The New Yorker, May 12, 1997
He’s the world’s most famous art critic, the potential of Václav Havel of Down Under, and a man ready to trace his own gunpowder trails.
One evening this winter, as a blazing tropical sun edged slowly behind the harbor and the kookaburras shrieked plaintively from their perches among the bottlebrush and palms, fifteen hundred members of the Australian Republican Movement gathered in Sydney’s Town Hall to proclaim their desire to break national ties with the Queen of England. In recent months, Australia had appeared to be in the throes of an identity crisis. Was it a multicultural Pacific nation with a vital role in Asia or an English outpost ruled by a monarch who lived ten thousand miles away? As the country prepared fro the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the question of what it meant to be Australian seemed particularly urgent.
To add to the excitement, that night’s keynote speaker was Robert Hughes-the art critic for Time and one of the foremost men of letters to emerge from Australia. From the moment Hughes arrived in Sydney, two weeks earlier, he had been directing a steady stream of ridicule at Prime Minister John Howard (Howard was dragging his heels on his promise to hold a convention to consider the republic.) appearing every day on television or in newspapers, Hughes was relishing his role as expatriate gadfly, and the media avidly chronicled his opinions on everything from immigration policy to modern art. That night in Town Hall, the sounds of foot stamping and thunderous applause greeted Hughes as he strode onto the dais. “Welcome, fellow Chardonnay-swilling elitists,” he announced an ironic grin fixed on his sun-reddened face. After a swipe at Howard (“the visionary with eyes in the back of his head”), Hughes spoke to the heart of the monarchists’ fears: that the advent of an Australian republic would deprive them under some veneer of independence we are still, at heart, a colony.”
Reports of the rally dominated the news and Hughes’s name adorned front pages for the rest of the week. Two papers reprinted his speech; “PM WELCHED ON A PROMISE: HUGHES” was the headline in the Australian. The Sydney Morning Herald announced that a majority of Australians supported the republic. Meanwhile, as the merits of the republic were debated in pubs and cafes across the city, a sort of parlor game was invented to fill the future position of President of Australia. What many people wondered, might a Hughes Administration look like? The prime Minister , who had initially refused to respond to Hughes’s baiting, finally exploded in front of Parliament, railing against what he called “Self-appointed dietitians-domestic or expatriate.”
Why so much attention was paid to the pronouncements of a writer who has made New York his home for the past twenty-seven years had much to do with Australia’s “culture cringe”-its sense of inferiority in relation to the larger world and the peculiarly reverential attitude toward expatriates it has fostered. “Australians have an ambivalent attitude toward success, which we call the ‘tall-poppy syndrome,’” the Australian novelist Peter Care told me. “If someone grows too tall, we lop his head off. A whole generation of Australian writers like Clive James, Germaine Greer, and Bob Hughes, had to leave in the sixties to make their reputation, and now they are simultaneously admired and resented for their success. Despite its anti-intellectualism, Australia takes writers very seriously.
The morning after the Town Hall rally, Hughes was in extremely good spirits as he took me to Sydney’s Sprawling fish market to shop for our lunch. An iridescent palette shimmered on top of a mountain of chipped ice: red emperor, blue-eyed cod, silver stream, yellow jack, coral trout, and scarlet perch, all part of the day’s catch. “Bonnard would have known what to do with this,” Hughes said as he surveyed the bustling scene. Although it was barely ten-thirty, he led me to a table and ordered us two dozen Pacific rock oysters and a pair of Victoria Bitters.
“When I was sixteen, I read Cyril Connolly’s ‘The Unquiet Grave,’ which is full of these glorious passages that describe him sitting by the French Mediterranean gorging on a bouillabaisse and ripe peaches,” Hughes said between oysters. “When I finally got to Europe in 1964, I took one look at those diminished little fish markets of the Tyrrhenian coast and realized that all the things Connolly had praised – the succulent food, the magnificent light and air-were exactly what I had left behind in Sydney.” These days, Hughes spends a month each year in Australia; the rest of his time he divides between his SoHo loft and a house on Shelter Island. But as he guided me around downtown Sydney it was clear that, despite nearly being flattened several times by the city’s left-lane-driving traffic, he was more at ease here than anywhere else. Hughes loves his countrymen’s irreverence and spunk – traits he described in an accent whose nasal tones grew broader every day during his stay. He says he feels less at home in America today than he did when he first arrived there, in 1970, and that he would be delighted if he could make Sydney his permanent home. In more sober moments, though, Hughes admits that repatriating would deprive him of much of the celebrity he enjoys Down Under. Whether he is an expatriate of Australia, an Aussie in America, a rakish urbanite on Shelter Island, or an outdoorsman in SoHo, part of the trick of being Robert Hughes is always being from somewhere else.
