Robert Hughes, who brought a muscular, confrontational writing style to the genteel world of art criticism, and whose books and television programs on art and the history of his native Australia brought him a worldwide following, died Monday at a hospital in the Bronx. He was 74 and had been ill.
Hughes had wide-ranging interests and published a memoir, a book about fishing and biographies of artists, in addition to two monumental surveys of art history. His 1987 book about the settlement of Australia, "The Fatal Shore," was considered a masterpiece and became an international bestseller.
But he may have been best known as a pugnacious critic, mostly for Time magazine, who gleefully punctured reputations throughout the art world. He once pummeled critical darling Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at 27, in an essay titled "Requiem for a Featherweight."
One of his favorite targets was Julian Schnabel, who was famous for affixing broken plates to canvasses. Hughes wrote that Schnabel was "to painting what [Sylvester] Stallone is to acting -- a lurching display of oily pectorals -- except that Schnabel makes bigger public claims for himself."
Hughes established his name in 1980 with "The Shock of the New," a book and popular television series about the growth of modern art.
Controversy followed him for decades, as he accused academic critics and the art establishment of being intellectually fraudulent and commercially shameless. There was no doubt, as art scholar James Hall wrote in 2003, that Hughes was "the world's most famous -- and infamous -- art critic."