Trenchant reflections on life and art from an award-winning critic and historian.
Hughes (1938-2012) is represented in this collection by chapters from 8 of his 13 books, along with 125 pages from his second, unfinished memoir. Outspoken and fiercely opinionated, the author had capacious interests and uncompromising standards. “What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890?” he asked in The Shock of the New (1980). “Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all the sense that art” could offer insights into a “radically changing culture.” In Nothing If Not Critical (1990), a collection of his reviews for Time magazine, for which he served as chief art critic for more than 30 years, Hughes praises John Singer Sargent (“there is virtue in virtuosity”); acknowledges Whistler’s many faults (he was “an egomaniac, a fop, and a publicity-crazed liar”) but finds his work impressive; extols Pollock’s brilliance; and offers a long piece on the “voracious” publicity-seeker Warhol, who, he believed, pandered to “the age of supply-side aesthetics.” Chapters from Barcelona (1992) and Rome (2011) show Hughes engaging an expansive physical and cultural landscape. In his first memoir, Things I Didn’t Know (2006), he gives a harrowing account of a car accident that he barely survived. For more than five weeks, he was in a “semiconscious delirium,” experiencing “narrative phantasms of extreme clarity and unshakeable, Dalíesque vividness.” Hughes recalls his childhood in Sydney, Australia, where he reveled in the family library without the distraction of “that jabbering moronic babysitter,” the TV. The author’s unfinished chapters include an homage to his friend Robert Rauschenberg, recollections of living on Shelter Island, a satirical report of his tryout for the ABC news show 20/20, and a moving essay on the suicide of his son and his failures as a father.
The collection serves as a fine introduction to—and commemoration of—an incisive cultural critic.