Today, Robert Hughes, who is fifty-eight, has to be accounted the most famous art critic in the world-a position vouchsafed by his art reviews in Time, essays for The New York Review of Books, and best-selling studies of art, culture, and history. “The only critic I know who wielded that kind of precise and vivacious eloquence was Ken Tynan, and in that sense Bob is Ken’s successor,” Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, says. In the eighties, Hughes was best known as a savage critic of the contemporary art world, dubbing its luminaries “a designer avant-garde whose ‘newness’ has all the significance of a goat-cheese pizza.” But for Hughes-a man whose true subject is the vagaries of history and culture-the art world has always been a jumping-off point. In the nineties, he turned to the culture wars: his 1993 book “Culture of Complaint” chastised the puritan sects of P.C.-left-wing “political correctness” and right-wing” patriotic correctness.” The book endorsed a nuanced form of multiculturalism which rejected identity politics yet affirmed the variegated character of American Culture. His formulation displeased the left but was downright galling to conservatives, who accused Hughes of writing in bad faith. “Frankly, I don’t think Bob gives a shit about multiculturalism,” Hilton Kramer says. “He was playing to both sides, and when you straddle the fence you can wound yourself in a very sensitive place.” Of course, this is the man about whom Hughes once wrote, “He gets less articulate feeling for the visual into 2,000 words on, say, Pierre Bonnard than John Updike can put into 200 words on a suburban housewife’s pubic hair.” Whatever Hughes’s subject, his criticism drew attention for it sheer rhetorical verve: Julian Schnabel’s shallow memoir was proof that “the unlived life is not worth examining”; Eric Fischl’s vision of suburban ennui smells of “unwashed dog, Bar-B-Q lighter fluid and sperm”; the bien-pensant left wants to create a “linguistic Lourdes, where evil and misfortune are dispelled by a dip in the waters of euphemism.”
If “Culture of Complaint” was Hughes’s primer on the American polity, “American Visions” is the culmination of his efforts to understand the American aesthetic. The book has just been published; an associated eight-part PBS series, written and narrated by Hughes, will begin to air later this month. “American Visions” is a highly opinionated history of American art-a book he calls a “love letter” to his adopted home. At more than six hundred pages, it’s a pretty long letter and in fact took a terrible toll on Hughes’s health, hurling him into a spiral of depression from which he is only now emerging. After a crash course of anti-depressants and intensive psychotherapy, Hughes was able to finish “American Visions” on deadline. He is still treating his condition with a combination of drugs and twice-weekly therapy-an experience he says has given him a new appreciation of the difficulty that artists have in disclosing themselves through their art. “I’ve inherited a distaste for spilling my guts,” he says. “But I am learning about just how far back things go-about the long gunpowder trails that have been laid since childhood and are then ignited with a great whoosh by a bewildering, random event.”
People in Sydney often describe the Hughes family as the closest thing Australia has to an aristocracy, by which they mean that it is wealthy and has long, non-convict roots. Robert Hughes’s great-grandfather John Hughes, the son of a grocer, set out from Drumshanbo, Ireland in 1839 and soon made a fortune in Australian real estate. A devout Catholic, he gave much of that money to the Church: importing an order of nuns from France, he turned the Hughes estate into a convent. “My anti-clericism has extremely deep and personal roots,” Hughes says, only half joking. The next two generations of Hugheses were prominent lawyers, and among them was Robert’s father, Geoffrey Hughes, who died of lung cancer when Robert was twelve.
