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Acerbic arts writer Robert Hughes made impression on new critic with his generosity

Art critic Robert Hughes was known for his assertive opinions.

Photo by Joyce Ravid

Art critic Robert Hughes was known for his assertive opinions.

The death on Aug. 6 of art critic Robert Hughes at age 74 after a long illness occasioned an outpouring of accolades for one of the finest cultural writers of all time. Even if one disagreed with his opinion, one marveled at his eloquence.

He achieved international fame when his eight-part Shock of the New documentary about modern art aired in 1980. He exerted great influence as the art critic for Time magazine for about 30 years and also wrote many books about art and artists. He was more than an arts writer, though; the 1987 bestseller The Fatal Shore was a definitive history of the origins of his native Australia.

Every obituary also dwelt long and often on his famously confrontational approach to criticism. Adjectives such as combative, pugnacious, acerbic, lacerating and merciless were sprinkled among plaudits. And he certainly could be those things toward artists he believed were inferior.

Many of his famous put-downs were quoted in various news sources, including his comment about Damien Hirst — "Isn't it a miracle what so much money and so little talent can produce?" — and his 1993 description of Jeff Koons, whom he called "the baby to Andy Warhol's Rosemary. He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond." An essay after the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat was titled "Requiem for a Featherweight."

He could be equally assertive about artists he adored, including Lucien Freud and Francisco Goya.

Goya was my connection to Hughes. In 2003 I had been an art critic for less than a year and was still feeling a bit insecure. Hughes' much-anticipated biography of the Spanish painter was about to be published and, having loved an advance copy of it, I wanted to review it. I also hoped to get an interview with the author while feeling I had little chance and, if I did, having anxiety about an encounter with this brilliant, witty and suffer-no-fools man.

I called Time and was given his email address. (When I later talked to someone at his publishing house, she was astonished I had been given it.) Anyway, I contacted him and gave him my office and home telephone numbers, never dreaming he would respond. Instead, while I was at a grocery store between work and home, he wrote:

"Dear Ms. Bennett,

I tried you a couple of times at both #s, but without success. You can get me at home this evening . . ." He said he was reluctant to give his home phone, but he did.

I think I wept with gratitude. And then began a multipart conversation with a writer I revered, who gave me hours of his time along with great kindness and encouragement. He was interested in promoting his book, of course, but this was hardly the pro-forma behavior of a person simply hawking a book, especially since we talked several times for hours about so much more than that.

While he was doing preliminary research for the Goya biography, Hughes suffered serious injuries in a 1999 car accident. When we spoke, he was still hampered — and remained so for the rest of his life — by them. He revisited the long, painful hospital recovery, telling me of the dreams in which Goya seemed to haunt him.

"It was a projection of my fears that I was not going to be able to write the book, that he was too big for me, and having him take over my dreams in that way — it didn't make the book better but it got the book started," he said.

He was also mourning the death by suicide a year earlier of his son Danton, 34. He told me he had been estranged from him for years and regretted it. He said Danton had "died for love," over a failed romance. Knowing he was famous for reciting entire Shakespeare plays, I deployed one of the few Shakespeare quotes I could remember: "Men have died and worms have eaten them but not for love." Hughes chuckled and said, "Yes, indeed. But I think this really was for love."

Our conversations ranged over so many topics. He and I, as journalists, both knew that I had enough copy for a short book, much more than what I needed for a newspaper article. Still, we kept talking. When my deadline loomed and I couldn't pretend to need anything more from him, we said goodbye.

He and his wife, the painter Doris Downes, lived in New York, and I asked if I could take them to lunch or dinner when I was next there. He regretted, saying they would soon be in Barcelona for an extended stay, something he was very excited about.

We never spoke again, but I have kept his emails because just seeing his name among my list of messages always gives me a lift. As I write this, it makes me cry.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

Acerbic arts writer Robert Hughes made impression on new critic with his generosity 08/18/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 18, 2012 4:30am]

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