Editor’s note: This preview is excerpted from an article originally published by our friends at the Claremont Review of Books. We hope you enjoy!
Robert Hughes didn’t mince words:
On the morning of February 25, 1970, Mark Rothko’s body was found in his studio in New York. He had done a thorough job of killing himself…. He lay fat and exsanguinated, clad in long underwear and black socks, in the middle of a lake of blood.
Hughes’s riveting description, black socks and all, captures both the final act of the artist’s tortured life, and the finale to the generation of New York’s pioneering abstract expressionist painters. By the time of Rothko’s suicide, Arshile Gorky, David Smith, and Jackson Pollock (the most celebrated of them all) had already shuffled off their own mortal coils. They had met their deaths, as Hughes (1938–2012) reminds us in The Spectacle of Skill, a new anthology of his writings, “by their own hand…or violent accident…or booze, old age, the usual disabilities.” It’s hard to find a more trenchant obit of an -ism than that.
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The chief reason to buy The Spectacle of Skill is for Hughes’s memoir (five chapters from the first part, which appeared as Things I Didn’t Know in 2006, and eleven chapters from the unpublished second part are reprinted here), a rollicking saga of his turbulent life from his Sydney childhood to the suicide of his estranged son, Danton. Fast-paced, unbuttoned, elegant, and engrossingly written, it’s a fascinating account of its maverick author and those who came into (or left) his orbit, including many luminaries of the New York art scene. Aside from the unfinished memoir, this hefty volume features a selection of pieces from Hughes’s oeuvre, including book reviews and columns from Time magazine—the highly readable art criticism that made him famous in America. There are also long passages from his books on Rome, Barcelona, and Goya, and pages from The Fatal Shore (1986), his massively researched, brilliantly told, history of the convict settlement of Australia. Excerpts from the scripts of his TV hits, The Shock of the New (1980) and American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997) are also included.
Unfortunately, readers will find themselves shortchanged. There are no illustrations of works of art, and no explanation of why these selections were published instead of others from Hughes’s work. Nor is there any information as to when and where they appeared originally, knowledge that would help put the selections in the context and chronology of the author’s life. A few simple footnotes or an editorial note in the preface would have sufficed. And, the publication of the entire memoir in a single volume would have been preferable to this retreading of random articles, some of which come from a previous anthology of Hughes’s writings and reviews.
Never mind, though, because everything here is worth reading for the first or the fifth time. The volume is a page-turner from the pen of one of the bravest, most gifted, opinionated, pugnacious, and perceptive art critics of the last 50 years. Hughes wrote with the skill of a great novelist. He had a finely tuned ear for rhythm and cadence and the gift to find just the right metaphor, analogy, or word to describe, explain, and judge what he saw. This skill is especially evident in the book’s essays on John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, and Jackson Pollock.
Much of the best writing on art comes not from academic art historians or theoretical critics, but from the pens of novelists, poets, and visual artists who creatively translate images into words. In their hands, criticism itself becomes fine art. John Ruskin, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Pater in the 19th century, and Tom Wolfe, John Updike, and Aldous Huxley in the 20th, rose to this height. Hughes belongs in their ranks.