Hughes’s last memory of his father is of him pulling a little aluminum model airplane from beneath his hospital pillow and handing it to him as a gift. Geoffrey Hughes flew for England in the First World War, and, according to family legend, he once battled Baron von Richthofen. As a child, Robert would spent hours staring at a bullet-riddled strut that hung in the play room. “I’d press my finger through a bullet hole and think, if that had been an inch to the right, I wouldn’t be here,” Hughes recalls.
Robert, the third of three boys (his brother Thomas became Australia’s attorney general in the late sixties), was a devoutly religious child, who in his early teens sometimes stood on a soapbox in The Domain, a Sydney park, lecturing picnickers on proofs of God’s existence. In accordance with family tradition, he studied with the Jesuits. “Religion completely governed my early years,” he says. “When I see a Quattrocento fresco, I know all the saints.”
Each year, the students were sequestered for weeklong indoctrination sessions, during which priests battled for their souls. “These priests were great orators,” Hughes says. He then affects an Irish brogue, at once kindly and terrifying: “’Now, you boys know what it’s liked to be kicked in a certain place when you’re playing football? It’s agony isn’t it? You roll on the ground and wish you could vanish off the face of the earth. Gradually, it passes and you feel O.K. But when you are in Hell you’re never going to feel O.K., because a big demon with a great horny clawed foot will be kicking you in that place twenty times a minute, sixty minutes an hour, twenty-four hours a day, for all eternity! ’ It frightened the shit out of me, but it also instilled a reverence for the power of language which I have never lost.”
Hughes arrived at the University of Sydney in 1956 and was soon a locally famous polymath: a pointer who’s work sold in Sydney’s galleries, a poet who had won the Henry Lawson Prize for verse, a playwright who had won the university’s drama award, and a prolific journalist whose articles and drawings appeared in both the college newspaper and the Sydney Observer. It was an exciting time to be at the university: the writers Clive James and Germaine Greer were there, as was the filmmaker Bruce Beresford. “Impossibly handsome, and loved by all the women” is how Beresford remembers Hughes. “He would get terribly drunk at parties and people would just sit at his feet and listen to him pontificate.” Clive James has depicted him as “the artiest young man on the scene”:”His lanky form Englishly decked out in lamb’s wool, suede, and corduroy, he sloped forward on long-toed desert boots while aiming at you a cigarette whose startling length suggested that he was about to launch a poisoned dart.
Hughes flunked out in his first year. “I was this little creature of God, just boiling over with testosterone and lust, who had spent my adolescence in semimonastic circumstances and went completely crazy,” he says. A crisis ensued at home when it became clear that he was not going to continue the family’s legal tradition. Eager to fulfill his mother’s desire that her youngest son have a profession, he enrolled in architecture school.
He also continued to write, and one day in 1958, when he was hanging around the Observer, he got a break: the paper’s irascible editor-in-chief announced that he’d fired the art critic, and grabbed the architecture student as a replacement. By the time he was twenty-five, he had written two books: a monograph on the eccentric painter Donald Friend and “The Art of Australia,” which is still considered a minor classic.
Hughes’s work attracted the attention of the distinguished Australian journalist Alan Moorehead, who advised the young journalist to seek his fortune outside Australia and told him he could always come to visit him at his Italian residence, in Porto Ercole, a small fishing village eighty miles north of Rome. After a three-month spree in London, Hughes arrived penniless at Moorehead’s doorstep in late August, 1964. Determined to see as much art as possible, he spent the next year riding a motorcycle through Tuscany and Umbria, exploring crumbling churches and decrepit abbeys, thrilled to see the art of the Italian Renaissance in its original context. In Tuscania, he met an innkeeper who ran a side business in fake bronzes, which he kept buried in a shallow trench outside. “Let’s go piss on the gods,” the inn’s patrons would say as they “authenticated” the bronze’s patina. As much as the art, Hughes loved the sense of history that seemed to exist everywhere in Italy. “It was the opposite of Australia, where everything was either so old as to be beyond archaeology or so new that the paint was still drying,” he says.
