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Bob: Remembering Robert Hughes

Washington Diarist.

The ravishments of Piazzetta were explained to me while we were disemboweling a bluefish. I had reeled it in somewhere in Peconic Bay, and Bob had speared it; and as we cleaned it—it was destined for dinner, because in Sydney long ago Bob’s father severely ordained that he could hunt only what he could eat, a lesson that was impressed upon the lad when he killed a crocodile and his father made him consume it—our conversation turned to recollections of an unforgettable show of the great Venetian draughtsman that the National Gallery had mounted some years earlier, and then to the subject of drawing and its eclipse in contemporary art, and then to speculations about why Chardin gave up drawing, all this humanism rising in the stink of the entrails. Guts and beauty: there was Robert Hughes. He was a charismatic bundle of unmediated terms: refinement and ribaldry; extroversion and absorption; the analytic and the artisanal (in his virtuosity with the saws in his woodshop I detected one of the sources of his prose style); floridity and precision; exaltation and black gloom; reverence and profanity. His spectacularly entertaining volubility was furtively supported by what he once called a “freely chosen solitude”: the fray was never all there was. Bob dispensed curses and blessings, and lived a life of both. A man of uncanny cultivation—when before Hughes, and after Hughes, did an American newsweekly casually refer its readers to Pisanello, Laurana, Cellini, and Desiderio da Settignano?—he was also enchantingly lumpy and rough. “To me, the tools used to make a Fabergé egg are more interesting, perhaps even more beautiful, than the egg itself.” Bob started out as a painter, and one of the strengths of his writing on art was that he looked with his hands. An aesthete with calluses! He had the idealist’s love of matter: it was the surest path to the sublime, which Bob unembarassedly chased. (“Light turns matter into spirit,” he wrote raptly of Martin Johnson Heade.) The sublime was not given, it was made. We build our ladders.

BOB WAS THE LEAST precious and least political traditionalist of his time. This iconoclast kept icons, and when he wrote about them he refreshed one’s perception of them, and set a new standard for the application of the English language to visual works of art. Chardin’s paintings are “sonnets in praise of the middle path,” and his portraits of children display “a noble ineloquence, as though Piero della Francesca were visiting the house.” Watteau is “a connoisseur of the unplucked string.” “Tyrannous physicality” was what Bob remarked about Rubens, capturing in two words the painter’s vast simultaneous effects of oppression and release. About Zurbaran’s Saint Agatha carrying her martyred breasts on a platter, he noted with jarring accuracy that they looked “like two pale pink, heavenly scoops of gelato.” Winslow Homer grasped the “strange, fickle, maternal beauty” of water. Georgia O’Keeffe’s labial flower pictures (Bob was too patient with them) showed “the blossom seen as if from the eyeline, and body size, of a questing bee.” “It is the spaces between people,” Bob finely observed, “that Hopper painted so well.” He recognized the “delicacy” in Lavender Mist, Pollock’s attention to “the passing nuance” in his swarm of paint. Bob saw so abundantly, and he found the words for what he saw.

HE WAS, FAMOUSLY, ferocious— he possessed what, in another critic, he praised as “a genius in dismissal.” I loved him not least for his ferocity. (As he loved Goya: I still see him sitting moodily beneath the wall of Caprichos on Prince Street, wrestling with his monstruos while the mob shopped below.) Gather round, children: once upon a time, before there was a festival of ideas, there was a war of ideas, and it was not nice. But nice was not the point. The stakes were large and it was not self-important to think so. Mendacity and vulgarity were more deplorable than incivility and rhetorical cruelty. About writers and artists who were traducing— and you had to show this, you had to do the work—certain ideals of truth and justice and beauty, it was exhilarating, and evidence that you were all in, to be impolite. In disputes about first principles, smoothness aroused suspicion. It was not enough to be interesting. Urbanity was a dodge, a quest for popularity. Journalism, I mean the serious intellectual sort, had to be the forward motion of a worldview. Critics adopted causes; and it was the cogency of their argument and the probity of their language that secured them against the pitfalls of partisanship. Robert Hughes was a master of the integrity of taking a side. He made opposition as gorgeous as admiration. His weapons were knowledge, conviction, eloquence, and an Augustan wit. His attacks were defenses. He was outrageous because there were outrages. His rancorous dissent from the art scene and the art market—what did art do to deserve art people?—in the 1980s and 1990s (“The pompous novelty, the well-hyp’d trick/Delivered in the merest Augenblick”) will live in the history of consequential criticism. His wrath enriched his culture.

ON THE NIGHT Bob died I heard Dinah Washington sing “For All We Know.” It undid me. It had been too long since we were together and now tomorrow, as the song warns, would never come. I saw a chilly picture of friends living dispersed and dying dispersed, of time wasted by distance, of the companionship of souls thwarted by all the mindless movement, the swirl and the bustle, the life-tourism that now passes for experience. I miss so many people, and some of them are not even dead. Too many cherished voices are unheard, and the silence of the infinite e-mails terrifies me. I do not wish only to remember. It is not good to commemorate one’s own life. But the world is who you inhabit it with; and it empties out. I mourn even my enemies, some of whom also died in this season, because they gave me the gift of our quarrels, which were not trivial. In a perverse sense I served with them, too. To live controversially is to live significantly, and for significant living one must be grateful. And also pedagogical, so that those who have passed, the beliefs they championed and the pleasures they discovered, will not altogether pass, not immediately and not without effect. Posterity is the secular immortality. It is death, or the defiance of it, which makes one finally want to teach, and to count on the children.

This article first appeared in the September 13 issue of The New Republic.