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Remembering Robert Hughes – Re-watching American Visions

Writer and art critic Robert Hughes

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Remembering Robert Hughes – Re-watching American Visions

Writer and art critic Robert Hughes

The late art critic and writer, Robert Hughes (1938-1912).
Photograph: Jeremy Pollard/Oxford Film/TV

The death of Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes on August 6, a week after the death of Gore Vidal, represents the loss to arts and letters of yet another elegant, fearlessly critical voice. Hughes became known in the US as the art critic for Time magazine in the 1970s. In 1978, he and Harold Hayes, a proponent of the New Journalism, hosted the first installment of TV newsmagazine 20/20 and rubbed so many people the wrong way the network promptly replaced them with the always-soothing Hugh Downs.

Hughes was best known for The Shock of the New, a history of modern art which appeared both as a BBC series (aired in 1980) and as a book, and for his history of Australia, The Fatal Shore. But the work that made me a fan of Hughes was American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, which aired in 1997, and which, like The Shock of the New was accompanied by a book of the same title. Though I’d studied art history, American art was largely terra incognita to me at the time, and watching the series was something of a conversion experience. It gave me my first sustained look at Joseph Cornell, and shed new light on figures like Albert Pinkham Ryder and John Frederick Peto (the latter a hugely popular Victorian trompe l’oeil painter whose works, Hughes says, are “booby-trapped with meaning… full of small-scale violence and decay”).

John Frederick Peto: Take Your Choice

John Frederick Peto (1854-1907), Take Your Choice, 1885, oil on canvas,
John Wilmerding Collection, National Gallery of Art

In retrospect, I realize the series helped me form my own mental canon of American art, focusing on outliers and visionaries, a visual counterpart to the American literary canon imagined by D. H. Lawrence in his Studies in Classic American Literature. “The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism, “ wrote Lawrence, “have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it.” [sic – HH]

I’d often thought of watching it again, but it’s been very hard to find over the years. It doesn’t seem to have made it to DVD; a Google search leads only to boxed sets of VHS tapes, offered by private sellers on Amazon at prices ranging from $79.00 to $284.99. After I heard the news of Hughes’s death, I managed to track it down via the site Go to and you will be taken to a Youtube playlist comprising all eight episodes of the series in ten-minute segments. The quality is not ideal, and each segment repeats the last minute or so of the previous segment, presumably to prevent accidental omissions, but I’m very happy to have found it. I have since re-watched the series in its entirety, and enjoyed it as much as I did the first time around.

The series blends epigrammatic wit (and a few truly startling juxtapositions) with a sure sense of the major narratives of American art history, all of it anchored by lucid, often brilliant, readings of particular works of art. Towards the end of episode one, for example, Hughes leads the viewer through John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark, noting Copley’s allusions to Roman and Renaissance art in the posing of his figures, acknowledging that the shark, while menacing, has “lips like a toothpaste ad,” and drawing attention to the heroic and individualistic treatment of the black sailor at the center of the composition. On another note entirely, the eighth and final episode offers the enduring pleasures of Hughes’s prickly encounter with Jeff Koons: “A kitten in a giant sock. Tell me about it.”

In episode seven, images of Jasper Johns’s target paintings of the mid-fifties are intercut with clips of the McCarthy hearings and atomic bomb drills; the camera then pans across a heap of battered eyeglasses (an unsettling image reminiscent of concentration camps and the famous Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last”). The image is a segue into Hughes’s presentation of the eerie boxed dream worlds, made up of just such odds and ends, which Joseph Cornell created in these same anxious years.

Two moments in particular have stuck in my mind since my first viewing in the 1990s. In episode seven, Hughes points out the relics preserved in Jackson Pollock’s studio at Springs, Long Island: “The holy coffee cans, the miraculous brushes, the sanctified shoes.” It’s a wonderfully witty sequence that illustrates how the myth of Pollock has had as powerful a hold on the American imagination as the reality of his paintings. It also suggests Hughes’s own impatience with the more sweeping metaphysical and theoretical claims made on behalf of Abstract Expressionism. Yet it does not detract at all from Hughes’s explanation of what he does find valuable in Pollock’s work.

The other moment that has stuck with me comes when Hughes addresses the huge importance in American art of ideas about nature and wilderness (virtual synonyms, in this country), starting with nineteenth century landscape painters such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. As the camera pans through the details of one of Cole’s epic landscapes, The Oxbow, an eerie keening rises on the soundtrack. Finally, we see the sounds are being produced by radical environmentalists conducting a sort of primal-scream encounter group/mass confessional session deep in the woods, bewailing the loss of old growth forests and their own failure to do more to save them.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow

Thomnas Cole (1801–1848), View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s a long, uncomfortable sequence that captures the profoundly conflicted relationship Americans have with wilderness, sincere and theatrical at the same time, utterly heartfelt but somewhat narcissistic and occasionally just weird. Some viewers may find it a little much, but for me it gives an extra dimension to the discussion of what can seem a dull and conventional genre – landscape painting – that carries over through the rest of the series. In American art, a tree is rarely just a tree. (And this time around, I was able to appreciate Hughes’s mention in this episode of Charles Deas.)

American Visions manages to be both comprehensive and personal; Hughes covers vast swaths of art history without losing sight of the private sensations and responses that making looking at art worthwhile in the first place. Now that I’ve rediscovered it, I am seeking out The Shock of the New, which I have never seen. I’ll be sharing my reactions to it in a later entry.

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