Robert Hughes, who died in a Bronx hospital on Aug. 6, should by all rights have died 13 years earlier, on the evening of May 30, 1999, at the hour when “it was still daylight, but only just.” So he tells us, for it was then, as he writes in the opening page of his luminous memoir Things I Didn’t Know, out on a desert highway in Western Australia, that a passenger sedan hurtled from out of nowhere and plowed into Hughes’ car, the combined speed of the two vehicles 140 mph.
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Hughes could recall no details of the impact, saying, “the slate was wiped clean, as by a damp rag.” For some years after he would have occasion to relive the events all the same, poring over police reports and noting that, although he was charged with driving on the wrong side of the road, the three men who collided with him were “addicts and at least two were part-time drug dealers.”
Those details mattered, for Hughes read the scene as he might a moral-bearing altar panel from Flanders, seeking both meaning and resolution. And, just as if in a Brueghel or a Grünewald, Hughes saw death, “sitting at a desk, like a banker,” his mouth agape to reveal a tunnel into the afterworld.
Hughes did not fall into “the bocca d’inferno of old Christian art.” He lived, though he relied on a cane ever after and could no longer easily ride his beloved motorcycles. Badly injured, he fought his way back to doing what he had been doing hitherto, writing about travel, history, books and especially art—for he was of course best known as an art critic, indeed, probably the most famous art critic in the world.
Ever the Australian, he lacked some of the polysyllabic polish (and had none of the reactionary politics) of Hilton Kramer. He had read perhaps a dozen fewer books than Susan Sontag and thus inhabited a lower shelf in the Empyrean. And he was less a scholar than Meyer Schapiro.
He was no less rigorous a viewer and consumer of and thinker about art, though, and better than any of them, he transmitted his enthusiasm to a huge audience. Following a path carved out by Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clarke, in which the supposition was made that it was possible to talk intelligently but unhaughtily about such weighty things as art, science and philosophy and still find a mass viewership, Hughes came on like a force of nature with The Shock of the New (1980), a two-fisted, no-nonsense look at the years from Le Douanier to Warhol, effusing praise here, shooting withering barbs of criticism there, and assuring viewers and readers all the while that art mattered, that it gave form and meaning to our lives.
Though he championed the modernist program and was decidedly never bogged down by nostalgia, Hughes did not disdain tradition. He felt at home in 17th-century Rome and 19th-century Paris, “the great switchboard, storehouse, and information exchange of ideas about art, architecture, and their possibilities.” He liked late 20th-century New York even better, though he was fierce when it came to deflating those artists whom he thought needed it, perhaps most famously Warhol, whom he considered much overrated.
Hughes kept on the move, always, from one great city to another, writing of Barcelona and Rome and, of course, Australia, the subject of his epic if now overlooked book The Fatal Shore (1987). He lived well, and he scrapped and tangled, generating controversy and sparking feuds. He inhabited his landscapes, in other words, and he most decidedly filled out the frame.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus.