Tuesday, August 07, 2012


Art critic Robert Hughes in 1986
A champion of Motorcycling has died after a long illness; Robert Hughes, creator/host of the 'Shock of the New' television series and long-time art critic for Time magazine.  While artists and public television watchers knew Hughes for his acerbic opinions on art and artists (he once described the work of Jeff Koons as "so overexposed it loses nothing in reproduction and gains nothing in the original"), he was also a motorcycle fan.  More importantly, he was the most visible and well-known art critic to defend the inclusion of motorcycles in the Guggenheim Museum, at the 'Art of the Motorcycle' show.
Robert Hughes with the Honda CB750 he mentions in his infamous Time magazine review of the 'Art of the Motorcycle' exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum (photo -w/notes- from the Duluth Art Institue blog).  And isn't that jacket something!
The most famous art critic in the world 'came out' as an avid motorcyclist in his Aug 18, 1998 column in Time magazine, 'Art: Going Out on the Edge':
"The fact that the great spiral of New York City's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is at present full of motorcycles has annoyed some critics. Not this one. If the Museum of Modern Art can hang a helicopter from its ceiling, why can't the Guggenheim show bikes? "The Art of the Motorcycle" may seem an opportunistic title until you actually see the things. Design is design, a fit subject for museum consideration, and in any case I'd rather look at a rampful of glittering dream machines than any number of tasteful Scandinavian vases or floppy fiber art."
Cliff Vaughs' 'Captain America' chopper, called by Hughes '...a distinctive form of American folk art."
The article laments the inclusion of only a single 'custom' motorcycle in the 'Art of the Motorcycle' show; the 'Captain America' chopper designed by Cliff Vaughs for the film 'Easy Rider': "...everything in [the show] is stock, so that it ignores the creative ingenuity that has gone into making the custom bike one of the distinctive forms of American folk art."
Of course, the international explosion of Custom motorcycles since this 1998 article has merely reinforced Hughes' opinion on their importance at the 'art' end of the motorcycle spectrum.
Robert Hughes in his motorcycling days, ca.1972
Hughes wrote of owning two Norton Commandos before moving on to Honda CB750s in the early 1970s, and to having a bad accident on a Kawasaki, which ended his biking career.  A fascinating and controversial writer, he drew from a deep reservoir of historical knowledge to support his arguments, whether or not you agreed with them.  More important to The Vintagent, that seminal Time article championing Motorcycles was read by millions, far more than than were able to attend the Guggenheim show itself, and helped usher a sea change in public opinion about bikes, as worthy subjects of study and exhibition.

For Hughes' obituary in the New York Times, click here.
For a selection of his scathing art criticism, click here.


John Forsman said...

My friend Peter Andersen designed some of Robert Hughes'books. Peter said that at dinners whenever Hughes spoke, everyone listened.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

As ever, a post on the nail in terms of both timing and research. And a much-missed commentator given due respect: I can only point out with due modesty that he wasn’t quite alone in his robust review of the Art of The Motorcycle exhibition in the mainstream press.

On the staff of The Times of London at the time, I wrote up the New York Guggenheim show for the paper with equal glowing praise, to equal levels of some ‘art establishment’ resistance; as did my future wife, who went to the exhibition with me, for British style magazine Arena.

A privilege, then, to be momentarily on the same page as the great Hughes – one of the greatest of Australians, greatest of art critics and, I now know, a motorcyclist.

Regards, Dave Lancaster

Ferdinand Edwards said...

Acerbic, contrary and taking regular deep dives into the volatile and subjective world of post modern art criticism, he commanded great respect. His fine series The Shock of the New is still a benchmark and a fine read in book form. I attended the Guggenheim show and to my mind the presence of utterly original bikes like the mighty Britten meant that his observation that 'everything in the show is stock' is somehow not such a big deal. The event featured the very cream of motorcycle design through the ages and to that degree it was the shock of the old and new. I do quite like his proto-rocker studded jacket but would hold on the cowboy fringe. RIP

Anonymous said...

