After critic Robert Hughes leaves art collector Alberto Mugrabi’s apartment at the end of his 2008 BBC documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, Mugrabi, breathing a sigh of relief, whispers, “He’s a tough cookie.” To call Time magazine’s uber-articulate, uber-opinionated former art critic a “tough cookie” is like calling Hurricane Katrina a “storm.”
In his deeply moving and personal tribute after Hughes’ death (in the August 7, 2012, New Yorker), Adam Gopnik said that Hughes was one of those all too rare writers:
… who, though passionately opinionated, and as often inclined to damn as praise, manage to turn opinion itself into a kind of art form, who bring to full maturity the moral qualities that hide in violent judgment—qualities of audacity, courage, conviction—and make them come so alive on the page that even if the particular object is seen in a fury, the object seems less interesting than the emotion it evoked, while some broader principle always seems defended by the indignation.
Australian born and Jesuit educated, Hughes came to New York in 1970 and became the take-no-prisoners, dominant American art critic of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. His strident voice was rendered nearly mute on May 30, 1999, when his rented Nissan Pulsar crossed over the lane lines on the Great Northern Highway in Western Australia and collided head-on with a Holden Commodore carrying three people. Hughes was in a partial coma for more than five weeks. His body was smashed, most major bones in his extremities broken, but his spine was spared. He never fully recovered, walking with difficulty with a cane for the rest of his life. His already sybaritic body bloated even more, and his face began to look like a piece of raw, pounded steak. His many naysayers in the art world did not have the courage to gloat in public, but artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, who had been victims of Hughes’ acerbic wit, art dealers and auction houses, art advisors, collectors like Mugrabi and Robert Scull, and even some museum directors, must all have been relieved when this Lion in Winter finally died in the Bronx Calvary Hospital after a long illness. Born a Leo, he died a Leo, on Aug. 6, 2012. Hughes was 74.
Hughes was also a polymath whose intellectual appetite was every bit as voracious as his culinary one. He wrote books on Australian history (The Fatal Shore), the histories of Rome and Barcelona, artists’ lives (Goya, Lucien Freud) and the inanity of political correctness (The Culture of Complaint); the first volume of what would have been a multi-volume autobiography (Things I Didn’t Know); and even a wonderfully titled essay on fly fishing (a personal obsession), (A Jerk on One End). He may have mocked the power brokers of the art world, but he didn’t spare himself.
But it may be as a “talking head” in his many BBC documentaries about the state of art that Hughes is best remembered. To read the almost Shakespearean prose that was the stuff of his Time magazine columns and his books is one thing, but to experience his rich baritone voice in even its seldom used lyrical mode is quite another. There is an authoritative conviction inherent in even his most casual pronouncements, and there’s no doubt in my mind that had he pursued a career as a TV pitchman or product endorser, he could have sold even George Foreman a competitor’s barbeque grill.
As a TV personality, Hughes first gained popular acclaim for The Shock of the New (1980), his eight-part examination of modern art beginning with Impressionism. It was followed in 1997 by another eight-part BBC series, American Visions, a history of American art that Hughes calls “a love letter to America,” where he had lived for 25 years. Nothing quite as ambitious followed for television, but in 2004, he presented a one-off update to The Shock of the New, and in 2008, another feature-length documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse.
The Mona Lisa Curse was directed by Mandy Chang, who several years later directed a documentary feature on French and American cinema vérité, The Camera That Changed the World, about which I wrote last year. The Mona Lisa Curse is as close as Hughes came to video autobiography. Things I Didn’t Know is an often flabby and indulgent look at mainly his early years, and deals with the Australian art scene of his youth, one all but unknown to readers outside his native country. However, The Mona Lisa Curse, a dark sermon on the hyper-caffeinated and money-engorged art scene of New York that began, according to Hughes, with the circus-like 1963 exhibition of Da Vinci’s La Giocanda at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is anything but boring. Quick cut and jumpy in location and time, it’s a kind of New Wave reboot.
The documentary opens in Hughes’ New York apartment on the weekend of the 10th Armory Show, and we see Hughes reflecting on his almost 50 years as an art critic, a vocation that began when he worked as an art rescue volunteer in the Florence flood of 1966, a disaster that damaged much of the city’s cultural patrimony. At the time, Hughes was 28.
Early in The Mona Lisa Curse, Hughes pronounces that “apart from drugs, art is the largest unregulated market in the world.” Here he sets the tone for what he sees as the runaway avarice that began in the mid-1960s and fueled collecting, museum blockbuster exhibitions and the collector’s art market. He says that this became an “orgy of consumption that would soon tear open the art scene that I loved.” That other critics and artists had expressed almost exactly the same discontents a century earlier fails to diminish his judgment.
In a series of encounters, we meet some of Hughes’ heroes, such as close friend and artist James Rosenquist. Hughes then juxtaposes the modest collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel with the aggressive, go-go mania of the ex-owners of a taxi fleet, Robert and Ethel Scull. He talks with ex-Metropolitan directors Tom Hoving and Philippe Montebello while taking swipes at the Guggenheim’s Tom Krens, who seems intent on franchising the museum’s “label.” The patrician Montebello is the only museum head who comes off as anything but a strident yahoo. Hard to believe that such powerful leaders of the museum world can be so transparently crass. Hoving even brags of having disregard for the Met when he took over. It’s almost as if these men seek some kind of demotic imprimatur from Hughes.