Hughes returned to London in 1966 and began freelancing for the Sunday Times and the Observer. He rented an enormous apartment near Regent’s Park for seven hundred pounds a year and could be spotted, decked out in leather, roaring around King’s Road on his motorcycle. He was also a regular at his publisher George Weidenfeld’s literary salon, along with writers and politicians like Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Abba Eban. “Bob was this curious combination of a charming extrovert and a studious fellow who possessed a great deal of reading knowledge-all tinged with a delicious touch of vulgarity,” Weidenfeld says.
He began doing occasional cultural stories for television. “I remember a report Bob did from the London motor show,” Sir John Drummon, then an executive producer for BBC2, says. “He had one leg hanging suggestively over an elegant sports car and was looking out rather slyly from under a long curly of hair, and I thought, Oh, my! Bob was edgy and dangerous in a way we hadn’t seen.” Hughes even became the host of a quiz show called “The Art Game,” in which experts were asked to identify a painting after being shown a fragment of it. “There wasn’t a rigid division between television and high culture at the BBC,” Hughes recalls. “They didn’t think in terms of debasement or enhancement.”
For all his escapades, Hughes didn’t really get a full dose of the sixties until 1967, when he married Danne Emerson, a fellow-Australian, with whom he had his only child, Danton. “We had, to put it mildly, a pretty rocky and weird marriage,” he says. “she was as wild as a witch, determined to fully experience the politicis of the day….She was the only person who made me feel like a real conservative.” Within a few years, the marriage effectively ended. (they were divorced in 1981, when Hughes married his current wife, Victoria.)
With so many distractions during those years in London, Hughes hadn’t had so much time to write. He abandoned a biography of Leonardo da Vinci after a few chapters, but in 1968 he managed to finish “Heaven and Hell in Western Art,” which he says he published in order to get the Jesuits out of his system. “There is very little in today’s pornography of sadism which, for sheer ingenuity and nastiness, even begins to approach the eschatological frenzies of the Church,” he wrote. By turns learned and cheeky, the book foreshadowed the best of his later work and received respectful reviews.
It also caught the eye of Henry Grunwald, the managing editor of Time, who ordered his staff to find Hughes. It wasn’t an easy task. “I was broke, my phone was disconnected, and, because I was living in continuous fear of the bailiffs I was very circumspect about whom I opened the door to,” Hughes says. “Late one night, my next-door neighbor knocked on my window and told me I had a call from New York, so I climbed onto the ledge, snuck across to his flat, and found myself talking to this guy with an American accent who announced, ‘You’re a very hard man to get, Mr. Hughes.’ I asked him who he was, and he said, ‘My name is Baker, and never mind where I’m from. I just want to talk to you. You see, we want you to come work for us in America.’ All these paranoid warning bells went off in my head, and I thought that this guy was from the C.I.A., and that he wanted to recruit me because I had been protesting the Vietnam War and my brother was the Australian attorney general. This all ran together in my fuddled brain, and I screamed, ‘If you imagine that I would join an outfit like yours, you Fascist pig, you must be out of your fucking mind!’” Once the misunderstanding had been cleared up, Hughes met with Christopher Porterfield, an editor at Time. “It was an extremely pleasant lunch,” Porterfield recalls. “Bob had only two questions-would we have to cut his hair and would he have to sell his bike.
The art critic Barbara Rose was waiting for Hughes when he arrived at Kennedy Airport in September, 1970. “Bob was wearing love beads, a transparent linen shirt, a yellow wide-wale corduroy suit, and a black leather coat with nail heads on the back that spelled out ‘THIS IS NOT A COAT,’” she says. Hughes found a loft in SoHo for two hundred dollars a month. “It would get so cold that the bathroom water would freeze, and we would have to use the bathroom at the Spring Street Bar,” says John Loring, now Tiffany’s design director, who lived downstairs.
Loring was known for throwing parties, while Hughes, upstairs, prepared elaborate dinners for dozens of friends. An interest in culinary archeology led Hughes to try to re-create ancient recipes such as a fish sauce he had read about in the writings of Pliny. The songwriter Jerry Lieber remembers an authentic Roman feast that Hughes spent two weeks preparing. “Bob even cured the meat,” Lieber says. “He took a fifteen-inch slab that looked like a dusty doormat and hung it out the window.”
