I’ve never read much of the art criticism of Robert Hughes, but I dearly loved his book about Barcelona, and was sad to hear that he died the other day. Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite writers, pens a gorgeous, intimate tribute to his old friend. Excerpt:
He was as touching a man as you could hope to meet: when our first son was born, Bob arrived at our loft with arms full of stuffed Australian animals for the newborn. “Now this, you see—this is … the Joey!” he said, showing him the baby kangaroo in its pouch, as though he were describing a work by David Smith. (When, a decade later, he called in the middle of the night, with the news that his only son, Danton, from whom he had long been estranged, but loved all the same, had taken his own life, it was with a desperate, apologetic grief that I have not, and hope never again, to hear equalled.) And, above all, he was a writer: I write this far from both from the Internet and from my own library and yet Hughes’s sentences and phrases stick in my head without either having to be consulted. For all the violence of his disdains, they are mostly phrases of enthusiasm: his insistence that Eric Fischl’s suburban vision “smells of unwashed dog, Bar-B-Q lighter fluid and sperm,” his evocation of the nineteenth-century American landscape artist as “God’s stenographer,” his description of a Morris Louis stain picture as “the watercolor that ate the art world,” or, more profoundly, his explanation of the rococo play of line and painterly weather in a Jackson Pollock and of how it belied his reputation as a mere paint-thrower.
Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it, but by conveying value it serves a civilizing end. If Bob’s last years were in many ways sad, and at times agonized by the pain that his horrific 1999 automobile accident had left him, the work never stopped, and his affection for those round him never dimmed. Through it all, his mind would rise and a phone call would arrive, and one would race downtown to spend time with him; he would read page after page of whatever he was working on, reciting, in his gruff, warning voice, some masterly combo of verdict, examination, evocation, summary—and then, being Bob, look up, anxious as a schoolboy, and say, “But do you think it’s any good? Do you, really?” It was so much better than good that no good words came to mind. At the end of the evening he would dismiss you, as one raised Catholic and still surprised in the presence of the world, with a simple, “Bless you!” His writing will live as a repository of experience fixed in place by a consciousness tormented but never overthrown, and his memory will survive not as some hanging judge of the museums but as one of the indispensable mavericks of modern humanism.
Hughes was a very fine writer. So is Gopnik. No thing makes me happier than good writing. Not even good food.