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Robert Hughes, 1938-2012

Post #1565 • August 8, 2012, 11:29 AM • 4 Comments

It's worth recalling how bad art writing had become by the mid-nineties. Here's Jeff Rian prefacing an interview with Peter Halley for Flash Art in 1995:

The sociological purpose of flowcharts is to map and model behavior, whether animal or mechanical. Curiously, one of art’s synthetic purposes is to abstract some element of reality in order to see it analogically, if more resonantly, also using some kind of pattern, model, or visual gestalt which gives form to idea. Captions should be omitted in art, however, as Halley omitted them, although viewers are not apprised of this; some may even think they’re actually his. But his intention in stenciling such charts onto walls was to suggest a way to read his paintings.

Where the found flowcharts are meant to be ironic, the cartoons are only cartoonlike in substance, because they tell a tale of destruction, nuclear in type. In a sequence of nine vividly colored silkscreens, titled "Exploding Cell," a toxic gas seeps through a conduit, into a concrete-looking chamber; the gas then explodes, solidifies, and becomes forever inert. In the upper-left corner of each is a small arabesque logo, a TV-like Halley-ism, whose purpose is to keep it "pop" and therefore familiar.

It was in an atmosphere that accepted this sort of flaccid prattling as professional-grade work that I first encountered Robert Hughes's Nothing If Not Critical, an anthology that included a brilliant takedown of Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled "Requiem for a Featherweight." "A West Coast dealer is said to have maintained Basquiat in a Los Angeles studio for the few weeks he needed to crank out a show," Hughes wrote, "thrusting pot, coocaine, and heroin through the pantry door whenever the nostrils of genius began to twitch." The paragraph that followed shortly after changed my life:

Basquiat's career appealed to a cluster of toxic vulgarities. First, the racist idea of the black as naïf or rhythmic innocent, and of the black artist as "instinctual," outside mainstream culture and therefore not to be judged by it: a wild pet for the recently cultivated white. Second, a fetish about the infallible freshness of youth, blooming amid the clubs of the downtown scene. Third, an obsession with novelty—the husk of what used to be called the avant-garde, now serving only the need for new ephemeral models each year to stoke the market. Fourth, the slide of art criticism into promotion, and of art into fashion. Fifth, art investment mania, which abolished the time for reflection on a hot artist's actual merits—never were critics and collectors more scared of missing the bus than in the early eighties. And sixth, the audience's goggling appetite for self-destructive talent: Pollock, Montgomery Clift. All this gunk rolled into a sticky ball around Basquiat's tiny talent and produced a reputation.

It was as if a stallion had flicked his tail and scattered a cloud of flies. I realized for the first time that art criticism didn't have to be a prissy display of conspicuous jargon usage. It could read as well as the best nonfiction.

It has been noted many times on this blog, though not by me, that Hughes was better when he didn't like something than when he did. It's hard to dispute this, but I have come to realize that you can't ask for art criticism to be any better than the art it is describing. The best contemporary artists he has to write about in Nothing If Not Critical are Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, and Susan Rothenberg. As worthy as they are, I feel that they're not as good as Peter Halley is bad. When Hughes got to Halley in 1989, he put him in the corner like a schoolboy.

The essays of Peter Halley, whose curiously intense yet visually inert paintings of square "cells" connected by linear "conduits" are literal illustrations of [Baudrillardian] "circulation," take Baudrillard's ideas about simulation and hyperrealization so much on faith that he scarcely questions the dubious axiom that the model, in our perception of the world, has completely supplanted the real. ... Through Baudrillard, Halley gets on to one fact—that a great deal of painting, sculpture, and architecture in today's mannerist visual culture seems like a weakly motivated or merely cynical rerun of older prototypes—and inflates it into a blanket denial of all authenticity. Finita la commedia: all that is left is death, cloning, freezing, the zero degree of culture. This has a nice eschatological ring, but eschatology is a cultural construct too and this kind blandly skirts the possibility that art may have enough affirmative power to transcend such levels of sophomoric despair.

To Robert Hughes, who punched hard and above the belt. May he rest in peace.



Alan Pocaro

August 8, 2012, 1:08 PM

The man was a giant, and will be missed. By the way, was there something legible in the Jeff Rian text that I missed? Yikes!


Walter Darby Bannard

August 9, 2012, 2:02 PM

The Rian text is a gem. You should save those.

You are right about Hughes being better when he didn't like something. He had no real eye, and his likes were almost always a little, or a lot, off base. But like Hilton Kramer, when he got ahold of a deserving target he could be very entertaining.


Piri Halasz

August 9, 2012, 4:20 PM

Sorry to strike a discordant note. I know one is not to speak ill of the dead. I would freely concede that Hughes was a lot more successful writing about art for Time than I was—while I only lasted 30 months on the job, he did it for 30 years! Looking back on it, I think my big mistake, at any rate toward the end of my tenure there, was to be more interested in reaching people in the art world whom I respected, and not paying proper attention to the mass of Time's millions of readers, the overwhelming majority of whom were either not at all interested in art, or very traditional in their preferences.

