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'Shock of the New' critic Robert Hughes dies at 74

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
updated 6:40 AM EDT, Tue August 7, 2012
  • Robert Hughes is best known for his history of modern art
  • Hughes saw the Eiffel Tower as a key symbol of the modern art period
  • He said the period from 1880 to 1930 brought one of world's biggest cultural experiments
  • Australian PM Julia Gillard hails him as "a great Australian voice"

(CNN) -- Robert Hughes, one of the most influential art critics of the late 20th century, died Monday at the age of 74, his wife announced Tuesday.

Hughes was best known for his book and TV series "The Shock of the New," about modern art, published a decade after he became an art critic for Time magazine.

Leaping metaphorically off the Eiffel Tower, which Hughes saw as a key symbol of the modern art period, the book said the period from 1880 to 1930 saw "one of the supreme cultural experiments in the history of the world."

Hughes argued that the art and design world in those decades was full of "ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all by the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants."

By 1980, when he published the first edition of the book, the art scene had lost all that.

He was scathing about the period in which he was writing, saying the art world had "finally turned into a kind of entropic, institutionalized parody of its old self.

"We are at the end of the modernist era," he argued in his most famous work, "but this is not -- as some critics apparently think -- a matter for self-congratulation."

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard hailed the country's native son as "a great Australian voice."

"His opinions were so influential -- and controversial -- that he established whole new orthodoxies which will long be debated and revised," she said in a statement Tuesday.

Catharine Lumby, a journalism professor in Australia, said he combined high-brow taste with a common touch as a speaker.

"He genuinely wanted to share his passion and knowledge with ordinary people. He was elitist when it came to evaluating art but he was absolutely egalitarian when it came to communicating why certain works mattered," she told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"That's why he was so good on TV. He needed to pass ideas on because he believed they mattered," said Lumby, who teaches at the University of New South Wales.

Hughes' niece Lucy Hughes Turnbull said he had been in a car crash in 1999 and had never fully recovered.

"It was a life-changing event ... and climbing out of that experience was a very, very hard one, and one that was possibly never fully achieved," she told ABC News 24, the Herald reported.

His wife, Doris Downs Hughes, was with him when he died in Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, New York, she said in announcing his death.

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