Robert Hughes, 1938-2012


Longtime art critic for Time magazine Robert Hughes died yesterday in New York City, after what his wife, Doris Downes, characterized as a long illness.

Hughes will be best remembered for “The Shock of the New,” an eight-part documentary series on the history of modern art that ran on the BBC and PBS in 1980, which was viewed by 25 million viewers. He wrote a very successful book of the same name (1991) based on the series. Besides writing criticism for Time and other publications, Hughes wrote several other books, including and one on Goya (2006), and one on Rome (2012) and created two more television documentaries, “American Visions” in 1997 and “Goya: Crazy Like a Genius” in 2002.

The critic’s take-no-prisoners assessments, combined with the accessibility and lucidity of his writing, contributed to his high profile among the general public as well as the art world. He admired the spirit of modernism—especially Abstract Expressionism—but disapproved of much contemporary art. Hughes emphasized formalism in his art criticism with his focus on artists’ formal training and technique.

Hughes was a vocal critic of art he found self-indulgent or pandering to what he saw as an overheated and overhyped art market. He detested Jeff Koons’s work, and his public feud with artist Damien Hirst attracted attention in recent years.

Born in 1938 in Australia, Hughes attended the University of Sydney, where he was part of a progressive intellectual scene. He dropped out to write for various magazines, including the original OZ, and never returned to school.

Hughes left Australia in 1964 and lived in Europe before settling permanently in New York. His son, Danton Hughes, committed suicide in 2002; Hughes and Danton had been estranged since 1981, when Danton’s mother and Hughes divorced. Hughes had married twice before Downes.

Following a car accident in 1999, Hughes suffered significant health problems, though he continued to publish his work.