Robert Hughes was macho. It is hard to point to any one thing that proves this assertion. He was just macho. He knew how to project authority and swagger. He would say tough guy things like, “What strip mining is to nature the art market has become to culture.” That is the primary reason he was always being compared to Clement Greenberg. Greenberg had that macho swagger too. Maybe it was the macho that allowed both Greenberg and Hughes to make such bold judgments about art, to proclaim what is good and what is bad. The macho was the antidote to the fear. It is inherently scary to be exposed to your fellow human being and Hughes, like Greenberg before him, exposed himself again and again. Before his death last week, Hughes had been the art critic for Time Magazine for three decades. He is one of the few individuals of this era whose opinions on art were actually being read and considered by millions of people. The macho was a tool, a weapon in his arsenal. In this, he had learned a lot from reading Clement Greenberg.
For all the stylistic similarities between Hughes and Greenberg, Hughes was never (unlike, say, Michael Fried) a true Greenbergian. In an essay for the New York Review of Books in 1993, Hughes argued that, “There is little doubt that Greenberg’s version of modernism has had its day. Not only because of the victories of what he dismissed as ‘novelty art’—Pop, Minimalism, and mediabased imagery of all kinds; but, more importantly, because of the limitations of his positivist world view, based on a truculent materialism.” Hughes’ critique of Greenberg was neither unique nor novel. Many artists and critics have come to realize that Greenberg’s “formalism” was defined too narrowly, thus allowing contemporary art very little room to grow. But Hughes’ essay from 1993 is notable in how directly he ties this critique of Greenberg into an analysis of Greenberg’s youthful Marxism and its latent influence on his underlying conception of history. Hughes put it like this: “The experience of Marxism gave Greenberg his bent as a critic: an obsession with the direction of history.”
And Greenberg was obsessed. It was impossible, for Greenberg, that art could be many things at once, that it could be exploring multiple dimensions. No. For Greenberg, History itself was moving art in one direction. The fact that painters after Manet were exploring the material nature of the paint and the canvas meant that this is what painting had become “about.” This is what painting had to be. History itself had thrown content out the window. Any painter still painting “figures” and “scenes,” still caught up in representational work, had failed to receive the message. History would leave them behind.
Hughes realized that, for all Greenberg’s brilliance there was madness in this conception of art. At the same time, Hughes admired Greenberg’s courage, his willingness to cut through the garbage and make a claim for what is serious and what is not. How, then, to discard the madness of Greenberg while retaining his courage and his commitment to sussing out what is honest and true in art?
Hughes took a bold and unusual approach. It is an approach not usually taken by the art critics of the Academy. It is an approach not often enough talked about in discussions of Hughes and his work. Hughes proposed, gently and with just so many qualifications, that any art which had lost all contact with nature was also in danger of losing its soul. He proposed, more daringly still, that “art may give access to a spiritual realm.”
What did Hughes mean by “the spiritual realm?” I’m not sure Hughes himself was so clear about that. But he knew that the connection to nature and spirit was what could bring contemporary art back to life again. He knew it was the road out of empty formalism on the one hand and cynical postmodern game-playing on the other. Maybe Hughes’ essay on the art of Frank Auerbach (also in The New York Review of Books, 1990) best captures Hughes sense of the spiritual route back out from the Greenbergian madness. Auerbach, Hughes thought, was of the belief that:
painting must “awaken a sense of physicality,” transcend its inherent flatness, or fail. This was the opposite of the scheme of academic American criticism in the Sixties and Seventies, whereby modernism was supposed to move in a continuous ecstasy of self-criticism, under the sign of a purified, nondepictive flatness, toward the point where everything not “essential” to it had been purged. Auerbach believed in no such idea of art history, past, present, or to come.
The viewpoint that Hughes takes Auerbach to be attacking here is, of course, that of Clement Greenberg. Auerbach (for Hughes) was solving Greenberg’s History problem by painting his way out of it, painting his way back to the world and away from the inherent flatness that Greenberg so adored. As Hughes writes about Auerbach in his lovely essay, his own language, just like Auerbach’s painting, becomes richer and richer, more physical and descriptive over time. In one passage late in the essay, Hughes describes Auerbach’s studio and the effect it has as a physical space.
Images are pinned on the window wall and above the sink: a photo of Rembrandt’s patriarchal head of an old bearded Jew, Jakob Trip, and another of Saskia; a small self-portrait by Auerbach’s early friend and dealer Helen Lessore; a reproduction of Lucian Freud’s head of Auerbach himself, the forehead bulging from the surface with tremendous, knotted plasticity; a drawing by Dürer of Conrat Verkell’s head seen from below, the features gnarled and squeezed like the flesh structure in one of Auerbach’s portraits; souvenirs of the work of friends (Bacon, Kossoff, Kitaj) and of dead masters. They are all emblems and have been there for years, browned and cockled, like votives of legs and livers hanging in a Greek shrine.
Greenberg never wrote this way about art. He wouldn’t allow himself to do it. Greenberg would have considered this kind of writing a disservice to the flat materiality of the tools and substance of art. But Hughes is in love with the physicality of his descriptions, with the historical and contextual relevance of creative spaces like Auerbach’s studio. Here, art and life are interpenetrating all over the place. Hughes ends his essay on Auerbach by talking about Auerbach’s tortured childhood and the loss of his parents to the Holocaust. We have come, by the end of the essay, to know something about Frank Auerbach the man and something about what made his life meaningful, what contact he had with pain and with suffering and with joy. “The deep family intimacy denied to him in boyhood,” Hughes writes about Auerbach, “is summoned and reenacted in his work, in his hourly transactions with the object of scrutiny. ‘To paint the same head over and over,’ he will say, ‘leads you to its unfamiliarity; eventually you get near the raw truth about it, just as people only blurt out the raw truth in the middle of a family quarrel.” The italics are Hughes’. This may be a good a definition of the “spiritual realm” that Hughes felt art was capable of coming into contact with. It is the place where you get nearer the raw truth, a raw truth that is like what gets blurted out at a family quarrel.
Robert Hughes is dead now. His project, though, will live on. Hughes tried to drag art, kicking and screaming all the way, back toward the realm of deep meaning, back, you might say, to where it belongs. • 17 August 2012