For Hughes, the poster child of the art world’s excess and money grubbing is the beautiful but (to him) merely decorative Gustav Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer that has pride of place in Ron Lauder’s personal fiefdom, the Neue Galerie on 86th Street.
A wonderfully irreverent scene in the documentary is Hughes’ quiet soliloquy while sitting alone in the Klimt/Schiele gallery. It is almost unbelievable that any major collector in the NYC art world would have afforded Hughes and his camera crew entry into their chapels of art by the time this film was made; but there he is, subverting Lauder’s taste in the man’s own dominion.
The climax of The Mona Lisa Curse comes when Hughes arrives for his interview with the jet-setting Alberto Mugrabi, son of mega-collector Jose Mugrabi, at the tycoon’s Manhattan office. As he pauses in the exterior plaza, Hughes ruminates before a mammoth and vulgar statue, Damien Hirst’s The Virgin Mother. In a wide two-shot, Hughes looks like a minnow beside the Hirst leviathan.
The verbal fireworks begin innocently enough once Hughes is ushered inside and sits. Mugrabi’s interview with Hughes, ever the agent provocateur, ends with the Mugrabi quote that opened this essay.
If you think Hughes is a bully after watching this clip, you aren’t much off the mark. But there is a lot more to this man who so passionately devoted his life to debunking art cons and flimflam dealers selling snake-oil canvases to gullible “masters of the universe.” Hughes was a secular Savonarola calling down his particular brand of righteous judgment on institutional pettifoggery. Hughes’ jeremiads often led him to be burned at the art world stake, but perhaps he was a willing victim of his own wrath, a fiery polemic that many called “self-righteous,” “retrograde” and “elitist.” By the time of his death, Hughes may have become the early 21st century’s John Ruskin, a critic out of step with his time.
Being out of step would be, for Hughes, a virtue, a sign of his still cogent relevancy. I find myself ambivalent about the man and his style. But he was a consummate showman, and possessive of a voice that one hardly ever hears so powerfully in the arts. And what a wordsmith! It’s not unfair to compare him to the also brilliant and maybe even more self-destructive voice of letters Christopher Hitchens. Both were brilliant, opinionated men, both so powerfully incandescent that their flames continue to burn today. But in another sense, you can say Hughes prophesied not only the market mania that now rules the art world, but also the attendant publicity that trumpets art as commodity and museum attendance as hip experience.
“A bloody ex-pat” is how Hughes introduces his description of his body after the auto accident in Australia. By that time, he was pretty deracinated, a true ex-pat to the Aussies, but not fully American, where he still considered himself a visitor.
Today, the world’s major museums are overrun with curious tourists wanting to bag prized paintings and “selfies” with their cameras. “Look, Mom, it’s me with the Mona Lisa.” A recent New York Times story examined this phenomenon.
The complete Mona Lisa Curse is available on YouTube, and even though it’s often disabled, it reappears with some regularity. So if it’s down, try a new search. It’s wonderfully entertaining, not only for Hughes’ scatological pronouncements on the contemporary American art scene, but also because in a world where so much public criticism is nothing more than name calling and ranting at an opponent, listening to the articulate, even hypnotic flow of Hughes’ metaphors is a guilty pleasure.
Here are four morsels:
[Julian] Schabel’s work is to painting what Stallone’s is to acting: a lurching display of oily pectorals.
[Antoine Watteau] was a connoisseur of the unplucked string, the immobility before the dance, the moment that falls between departure and nostalgia.
Jeff Koons is the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary.
(Hughes is not always so pithy; witness his take-down of several of his “charlatans” compared to his praise of the “active engagement” of Lucian Freud, where every inch of the painting’s surface “must be won” in an artistic struggle.)
Little or nothing of this kind happens with Warhol or Gilbert & George or any other of the image scavengers and recyclers who infest the stylish woods of an already decayed and pulped out post-Modernism.
A final thought: The principal criticism of Hughes may stem from his admittedly intellectual posture. A ferocious debater (surely a product of his Jesuit education), he did not suffer what he perceived as fools; he is accused of being a Brahmin who never understood the populist strain in American art.
In his loving series on American art, American Visions, Hughes warmly embraces iconic American figures such as Winslow Homer, a populist if ever there was one, and Thomas Eakins. The English Brahmin art critic Sir Kenneth Clark is a revered figure still, even though you have to admit his taste is much more elitist than Hughes’. So what is it about Hughes that was so polarizing? I think it’s simple: Hughes was a junkyard dog who insisted on a place in the chow line next to the effete breeds of the Westminster Kennel Club. And if they didn’t watch their backs, he’d steal their bowl as well, all the while soothing them with honeyed barks. As for the Brahmin charge, did I mention Hughes was an avid motorcyclist and a mediocre fly fisherman?
NEXT: A silent-era masterpiece from Dimitri Kirsanoff