealth and recognition at the hands of the nouveau rich. He railed against collectors who had little knowledge or apparent passion for art, and an emerging gallery and institutional community all too ready to join in the hype and gorge on the profits.

Hughes used his position as a media star to take hatchet jobs to new, baroque levels, to millions of readers. And his heavy artillery was reserved most for painters he felt were cashing in on unearned media hype.

He compared Julian Schnabel's paintings to Sylvester Stallone's acting. In infamous, and repeated assaults on painter David Salle's shows in the '80s and '90s, he wrote that the line work in Salle's paintings had "all the verve of chewed string."

He aimed at curators as well, as often as the artists themselves. Former Whitney Museum director David Ross has been famously quoted as asking, “I have spent a lot of time trying to answer the question ‘Who is Robert Hughes and why does he hate me so much?'"

As incendiary as he could be, Hughes was, by all accounts, known to be an affectionate friend and colleague, with a wide circle of artists and writers around him. There is much to be read online this week about his honesty, his earnestness, his passion for art and its ability to "make the world comprehensible."

It would be his failure at ABC that would lead him in 1980 to the write and narrate The Shock of the New, an eight-episode documentary on the history of modern art for the BBC. It would later air on PBS in 1981 and be seen by an estimated 25 million viewers.

It's arguable that, up to that point, The Shock of the New was the most lucid, compelling summary of modern art that had ever been written, and certainly was the most successful ever documented for television.

It tracked, in a narrative equal to that of a great novel, the essential conditions that amalgamated and shaped art of the late 19th and 20th century into the force that it was — unique and separate from all art that had come before it. And it was accomplished with Hughes' trademark wit and ingenuity.

About Umberto Boccioni's work (left) he remarked, "as well as movement, he wanted to paint noise." He called Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, leader of the modernist Futurist movement in Italy around 1910, "part genius, part organ grinder and part fascist demagogue … the caffeine of Europe." His descrpitions of painter Marcel Duchamp's machine aesthetic at the end of episode one, defining its essence as it related to Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, suddenly reveals the work in all its breadth.

It was that hawk-eye aim, the ability to define what was in front of us, that made Hughes great. He was able to crisply trip through the nuances of artwork better than any art historian before him, and certainly better than anyone had attempted to do on television.

Like any important intellect, Hughes was reported to be an enormous complexity and a contradiction — to his friends a poet, to many, an intimidator. Often a bully in print, he left a wide swath of wreckage behind him. Impassioned, he never equivocated, opting to be as bold and as noble as his subject  — art — rather than suffer by restraint and deliver dullness.

Alongside the scorched earth he left, there was great beauty. One of the greatest, and lasting, was his triumph, The Shock of the New.

Episodes of The Shock of the New can be found on YouTube, but some are poor quality, and the art and soundtrack cannot be fully appreciated because of the low resolution. There is a better quality version on ovguide.com, and DVDs are available online from secondary vendors. A 1997 CBS 60 Minutes interview with Hughes is presented below.

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