The last writings of Robert Hughes, Time magazine’s 30-year veteran art critic who died in 2012, were published last month under the title “The Spectacle of Skill,” a phrase taken from his enduring words: “I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Hughes belittled celebrity artists like Jeff Koons, who takes credit for work that he farms out. Although this column has occasionally disagreed with Hughes over the years, I joined his fight for artists to do their own work.
Of course, there are disagreements and there is damning with faint praise. A review of Hughes book in the Daily Beast on Dec. 12 by art critic Anthony Haden – an avowed friend – comes across like a barrel of back-handed compliments. The guy is dead, Anthony. He can’t defend himself.
What’s more, Haden’s review shows an unmistakable pattern of talking back positives, like this: “This book is a tasty meal, sweet and sour—with no shortage of the sour…” Or while acknowledging that Hughes as the best-known critics in the world, he adds, “But Robert Hughes could also be unfair and wrong.”
Then there’s this zinger: “He (Hughes) had given up on an un-happening career as a painter to write about art,” as if to suggest that Hughes’ tough talk about contemporary art was the upshot of frustration with his failed painting career rather than out of his extensive schooling in art and architecture. Haden furthered his implication saying, “He developed his expertise in venting” – (venting, Anthony?).
And here comes more of Haden’s praise-punish pattern: “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.” Some friend!
As mentioned, this column has had its moments of exasperation with Hughes, but he constantly redeemed himself by saying so many things that needed to be said and with great style. Memorable is his tagging Jeff Koons (who duplicates everyday objects in the name of art), “the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary. He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond.”
A huge fan of Lucian Freud’s paintings, Hughes practically poeticized how Freud’s art demands active engagement from the viewer and how this didn’t happen with “the other image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism.”
Also unforgettable are Hughes’s words about the paintings of Elizabeth Murray who he credited for “resurrecting painting from the grave where videos and happenings had buried it.” Her works, often seen in separated, shaped pieces, are huge and powerful. Hughes had written that when you see them, you see someone “strenuously engaged in conveying what it is like to be in the world. The effort goes beyond pat categories of ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’; and it gives her work its sweet, rambunctious and very American life.”
With Hughes gone, who else will identify the crap put out by the art world? Certainly not an apparently mean-spirited critic like Anthony Haden.