Friday, July 28, 2017

Birthday: "An ideal museum show would be a mating of Brideshead Revisited with House & Garden, provoking intense and pleasurable nostalgia for a past that none of its audience has had."


Robert Studley Forrest Hughes (1938-2012)
Art critic, historian

What a long five years it has been since Robert Hughes died. He loomed so large- in 1997 a writer called him the most famous art critic in the world- and so long- 31 years at Time magazine- the silence of his death seems magnified.

Just 79 years ago today, he was born into a family of Australian lawyers. He read art and architecture at the University of Sydney, falling in with the clever young things of the time: Germaine Greer and Clive James- who dubbed Hughes “the golden boy” were among his drinking buddies.

He cut his teeth in journalism as a cartoonist and art critic for a Sydney magazine and published a history of Australian art at 28. He decamped to Italy for a time, then to London in 1965. He jumped into the hipoisie with both feet, writing for all the top papers at the same time.

Being footloose on another continent than one’s own tends to have a liberating effect for provincials, and Hughes partied hard. He later claimed he got gonorrhea from his first wife (of three), who got it from the rock star Jimi Hendrix, and when Time called to offer him its art critic’s post, he was so high he thought it was the CIA messing with him.

In a posthumous memoir, Hughes described his time at Time:

Nobody at Time ever told me what shows to review, still less what to say about them. All that was left entirely to me—a remarkable guarantee of editorial freedom. Everyone, from the managing editor down, agreed that since I had been hired for my judgment and for a certain independence of mind, they did not think it their business to interfere with either. Actually, I don’t think any of the editors cared strongly enough about art in general, or had enough acquaintances in the “art world,” to put any pressure on me. I don’t know what it would have been like to review classical music, especially opera, for an expert and highly opinionated frequenter of the Met and Carnegie Hall like Henry Grunwald [Time’s managing editor from 1968 until 1977]. I assume that the post would not have been without its difficulties—though they could hardly arise now, since the Time magazine that exists today is much less likely to be interested in such obscure and elitist diversions as weighing the merits of a production of Tosca, let alone an evening of Phil Glass. You could as easily imagine the magazine reporting on a quarrel over taxonomy between lepidopterists.

In 1970, when I went on Time’s payroll as its art critic—I encountered references through the next three decades to the magazine’s “chief” art critic, but in fact there was only one. The magazine didn’t have all that much space for art coverage. That it regularly had any at all was something of a miracle, due entirely to Henry Luce’s original belief—not shared by all managing editors—that once Time acquired the ability to print in color, the best thing it could do with such pages was use them to show art to readers. This, happily for me, had become one of the magazine’s minor traditions.

While no one seemed to care what he did, he only had, at most, 52 slots a year into which he could cover a wide-ranging, global topic:

This was both a curse and a blessing. It was a curse because a lot of interesting stuff was bound to go unreported and un-noted. It was a blessing because in a week that carried no art story, I was free to work on a book, or goof off, or go fishing, or take a (liberally interpreted) “research trip.” Clearly, since I got paid every week, the blessings outweighed the curses. Being the art critic of Time in the 70s was like enjoying a perpetual research grant from the most benign of foundations. I could go more or less anywhere I wanted, look at anything I wished to, and be paid generously for doing it.

Hughes cheerfully availed himself of all that Time’s expense accounts offered, in those last, twilight days of Mad Men. He stayed in the best hotels, ate at the best tables, and knew the most interesting people:

Françoise [Sagan, the French writer] perceived that I did not have a girlfriend in Paris, thought this a waste and a pity, and (behind my back) told her brother to use his contacts to fix me up. He did. At Régine’s one night, Jacques introduced me to a truly spectacular young South American named, as many Venezuelan or Uruguayan beauties apparently tended to be in those days, Lourdes. (Carmen was too obvious a pseudonym for a Latina; Lourdes or Mercedes, the first with its intimations of sexy melancholy and the second with its air of cushioned eight-cylinder luxury, were preferable.) He said she was an art student. I found this a trifle implausible, but I wasn’t going to argue. Would she have dinner with me the next evening? Delighted, she said in prettily accented English. She would pick me up at my hotel. We would have dinner at Laurent. “Do you know Laurent?” beamed Jacques. “No.” “Then you will absolutely love it,” said the young lady. I couldn’t have agreed more. With a girl who looked like this, I would have loved a tepid croque-monsieur in a bar.

And as a matter of fact, I did love it, for all its air of banquier pretension. I had half-expected Jacques to join us the next evening, but he did not come, and I had Lourdes to myself. It was clear from the moment we came in through its embassy-like portal and were ushered to a corner table that Lourdes had been there before. Subtle glances, though not so subtle as to be entirely invisible to me, were exchanged between my date and the maître d’hôtel. I am told that the clientele of Laurent today is wall-to-wall Arabs from the Gulf emirates, but then, it tended to be rich seizième Parisians, along with Germans, Iranians, and a few Americans, their conversations absorbed and rendered inaudible by the swags and drapes and carpeting, like the hum of excessively discreet bees in a silk-and-linen hive.