When he wasn’t in the kitchen, Hughes was often riding his Honda CB-750, showing up at openings out-fitted in leather. At other times, he would have a macaw perched on his shoulder-“my Long John Silver period”-or display outrageous plumage of his own. The writer Alexander Cockburn recalls the time when he and Hughes pledged to finally pay their taxes. “Jason Epstein told us to see The New York Review of Books’ accountant,” Cockburn says. “When I met Bob with my shopping bags full of crumpled receipts, he was dressed in this incredibly dashing velvet suit.” As the pair approached the accountant’s desk, he eyed them warily and asked, “Will you be filing separately or jointly?”
Hughes’s blustery persona stood out in Time’s buttoned-down corporate culture, even as his lush, lyrical prose contrasted with the magazine’s sober reportorial style. But in other respects the marriage was a perfect fit. The especially reactive nature of a newsweekly was congenial to his synoptic sensibility and allowed him to craft fluent primers on a wide variety of subjects, often subsidizing his lack of expertise with rhetorical dazzle. He thought of himself as a writer, among whose chief passions was art – “I am too stupid to be a theorist,” he says. Hughes had always been uncomfortable playing the role of a critic-as-prophet and had little desire to discover or champion new talent, the way Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg had done with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
His skill at traversing the high-low divide at Time led ABC to choose him as co-anchor, with the legendary Esquire editor Harold Hayes, of “20/20,” which it launched in 1978 to compete with “60 Minutes.” They were fired after one show. “In addition to being pointless, the new ABC News Magazine is dizzyingly absurd,” the Times wrote. Hughes still cringes at the memory. “There is something cleansing to the soul about having made an idiot of yourself in front of twenty million people,” he says.
A far happier experience was “The Shock of the New” – his hugely successful television series and book on the history of modern art, which, in 1981, transformed him into a bona-fide television celebrity. In addition to these projects, he spent much of the seventies and early eighties doing research on Australia’s origins as a penal colony, a project that came to fruition in 1987 as “The Fatal Shore.” He got the idea for the book in 1974 while he was finishing a documentary in Port Arthur, the town that had once been Australia’s most infamous prison.
“One afternoon, I went for a walk along its great basalt cliffs,” he says. “Being rather acrophobic, I lay down on the ground, crawled on my stomach, and hung my head over a ledge dropping hundreds of feet to the water. It was a completely still day as this endless membrane of blue spread before me. Suddenly, the penny dropped. I realized that the difference between the Australian and the American experience was that in America space liberates, while in Australia space was the ultimate prison. I thought, Christ, there’s a book in this!”
Even readers with little interest in Australia were drawn by his elegiac yet unsentimental account of the intricacies of the late-eighteenth-century statecraft. Between 1787 and 1868, more than a hundred and sixty thousand men, women, and children were sent to Australia, in what Hughes described as “the largest forced exile of citizens at the behest of a European government.” Hughes’s code name for his project was “Kangaroots”: even as he was finding his feet in New York’s tumultuous seventies art scene, he felt an expatriate’s yearning to reattach himself to his native land.
Barbara Rose acted as Hughes’s downtown Virgil. In addition to being Frank Stella’s ex-wife, she was an influential critic who introduced Hughes to editors of Artforum, Vogue’s Alexander Lieberman, and the artist Robert Motherwell, who became something of a mentor. In explaining his aesthetic, Hughes often quotes Motherwell’s observation that painting is “the skin of the world”: an artist’s job is to confront reality, Hughes believes, not to erect platonic or utopian structures. “Painting is, one might say, exactly what mass visual media are not: a way of specific engagement, not of general seduction,” he writes in his 1987 monograph on Lucian Freud. “Everywhere, and at all times, there is a world to be re-formed by the darting subtlety and persistent slowness of the painter’s eye.” His own aesthetic thus favored work that was strongly embodied and historically informed over work in which argument or attitude was paramount.
As the eighties wore on, Hughes found himself increasingly out of sympathy with an art world that seemed fuelled by irony, money, and media hype. One would have thought that the revival of interest in representational painting in particular would please him, as he had always favored artists like Susan Rothenberg, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, R.B.Kitaj, and, of course, Lucian Freud. But in general he was disappointed by the art of the eighties-“a figurative revival partly spearheaded by the poorest generation of craftsmen in American history,” he called it.
