It is either cruelly ironic, or entirely appropriate, that Robert Hughes, the great art critic, should have died on Aug. 6, of all days—Andy Warhol’s birthday. Hughes was most famous for the vigor of his vitriol, aimed mostly at enemies on art’s cutting edge, and Warhol was maybe his worthiest opponent. In 1979, when Warhol had a major show of his portraits at the Whitney Museum in New York, Hughes wrote that admirers of the artist, whom he once described as having a “pocked bun of a face,” were “given to claiming that Warhol has ‘revived’ the social portrait as a form. It would be nearer the truth to say that he zipped it into a Halston, painted its eyelids and propped it up in the back of a limo, where it moves but cannot speak.”
Hughes didn’t merely write muscular prose, he was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of art criticism, and in 1979, after almost a decade as the critic at Time magazine, he was at his best. The next year, Hughes completed The Shock of the New, the TV program and book that made him a household name. It traced the history of the modern avant-garde, from the expressive and eye-pleasing abstraction that Hughes adored to the Warholian irony that he abhorred just as deeply.
When I got news of Hughes’s death, I was cooking dinner with some artists who had come of age with his writing. They felt that Hughes had been too tough on the cutting-edge art of the last 40 years: it is hard to find anyone today who doesn’t see Warhol as a major genius, and the artists of the 1980s and ’90s whom Hughes especially hated are now starting to feel as safe and substantial as Monet. (Jeff Koons caught the full blunderbuss blast of Hughes’s scorn: “He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him,” Hughes wrote.) But despite their reservations, my tablemates also remembered The Shock of the New as one of the first accounts of modern and contemporary art that was written in prose that you wanted to read, and that could keep freshman students tuned in, at a time when such art didn’t have the popular status that it has earned since.
Hughes made the mistake of continuing to write on art even once he’d come to hate most of what he saw. He could come off as simply out of touch, like a critic reared on Whistler going after Picasso. But he also made the smart move of branching off into other subjects that were more to his taste—Australia’s convict settlers; the history of Barcelona—and that won him huge praise. Hughes and I almost never agreed in our judgments on art, but that didn’t matter at all. Like every critic I know, I’ve had to admit that the best of his writing, on any subject he chose, was as good as it gets.