I was presented with the menu and a wine list, leather-bound, embossed, and as thick as a volume of Proust. I know something about food, but of wine I am largely ignorant—discouraged, certainly, by the enormous pretension of the connoisseurship that attends it. Lourdes took it on herself to simplify matters. “Un peu de Cristal,” she piped. Roederer Cristal 1969, that straw-colored and cracklingly dry nectar, the most expensive champagne in the world, the Coca-Cola of the squillionaires, the magic fluid that dissolves all the embarrassment of not knowing about growths and years and districts and the differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux. Today there is something decidedly vulgar about Cristal—it is, after all, the preferred power drink of those bling-encrusted hip-hop producers who get chauffeured around New York in black Escalades by thugs with 9-mm. Glocks in their armpits—but things seemed otherwise in ’72. We were to dispose of two bottles of it. Lourdes also proceeded to demonstrate, to my amazement, that (at least in this region of the stratosphere) there was no apparent relation between the amount of food its inhabitants put away and the ligne of their figures. To put it bluntly, she gorged as though she had skipped lunch, but came out of it looking like the Sugar Plum Fairy, albeit one with truly wonderful breasts. She wanted some caviar en blini. She insisted that I try some of her duck liver, not forgetting one or two of its abundant nuggets of black truffle. If Laurent had had ortolans en caissette, those tiny and rare buntings served whole in fluted paper cases, I am sure her relentless and champing jaws would have disposed of half a dozen before proceeding to the civet de lièvre avec pommes soufflées, and thence to the tart of Anjou pears with a little rhyming pear sorbet on the side, and finally, like some marathon runner breaking the tape, to the immense trolley of cheeses. She ate her way through all this without the slightest appearance of strain. It was I who sweated and inwardly groaned, for my menu had prices on it whereas, in the chauvinistic manner of French restaurants then, hers did not.

And then, like the heavy judgment of God on the sinner, the bill came. It was a double blow, firstly because the sum was immense—somewhere near the G.N.P. of a small central European republic—and secondly because Laurent turned out not to accept the only kind of credit card I had. With Lourdes’s exploratory fingers by now on my thigh, I shut my eyes, directed my inner gaze across the room, opened them again—and was suddenly flooded with relief. There, on the other side of the restaurant, was the hen-shaped form of my mentor and friend, the man who had taken me out of Europe in the first place, the managing editor of Time, Henry Anatole Grunwald. And although I very much liked his wife, Beverly, I was even more relieved to see that he was not dining with her. He was sitting with a woman less than half his age, another and equally gorgeous Lourdes or Mercedes (or possibly Heidi or Marie-Josée), who was clearly engrossed in their conversation, as indeed any girl might be. Dear Henry, sheepish to find me across the restaurant, paid for the feast and never mentioned a word.

As early as 1993, he described the work of Jeff Koons as “so overexposed that it loses nothing in reproduction and gains nothing in the original.”

“Koons is the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary,” he summarized, adding: “He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond.”

Hughes’ enthusiasms were magnified by his skill in describing them. In The Weekly Standard, John Gardner notes, Hughes wrote of John Singer Sargent that he "was the last of what had passed, not the first of what was to come; but he still looks impressive, and one realizes his sense of decorum went deeper than the mere desire to curate the vanity of the rich."

Likewise, when Jackson Pollock "found he could throw lines of paint in the air, the laws of energy and fluid motion made up for the awkwardness of his fist, and from then on, there was no grace that he could not claim."

Hughes is reckoned a traditionalist at heart, though what he was, more, was a critic who could tell the difference between the merits of art as art rather than the merits it attracted like barnacles from the celebrity exploits of the artist, or the latest auction-topping sale. He admired Warhol but felt that, after a few years, his Factory was less about producing the work that turned art inside out for a few years, and more about feeding the starmaker machine.  As in architecture, there are originals, and knockoffs, sometimes, from the same creator. "What strip mining is to nature the art market has become to culture,” he wrote.

A respected biographer and historian, Hughes produced fifteen books ranging from a study of Goya to The Fatal Shore, an account of the founding of Australia. A 1999 car wreck in Australia left him comatose for five weeks, then on trial for negligent driving. Banned from driving for three years and hit with heavy fines, he made some intemperate remarks about his homeland that sent his reputation- always oscillatory there- to a new low.

Hughes had to sell his Harley and was reduced to a walking stick. His injuries plagued him the rest of his life, finally winning out when he was 74.

He produced documentaries. There was an eight part series on modern art for the BBC, and one on American art in 1997 ("Landscape is to American painting what sex and psychoanalysis are to the American novel”).

He orbited the talk shows and wrote for all the magazines. His one remarkable FAIL was as the inaugural co-host of the ABC series 20/20, with Esquire editor Harold Hayes, in 1978.

Not for them the stodgy stopwatch of “60 Minutes”: the opening sequence consisted of a pair of eyeglasses, whose lenses showed colored bars, which are often seen in the SMPTE test pattern (used when television stations were off the air between sign-off and sign-on). The eyeglasses were keyed over a yellow background, and rotated to its rear position to reveal the 20/20 studio.

There was more. Roone Arledge wrote in his memoirs that the worst of the first show was the Claymation segments featuring caricatures representing then-President Jimmy Carter (singing "Georgia on My Mind") and Walter Cronkite intoning, "That's the way it was” at the hour’s end.

Critics hated the show so much that Hayes and Hughes were fired within the week. Hugh Downs, who never stretched anyone’s boundaries, was brought in for the second show. He stayed for twenty years.

Today the show would likely get rapturous reviews. But that, he often said, is the way of the world: "One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture: it's like being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don't have any control over the action going on upstairs."

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