Hughes didn't make that mistake—he was very good at writing for this type of reader—and if his condemnations of the contemporary scene were appreciated by sophisticates like you and me, that was just so much gravy, as those condemnations weren't written for you and me. Ditto the preferences he expressed in print.

However, in personal behavior, he sometimes (I know not how often) presented hiimself as at least a tolerater of the avant-garde—I once heard of how 3 great critics attended a David Reed opening. Hughes was listed as one of those great critics. I've no doubt he went and said how much he liked the show—but I would be very surprised if he wrote about Reed for Time. He knew as well as I did that abstract art wasn't appreciated by most readers.

And what he did with me was really infurating. Some years ago he published a memoir, in which he created a "fictional" character clearly based on myself, with a Hungarian name, the job as Time art writer preceding him and an involvement with a major story on Helen Frankenthaler. Not only was his description of her vicious and inaccurate, but his version of how I came to leave Time was completely warped and wrong.

To hear him tell it, I quit because Time wouldn't run a cover story on Frankenthaler, and that Frankenthaler was sore because Time didn't. Well, it's true that Time didn't run a cover story, but we did run a huge article on her, with four pages of excellent color photography. She was extremely pleased with that, and saw that it was included under "statements by the artist" or its equivalent in the two big books writter about her (the ones by Barbara Rose and John Elderfield). Hughes doesn't mention that huge article in his book, though if he'd done a iota of research for it in the database at Time, he couldn't have helped falling over it. And if he'd done a further iota of research (such as calling or writing me—after all, I am not that hard to find) he would have learned I quit five months later, for totally other reasons. Apparently his idea of "research" in this connection was to rehash all the twisted gossip that had evidently been bandied about by the editors whom I'd left in the lurch and who just couldn't understand how anybody in their right mind could possibly want to quit their blessed employer.

Moreover, as I said in my book, Frankenthaler told me that she'd thought it over and didn't want to be on the cover of Time. I can understand that, but Hughes obviously couldn't. I interviewed him in the early '70s, for a story that Milton Esterow wanted for Art News, then decided he didn't want it after all (it was about new trends in contemporary art, and he wanted me to interview all the big cheeses in the art world-Douglas Davis at Newsweek, Bill Rubin at MoMA, John Russell at the NY Times, and Hughes of Time. To the extent that these guys said anything, they agreed the latest new trend was hyperealism. which nobody liked—Hughes said it was "for dentists in New Jersey." Subsequently I discussed this project with Greenberg, who said he'd given Esterow the idea, but that he himself wouldn't have told me to interview the big cheeses. He thought I should have interviewed "all those young girls who are being brutalized by the artists." But I digress).

Anyway, I interviewed Hughes in his Prince Street loft, an untidy place with a shaped canvas by I think Richard Smith is the name? (anyway, Brit who in the 60s made shaped canvases). Hughes's son, still a child or an adolescent, was out in the kitchen. Hughes was apparently solely responsible for him. Hughes told me that his wife (presumably the boy's mother) had run off with Stokeley Carmichael, the African American activist (Hughes eventually remarrried, but I'm vague about who and when). He asked what I wanted to drink and the lowest proof beverage he offered me was beer, so I had that while he matched me drink for drink in hard liquor (this was mid-afternoon). He sure could hold his liquor!

He told that when he'd received the phone call from Bobby Baker, my old editor at Time, inviting him to come and take my place (some months after I'd quit), he was living in London only steps ahead of his creditors. While I am vague about the details at this point in time, the impression I received was that he was living in a three-story town house, with him taking this all-important phone call on the top floor and the ground floor entryway barricaded so that, while his creditors were pounding on the front door, they couldn't get in. (I daresay he was embellishing the reality somewhat, but the message was clear.)

No wonder he was so good at his job for Time—he knew what it was to be broke, and never wanted it to happen again. So it didn't. He became a star,with best-selling books and top ranked PBS television programs in addition to the handsome salary he was pulling down from Time. My own mother gave me a copy of The Shock of the New. I browsed it, and remember that in his description of the Rauschenberg stuffed goat sculpture, he brought out its homosexual content (probably a pretty daring thing to do in the mid-'70s for a mass audience,but he was great friends with Rauschenberg anyway and put him on the cover of Time at about the same time).

The other thing that I remember from that book was same old shit about Frankenthaler and Noland being "hedonistic." But enough! As you can see, he's inspired me to go on about him at some length. RIP.


John Link

August 12, 2012, 6:34 PM

Hughes didn't like Morris Louis either. He spoke for many art professionals when he said something to the effect of "mere beauty is not enough" about the 1986 Louis retrospective at MOMA. As Piri suggests, putting down abstraction, no matter in what terms, probably suited millions more. It was a case of words trumping art. In the meantime the tradition of the negative continues with Jed Perl's New Republic comments on the hoo-ha at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA. It is interesting how "young Turks" age and morph into grumpy old farts.



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