Funny, the Aussie papers failed to mention that part of his life

The Vintagent said...

Hi Dave,
Hughes certainly wasn't alone in praising the Guggenheim show; sensible people like yourself wrote the majority of reviews, with a few sexless grumps making the kind of noise media love to repeat - close minded rubbish.

Hughes was certainly the best known and most widely read though; I well remember my shocked pleasure at reading the Time article, which still rests (along with my entry tickets) in the leaves of the show catalogue.

I was lucky to have a private night time tour of the Art of the Motorcycle show with Ultain Guilfoyle, one of the curators, on a Brough club outing (and string-pulling extravaganza), as one of our party had loaned a few bikes to the Guggenheim. I arrived late (NY traffic), and was directed to the elevators, from the rear 'staff' entrance. I took the stairs instead, and opened the last door to find myself... on the roof! So surprised I nearly let the door close, but caught it, and savored a very rare experience...

Anonymous said...

Great article Paul! I did not see the original Guggenheim Art of the Motorcycle show, but saw the traveling show at the Orlando Museum of Art. I went numerous times and never heard a bad comment. I don't see how anyone could look at the yellow Cyclone racer, or the Britten, and numerous others and not see it's artisitic value in both form and function. Heard recently that the road show AoM visit to the Birmingham Museum of Art was by far, their most attended show. Truly, Robert Hughes opened lots of doors, more than a few minds, and should be remembered for his contribution!

-David Morrill

GuitarSlinger said...

R.I.P. Robert Hughes - Truly the last of the Art ( or any other genre ) critics who still had the cojones to call 90% of what's being promoted as ' Art ' for what it is . Pretentious , over priced BS / Crap as well as the Emperors New Cloths ( my standard for judging Art , Music etc being if it takes the creator more time to explain why he/she created it than it did to actually create it .... its crap and pretentious BS)

May someone ... from somewhere ..... please gain the stones to rise up and fill the massive Gap that Robert Hughes passing has created . This whole " NoBrow " Zeitgeist having gone a decade too far in bringing the last semblances of culture to the mired depths its now attained ...... especially in the last ten years . The curse of Shakespeare's Weird Sisters having finally become reality . e.g. " What's Fair is Foul and What's Foul is Fair " Or as the contemporary sage Peter Gabriel has put it . " Downside Upside Down "

The Vintagent said...

Indeed, in the case of the Custom world (which Hughes lauded as a neglected branch of Folk Art), most reviewers offer no opinion at all, in fear of alienating others in our very small world. It takes a thick skin to offer a critique, as the Web is full of anonymous, and frightening, haters.
Then again, there are very few individuals working in the Custom genre who devote enough energy, time, and personal vision to their task to be called 'artists'; most are simply artisans, working within an established genre, breaking little new ground.

Ward said...

I've heard it said the definition of art is that it must serve no other purpose,ie: paintings. But I prefer the definition "it must evoke an emotional response". Motorcycles certainly qualify!

copeland said...

very cool, i didn't know he was into bikes at all,
thank you

Anonymous said...


God, man, you put up a blog for Robert Hughes! I loved that man, irascible as he was. I absolutely thrilled to The Shock of the New on PBS. I thought he was the hottest animal on two legs then. I could not listen to him enough.

Sometime after his accident, he pitched a story to David Edwards (editor before Hoyer). I hadn't heard anything much about him for years. And David had no idea who he was--art critic for Time Magazine. So, I brought his book, "The Shock of..." to work, and said, "This is him. This is his work!"

Before the CW project fell through, he called the office and I answered. I could hardly contain myself. It was Robert Hughes! I pulled myself together; I was professional. Funny, celebrities don't faze me, but THIS was different!

Thanks for the blog. I enjoyed it, and, I'm sure, wherever he is now, he appreciated it...or critiqued it and called you names!


Robyn @ Cycle World