Hughes’s complaint that contemporary artists can’t draw is a charge far more serious than that they lack technical skill: it implies that they fail to confront the very concreteness of the world, however abstractly they may choose to depict it. For Hughes, an artist who can’t draw the human figure is like a poet who knows only half the alphabet: he may possess considerable passion, but he lacks the vocabulary to express it. “I think of art as a continuous, albeit badly scarred, tradition,” he says. “I don’t like art that thinks it is enough to quote the high achievements of the past-that pretends to be heavy and then takes itself lightly. It merely puts you in a kind of free-floating zone.”
That was the zone favored by many of the decade’s most successful artist. Their graffiti, broken plates, and collages of pornographic photographs and liquor advertisements drove Hughes to new heights of nettled eloquence. Comparing Schnabel’s paintings to Sylvester Stallone’s acting (“a lurching display of oily pectorals”) and describing Basquiat’s Whitney retrospective as “a parody of a funeral rite” were only a warmup for the progressively cruel treatment that Hughes meted out to David Salle. “Looking at his work is like watching a TV set in the rain with the sound off,” he wrote in 1983; “the yuppie market’s dream,” he commented in 1985. On the occasion of his mid-career retrospective, in 1987 (Salle was thirty-four), Hughes nominated Salle for the title of “Most Overrated Young American Artist.” He concluded his public flagellation in 1991 by asking, “Is there a duller or more formula-ridden artist in America?”
Salle is happy to return the complement. “Bob Hughes is the worst kind of snob,” he says. “He serves only one function: he allows people to say, ‘The rich are assholes, and aren’t we glad we’re not one of them?’ I see him in the same way he sees me, which is as a symptom of a larger malaise. He reinforces people’s prejudices the way demagogues always have. He appeals to their insecurity and anti-intellectualism.” The N.Y.U. art historian Robert Rosenblum says, “It’s the same thing that happened to Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. Hughes got pickled in the values of his own generation and now sneers at young artists for threatening his old world.”
Some people wonder whether Hughes’s determination not to be duped by the slippery logic of postmodern art didn’t blind him to its achievements. “Bob spends a lot of time lampooning obvious nonsense, but, as de Kooning once said, a lot of great art comes from absurd ideas,” the Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr says. “What is sillier than a picture of the sleeve of a Romanian blouse, which Matisse did, or paintings of all the ways to see a coffee cup, which the Cubsists did?” The Whitney’s director, David Ross, has received some of Hughes’s harshest criticism. “I have spent a lot of time trying to answer the question ‘Who is Robert Hughes and why does he hate me so much?’” Ross says. “I’ve concluded that he has built-in hostility to anything having to do with the Warholian or Duchampion ethos, and I just don’t see the advantage in always assuming that every artist is trying to get away with something.”
Hughes himself, looking back at the decade, concedes that he may have been too hard on some artists. “I guess I got a bit too Old Testamenty and patriarchal,” he says. “Would I be so intemperate today? I don’t know.”
“American Visions” is Hughes’s bid to join the grand tradition of Edmund Wilson’s “Patriotic Gore” and Alfred Kazin’s “On Native Grounds”: by weaving a series of elegant vignettes and readings into a compelling narrative, he has fashioned a rich aesthetic chronicle of what it means to be an American. For Hughes, one of the fundamental American tropes is the myth of its newness, “the perpetual renovation which, from the time of the Puritan arrival in the seventeenth century, stood as the promise of God’s contract with a chosen people in the New World.” He follows his leitmotiv from its spiritual origins to the eighteenth-century idea of political renewal, and from the westward expansion of the mid-eighteen-hundreds through to the technological advances of the turn of the century, which fuelled the belief in America’s uninterrupted progress. The rise of the city signals America’s secularization: landscape painting is overtaken by architecture; the cathedral of making replaces the temple of nature; and the figure of the heroic artist is nudged aside by the engineer-“a practical moralist, showing the application of God’s laws to the physical world,” Hughes writes.
