Why I loved RH.
His 70s series, Shock of the New, has to be the best TV on modern art ever. I showed a clip last term: the one where he’s talking about Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare. It was hugely appreciated by my students; no body else could talk with such insight, and yet clarity about conceptual art. I find it hard to watch art history TV these days, but RH, along with John Berger was compelling viewing.
His non-nonsense, honest attitude, best epitomised in his “New Shock of the New” where he puts an ignorant collector of modern art through the shredder. Though this guy deserved it, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Hughes’s dry comment on entering this apartment full of modern art is priceless “Oh, what a nice view of the park.” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve shown this clip in class.
His books. Too many to mention, but one of the best for me was his book on Goya, written after an horrific car accident. The first chapter was called “Driving Into Goya.” A lot of art history writing can feel like wading through treacle, but Hughes had the gift of blending erudition with wit and imagination.
His wit. He described Jean Michel Basquiat as “Jean-Michel Basket Case”. But my favourite putdown was his answer to Barnett Newman who compared his abstract canvas series, Stations of the Cross, to a struggle with Michelangelo. Hughes replied “Hard luck ducky- you lost!”
Shame we’ve lost this irreplaceable critic- but his legacy is vast. I suppose this is the perfect time to read Hughes’s autobiography, which I haven’t got around to yet.