Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art Acquires Critic Robert Hughes’s Papers

The Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art announced this week that it has acquired the papers of famed art critic Robert Hughes, who died in 2012.

“It is a privilege and an honor to preserve the legacy of Robert Hughes and his decades of critical writings” said Liza Kirwin, interim director at the Archives of American Art, in a statement.

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Not only did Hughes serve as head art critic at Time magazine, where he wrote accessible and elegant reviews, he also produced work for TV. His documentary series The Shock of the New delved into the progression of modern art since the Impressionists. Broadcast on the BBC, PBS, and other networks, the series reached millions of viewers. Other documentaries Hughes made focused on Goya and American art since the Revolution.

Despite his fascination with modern art, he tended to express scorn for some of the most famous artists working today. Hughes hated the sculptures of Jeff Koons, for example, and had a longstanding feud with Damien Hirst.

The transfer of the papers was in large part made possible by Hughes’s widow Doris Downes, who donated the papers to the Archives. She also organized and transferred the papers in the midst of Covid-related logistical difficulties. According to the announcement, when stacked, the documents rise 28 feet in height.

“Robert loved America and was captivated by the evolution of American art,” said Downes in the statement. “The faces in old photographs and cryptic messages in his correspondence began to coalesce into a kind of insider’s history of American art during his lifetime. I firmly believe that the Archives of American Art is the right home for this collection.”

The Archives of American Art already owns the papers of various important American critics, such as Max Kozloff, Lucy Lippard, Harold Rosenberg, and others. Founded in 1954, the Archives of American art possesses some 30 million objects, including the largest collection of audio interviews with American artists, art historians, and critics.


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