Given Hughes’s perorations on America’s frayed polity in “Culture of Complaint,” the most striking aspect of “American Visions” is the sense it conveys of American art as an organic tradition-a continuous conversation between artists of the past and of the present. Donald Judd’s minimalist sculpture is presaged by the Puritan’s spare aesthetic, and Brice Marden’s color blocks look back to nineteenth-century Amish quilts. According to Hughes, even Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko sit squarely in the grand tradition of American landscape painting. Indeed, Hughes argues that after America’s newness, nature itself is our most influential myth-God’s fingerprint, rendered in the form of landscape paintings.
Hughes’s tour de force ends on a pessimistic note. Like the republic itself, he declares, American art has lost touch with the vitality that once made it so fresh and compelling: America is no longer new, and its artists’ frank, colloquial style has been watered down by an enervating combination of media overload and postmodern irony. “The ancient tension between nature and culture is over,” he writes. “Culture has won. It has colonized all the space in the American imagination that nature once claimed.” Indeed, one might read “American Visions” as an extended assault on Clement Greenberg’s position that contemporary art has “advanced” from figuration to pure abstraction by shedding its natural and spiritual influences according to the iron logic of aesthetic modernism. “Church, Copley, West, Cole, and all the others weren’t simply crawling around like larvae in order that Jackson Pollock could one day miraculously flourish as a bloody butterfly!” Hughes says.
Producing the “American Visions” documentary took more than two years, six months of which were spent on the road. In the spring of 1996, with the shooting completed, Hughes panicked when he realized that he had less than a year to write the accompanying book. He put himself on an unforgiving schedule: in order to come up with eight chapters in as many months, he would rise at four every morning and write fifteen hundred words a day without fail. “It completely overwhelmed me,” he says. “I had no choice other than to construct a pressure cooker around myself to disarm the self-doubt with the intensity of the work. There were times when I felt that I was falling completely to pieces – that I had become a writing machine, little different from the computer I was using. I think it was Vasari who once said that every painter paints himself, and that is sort of what I did; I found myself latching more onto the images of contradiction and frustration than onto those of primal joy.” As the due date neared, Hughes became fixated on the section of his computer screen which indicated the number of kilobytes he had written, and he chanted to himself, “Ten K a day keeps the doctor away.”
Starting on Easter Sunday, 1996, Hughes’s descent gathered speed. “I just went through the floor,” he says. At one point, he grew so despondent that he hurled his shotgun into the ocean out of fear that he might turn it on himself. He began drinking heavily, ignoring a doctor’s warnings that it would destroy his already beset liver. He was unable to sleep for more than five hours a night, and he lost at least thirty-five pounds. Rumors circulated about the disintegration of his fifteen-year marriage to Victoria. Phone calls from worried friends weren’t returned. A once extravagantly gregarious soul had withdrawn completely from the world. “I couldn’t bear to see even my good friends,” he says. “I couldn’t follow the thread of a conversation. It was embarrassing, and I was so extremely sad that I didn’t want to inflict that on anybody.” During a formal ceremony in which he was receiving an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he was suddenly seized by panic and slipped out.
Even today, Hughes’s friends are reluctant to discuss the details of his breakdown. “Bob had always written so easily that he had never suffered from the kind of frustration some writers deal with all the time,” one friend says. “I think he was simply shocked that this could happen to him.” Another friend says, “He was the last pre-psychological intellectual I knew. That whole terrain was completely new to him.” Hughes speaks of his collapse with the awed wonder of a college freshman dipping into Freud for the first time. “I now see that the death of my father, when I was twelve, was a total disaster for me,” he says. “Most kids think their father is going to live forever, and I wasn’t an exception.”
A long-lapsed Catholic, Hughes discovered that the all-explaining worldview that had been drilled into him by the Jesuits hadn’t prepared him for the anomie of late middle age. “The breakdown was the final blow to the few shards of religious belief I still had in a benign organizing intelligence,” he says. “I suddenly realized, as I had never realized before, that we are alone.”
Robert Hughes’s relationship to the art world is a lot like Times’s relationship to Manhattan: physically smack in the center but culturally at the margins. Although his loft is only a matter of feet from the galleries of West Broadway, he rarely attends any openings, and he has never met most of the artists or dealers he criticizes. In fact, while painters and dealers are gnashing their teeth at his rebukes, Hughes is usually a hundred miles to the east, in his spacious Shelter Island home.
