Depending on who you ask, he’s either the most erudite statesman of America’s cultural elite or he’s a pissy little pedant. But either way, Robert Hughes has gained the singular distinction of being America’s most widely read arts writer. As the resident critic for Time magazine since 1970, he has been vouchsafed a special place in America’s high-gloss, middle-brow culture—a space won by his ability to reach even the most casual reader with ideas that often verge on the forbiddingly complex. But as a native Australian with a whip for a tongue, he’s also earned another reputation—that of a savage critic with no concern for niceties. Now, the two faces of Hughes come together in his long-awaited and much-ballyhooed masterwork, American Visions, which has finally become available in paperback. Covering five centuries of American art history, this 650-page colossus is a richly opinionated account of art in our culture—from the early settlement of New Mexico to the crash of the Manhattan art market. But the reader should be prepared for much more than history. Because, with all his anecdotes and summary judgments, Hughes himself emerges as the real centerpiece of this story. In effect, American Visions is a ream’s worth of one man’s attitudes, whether you like him or not. And for most of us, it’s a little of both.
The most admirable thing about Hughes’ project, first of all, is its sheer size. And the author shows that he can handle it. With the precision of a bricklayer, he lines up nine chapters that take us from the birth of the U.S. to the death of the NEA. And through it all, he displays the style and grace that have made him famous. He is capable, for instance, of incredibly sensitive insights, like his efficient description of Western landscape painting in the 1800s: “To see was to discover; to discover was to conquer.” And he can draft some stunning turns of phrase: 1950s automobiles were “the rolling baroque public sculpture of a culture that has gone forever.” And then there’s his wit: “Benjamin Franklin saw no point in importing art from Italy, but wished America would get hold of the recipe for Parmesan cheese.” More than well-written, Hughes’ history is deeply felt, and he is generous in letting such a range of feelings show through.
The downshot of this folksy approach, though, is that it can impose a certain tyranny of opinion. As much as Hughes has been touted as America’s most accessible art critic, he has also richly earned his reputation as the hatchet-man of Manhattan. One by one in his Time pieces, he has laid waste to uncounted artists and galleries, with remarks that have ranged from the careless to the downright bitchy. Not surprisingly then, there are too many times in American Visions when you no longer feel like you’re being led along by a learned friend, but instead are being berated by an old, curmudgeony uncle.
Over the last few chapters, in particular, you realize that Hughes has an abiding hatred for almost every artist since World War II. Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, Conceptualists—all of them are dismissed so viciously that the critic begins to just seem chickish and immature. It’s with a certain relish, for example, that he tells you how Jackson Pollock “died ... like a puffy, mean James Dean.” The sculptures of the late Willem de Kooning are described only as “giant nose-pickings.” And the Expressionist painter Barnett Newman is lambasted as “the very definition of bullshit.” It’s amazing. The only thing that keeps you from laughing at these digs is their utter meaninglessness. In a place where we expect clever critiques, we get nothing more than bitter, nearly cryptic, ramblings.
This kind of unevenness is what you get, perhaps, when you ask a man to tell you everything he knows. Like other critics before him—Clement Greenberg, Lionel Trilling—Hughes has amassed an encyclopedic amount of knowledge in his field. And also like them, he has become so well-known for his expertise that there’s no longer a difference between his personal opinions and his professional criticism. It’s this important distinction that gets lost, ultimately, somewhere in these many pages. What American Visions leaves us with, in the end, is a telling portrait of the Janus-faced man that is Robert Hughes, in all his nettled complexity.