The Spectacle of Skill, a book of pieces by Robert Hughes, is more than welcome.
He had covered art for Time for a decade when he fronted The Shock of the New, his 1980 BBC/Time-Life television series, an eight parter on art, which began with Impressionism. It was brilliant, smart, with no talking down.
He became surely one of the best-known art writers in the world until his death in 2012.
This book is a tasty meal, sweet and sour—with no shortage of the sour—and it includes a chunk of unpublished memoir, ending with a threnody about and for his son, Danton, an unexplained suicide.
Bob Hughes was not the first person I knew to kick the pixiedust of ‘60s London for Manhattan but certainly the one I knew best.
I had a studio on the King’s Road, Chelsea, Hughes and his wife, Danne, lived in a nearby square.
A big, open fellow, one of the Australians who were a core element of Swinging London, Hughes was trenchantly entertaining, both face-to-face and in print.
He had given up on an un-happening career as a painter to write about art for several posh rags and I have vivid, if fragmentary memories of haute-bohème parties (in their place in ... was it Chelsea Square?) and a convulsively open marriage.
But all of a sudden, the 60s were done. In 1970 Bob and Danne tugged their infant son, Danton—named after the French revolutionary—to Manhattan and Hughes’ perch at Time.
A news weekly? It seemed odd. I would later be told that Henry Grunwald, the managing editor, had been impressed by Heaven and Hell in Western Art, Hughes’ first book, published a couple of years before.
Tales were soon reaching London’s hippiedom of Hughes shaking up the button-down culture by zooming to work on a motorbike, wearing leathers. And certainly his meaty prose, his invigorating turns of phrase shook up arts coverage.
By the time I arrived in Manhattan six years later he was a powerful voice both with the wide world of general readers and in the widening art world.
Hughes, who had been one of the earliest settlers in what was not yet called SoHo--he shared a loft on Prince with his family and a truculent parrot in the same building as the under-sung reportage photographer, now gone, Mary Ellen Mark--made me very welcome.
One time when I was in his office he sent me down to see Henry Grunwald, who asked politely if I was interested in working there. I believe Grunwald mentioned a Behavior column. Well, no. I was working for Clay Felker’s New York magazine. Also I had begun writing a fair amount about art myself and here Hughes was unstintingly helpful. I liked him and admired him in equal measure.
That said, there were areas of disagreement, some of which you will find in The Spectacle of Skill. Hughes was most effective writing about what he really liked--Goya, for instance, about whom he wrote a superb book.
Read him here on Whistler and--in the deftly titled The Color Of A Dog Running Away—Barcelona.
On what he disliked, what angered him, though, it was a wholly different story—as when he dealt with such of his fellow art writers as Clement Greenberg, who appears here as “Oz”, namely the fraudulent Wizard.
It was when the big money began to flood into the art world in the early 80s, though, that Bob Hughes truly entered the fray. He developed his expertise in venting, was always colorful, always equipped with telling references and, in my opinion at least, fairly consistently completely wrong.
Hughes’ principal targets included Andy Warhol. The Rise of Andy Warhol, a cover story for The New York Review of Books, published on February 18, 1982 and reprinted here, was apparently one of the few attacks that shook Warhol.
Requiem on a Featherweight, his November 21 1988 take-down of the recently OD’d Jean-Michel Basquiat in The New Republic is not republished here, but there is another volley against Julian Schnabel.
Well, these three artists are looking better and better—as is Clyfford Still, described here as “a melodramatic bore” and Gilbert & George, attacked as “primping narcissists.”
And as for such of Hughes’ sideswipes as “Who now remembers graffiti, the hot ticket of ’83? Or the East Village scene in general?” do I need to say, “Quite a number of people?”
Well, I have had deep disagreements with other friends, about art, politics, whatever, and the friendships--not being based on such matters—would usually survive.
Not so with Bob Hughes.
I was a guest at what I think must have been his fiftieth birthday dinner—Bruce Nauman was there, I recall—but a book of mine in which I expressed different opinions of the artists named above was published shortly after. And such invitations ceased.
Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst in due course become hyper-successful so they too duly popped up on Bob Hughes’s firing range.
I was in London when Hirst blithely shattered conventions, bypassed his dealers and took a massive tranche of his work to Sotheby’s. This was September 2008, just when the cratering of Lehman’s had the world’s financial system teetering on the brink.
The Friday before the Monday sale a savage attack on Hirst by Bob Hughes was published in the Brit paper, The Guardian.
What timing. I thought. The Hirst sale went over the house’s high estimate, making the artist $200 million.
And then the global system did collapse.
Christopher Knight, writing in the LA Times, described Bob Hughes’ attack on Hirst as “a lame screed”. Knight wrote that it “simply exploits a vulgar cliché that artists are charlatans, Modern art is a hoax and the public is being made a fool. ... No good comes from that — except perhaps for the writer's own Hirst-ian style bubble of lucrative celebrity.”
Wrong, I think. Hughes was a true believer, not a motormouth. His ire was real. I would see him around New York from time to time, limping, after a horrific driving accident in Australia in 1999. He died in 2012.
I continue to admire Bob Hughes. The friendship we had was, as I have written elsewhere, just a chapter. But isn’t that what life is, chapters?