Hughes likes the Cannery Row aspect of Shelter Island-its general squalor-and he also likes its distance, physical and psychological, from the frenzied socializing of the Hamptons. As he showed me around the property, he identified everything according to the book that paid for it. “The Shock of the New” bought the first home, a small house down the road. The present compound was underwritten by “The Fatal Shore,” while the sixty-food-long pool was built with an award from the city of Barcelona for his 1992 best-seller, “Barcelona.” (The bounty from “American Visions” will go toward renovating his loft.)
Hughes has a well-equipped carpentry shop on the first floor of a gray-shingled barn, and on a large study and a library crammed with art books on the second. An elaborate vegetable garden with sixteen raised beds sits at the far end of the property, awaiting a summer harvest. Precisely arranged plots of yellow perennials and roses flank the main house. Two Australian shepherd dogs tear back and forth across the lawn as Hughes shows me his rototiller (“the fat middle-aged man’s substitute for a Harley”). We make our way across a latticed walkway that connects the study to the main house and down a staircase on whose walls hang a Frank Auerbach picture of Hughes, a bright Frank Stella print, and a Lucian Freud print of a corpulent nude man whose penis follows you like an eye in a Renaissance portrait. “I never know quite where to put that one,” he says.
Although Hughes often complains about his isolation on the island, he acknowledges that it has spurred his productivity. Virtually all of his books, and hundreds of Time articles, were written here over the past fifteen years. He started living here not long after marrying Victoria; friends often complain that she keeps Hughes from them, but they also credit her with helping him to harness his talent.
The New York intellectual community is filled with stories of hapless writers and artistes whom Hughes has coaxed into taking part in fishing or shooting trips here. Leon Wieseltier remembers a long boat trip during which the engine broke down just before a violent squall. “I was sure our boat was going to pull into the dock full of our corpses, just like ‘Flying Dutchman,’” he says. “It was an adventure on the highbrow seas.” Hughes will sometimes embark on two-day deep sea tuna expeditions with Peter Matthiessen and the artists John Alexander and Alan Shields. On those occasions, he packs sushi knives, wasabi, and soy sauce, so he can carve up fresh fish as soon as it lands on deck. Off the island, Hughes-whose circle of intimates has always included plutocrats as well as artistes-goes trout-fishing with the financier Henry Kravis at his Colorado estate.
After lunch-spaghetti carbonara, salad, and red wine-we hoped into Hughes’s blue Dodge Ram pickup and drove over to the local marina to check on the condition of his boat and to look at a sloop he was considering buying Victoria for her birthday. It is a handsome craft with teak siding and dark-blue trim. He looked over its specifications and ordered the twenty-five-thousand-dollar boat, explaining that the extravagant gift was intended to help mend their marriage after his erratic behavior during the past year.
With “American Visions” behind him, Hughes is thinking about exploring those psychological “gunpowder trails” that led to his mental breakdown-perhaps in a memoir about his Australian Catholic childhood. Then there is a book for which he has a long-standing contract-a study of Goya, which many of his colleagues think may prove to be his greatest achievement. “like Bob, Goya was an outsider who made a very successful career in high society, while never being truly of it,” Barbara Rose says. “He was a swashbuckler who hung out at the court, ran around with the majas and the majos, and was the Duchess’s lover. But, underneath, Goya was a revolutionary, like Bob, and in that sense Bob is uniquely qualified to understand his psychology.”
Hughes says he is intimidated by the prospect of writing about an artist as psychologically complex as Goya, especially so soon after his own breakdown. “It’s like a cave I want to enter and yet don’t want to enter,” he says. “Goya had a deeply catholic sense that man was a fallen and sinful creature, which I share. He doesn’t paint pictures that say, ‘Here are these people hacking one another to death, but it’s all going to be O.K. in the end, chaps!’ From the tapestry designs of his youth the almost undecodable black paintings of his old age, he always pushed himself to the limit. A friend recently told me I should wait until I’m sixty to write the Goya book, and I thought, My God, but I almost am!”