Art critic, historian Robert Hughes dies at 74
Robert Hughes / courtesy of Random House Books Australia,Author photo
Christopher Hitchens wrote in his 2006 review of Robert Hughes' autobiography that "Things I Didn't Know: a Memoir" had been "written by a dead man on leave," and the often acerbic Hitchens said that leave was a very good thing.
At the time, Hitchens was referring to a near-fatal and life-defining car accident Hughes had in 1999 in his native Australia. While the life of the world-renowned art critic, historian, documentary maker and writer could have ended that day, the leave Hughes took from death extended more than a decade on, giving plenty more time for his booming voice and hulking presence to make permanent marks in several cultural arenas.
At the age of 74, however, Hughes finally succumbed to a "long illness," his publisher said, and died Monday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, according to The New York Times.
In a 1997 piece for "60 Minutes" (embedded below), correspondent Steve Kroft told Hughes he was almost always identified as the most powerful art critic in the world. Hughes brushed off the compliment as being a result of his longtime job as the main art critic for Time magazine.
"I don't think it means a helluva lot. It's rather like saying somebody is the most powerful beekeeper in the world," Hughes said.
He never earned a university degree, tried painting but quit, and started architecture school but dropped out after the fourth year.
When asked what exactly made him qualified to be a world-famous art critic, Hughes joked: "The qualifications for an art critic are essentially the same as the qualifications for a writer...which means you need a pencil."
Hughes' pencil rarely rested apparently. He wrote for several newspapers in England before settling in as the art critic at Time in 1970. A short list of his numerous published books include "Fatal Shore," an epic history about the founding of Australia; "Goya," about the Spanish Romantic painter; and most recently "Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History." Hughes also produced several television documentaries, mostly about art and culture, including the Emmy-winning, 2008 British documentary "The Mona Lisa Curse," about the transformation of art into commodity.
The Times writes: "'The Shock of the New,' his eight-part documentary about the development of modernism from the impressionists through Warhol, was seen by more than 25 million viewers when it ran originally on BBC."
In his twisting and winding career before and after the car accident that also wound its way occasionally into politics, Hughes was described in both revered and hated tones back in his native Australia. Any art critic it sure to engender passionate opinions about his or her opinions, especially one with a voice so loud and unique as Hughes. However, as Hitchens wrote, "no critic could have asked for a better run."
Watch the full "60 Minutes" report on Robert Hughes from correspondent Steve Kroft below
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