During the many intense months that Robert Hughes spent on the road filming a new eight-hour television documentary about American art called "American Visions," he frequently yearned for a break from his role as both scriptwriter and host. "He'd always say, 'Let's not bother with this, let's go fishing,' " the program's executive producer, Nicholas Rossiter, recalled recently.
But only once, on a crisp fall day in Georgia O'Keeffe country in New Mexico, did Mr. Hughes indulge in his sideline passion. Too much else was on the line for Mr. Hughes, Time magazine's influential art critic. Namely, his 16-year-old Moby Dick of a goal.
That ambition, to tell the history of art in the United States from the Spanish pueblos of the 16th century to the massive art installations so common today, is coming true in several dimensions. "American Visions," the 648-page book from Alfred A. Knopf, landed in bookstores in late April. The television series makes its debut on PBS on May 28. A home video edition will soon be available, Time is publishing a special bonus "American Visions" issue, and -- as Mr. Hughes was quick to add during an interview in his SoHo loft -- two Web sites will go on the Internet.
America's art, still considered by many to be inferior to Europe's, has never had so much attention. And not since "The Shock of the New," Mr. Hughes's 1981 PBS documentary about modernism, has art, period, captured so much television time.
Pulling off this multimedia blockbuster, four years in the making, was no easy feat. Mr. Hughes and Mr. Rossiter, who works for the British Broadcasting Corporation, which produced the series with Time Warner in association with WNET, the PBS station in New York, were determined to avoid a dull, static museum tour. So they filmed at more than 100 locations from Maine to Malibu -- without the Hollywood conveniences.
"Whenever I'd see movie crews in SoHo, with their mobile toilets and makeup vans, I'd get jealous," Mr. Hughes recounted. "Our makeup van was carried by a production assistant in her handbag. And when I was dripping in sweat, someone would produce a ratty package of Kleenex."
The sheer volume of work was a bigger strain, threatening Mr. Hughes's marriage and sending him to a psychiatrist for the first time. "After finishing the series about a year ago, I had severe depression," he said. He blamed overwork, a crisis of confidence and postpartum blues.
Yet with deadlines for the book and then the bonus magazine looming, plus the reviews he writes for Time, there was no time to wallow. Sticking to a schedule he used on the road while writing the scripts, Mr. Hughes got up daily at 4 or 5 A.M. to churn out as many as 3,000 words a day.
"I nearly went bats having to write the book at such speed," he said, dressed in blue jeans and a button-down blue shirt in his loft, which is chockablock with books and papers but devoid of art.
"I'm not terribly acquisitive," he explained. "And with contemporary artists, it could involve a conflict of interest." His house on Shelter Island, N.Y., where he and his second wife, Victoria, spend most of their time, does have "a few prints, mostly things like Goya."
Born in Australia of Irish heritage, Mr. Hughes earned a degree in architecture and worked as a magazine cartoonist in Sydney until the day the magazine's art critic quit. He was asked to fill in. Soon intoxicated by the subject, Mr. Hughes departed for bigger writing opportunities in Britain and the chance to tool around Italy, on study trips, on a motorcycle. Time brought him to New York in 1970.
Stopping to Savor His Own Wit
Since then, Mr. Hughes has been noted for his idiosyncratic, nothing-is-sacred willingness to take on both the academically and politically correct, as well as for his vivid, irreverent language: when he says something clever, he will often stop to savor it and to make sure it has been recognized.
Over the years, it has been. Many deem him the most successful art critic today. In profiles and reviews of his books, writers have called him -- besides the apt "ever voluble" -- "erudite," "famously pugnacious," "brilliantly destructive," "consistently entertaining," "sardonic," "pontificating" and a string of other colorful adjectives.
He is certainly "Nothing if Not Critical," the title of his last book about art, a collection of his essays. In them, for example, he disparages the importance of Andy Warhol (on whom he has since mellowed) and taken many contemporary artists down a peg, including David Salle, Eric Fischl and Louise Bourgeois.
His inability to pull punches shines through in the later segments of "American Visions." In one memorable passage, the art dealer Arne Glimcher remarks that the offerings of his Pace Gallery -- in this case, by Julian Schnabel -- are prizes to be awarded only to the worthy. "A booby prize, sometimes," Mr. Hughes retorts.
His penchant for mischief-making is also in evidence on screen when he queries "the very egregious" Jeff Koons, who uses a bevy of assistants to make work whose "vulgarity is so syrupy, gross and numbing that collectors felt challenged by it." ("No doubt," Mr. Hughes says in an aside, "Koons couldn't carve his name in a tree.")
Mr. Koons proceeds to compare his kitschy sculpture of a "kitten in a giant sock" to the Crucifixion, meeting Mr. Hughes's request for his reasoning with a somewhat muddled response, then explaining how tightly he supervises his staff: "I have to oversee everything here, and I have to make every decision, otherwise I'd have no relation to it at all."
It's little wonder that two artists he has criticized in print -- Mr. Schnabel and Jenny Holzer -- refused to grant him copyright approval to use their work in "American Visions." Their defenders and some contemporary art enthusiasts meanwhile take Mr. Hughes to task for failing to keep up with today's art movements.
The idea of chronicling American art, which Mr. Hughes believes is underrated, sprang into his mind shortly after "The Shock of the New." "I was determined to make it clear that American art does not begin with the vulgar era of the 1960's," Mr. Hughes said. "People believe that American art achieved significance only then, but there is a long continuum in American art that goes back to the Puritans."
'Bob Hughes Was Very Convincing'
Although "The Shock of the New" drew 26 million viewers on public television, he found no takers for his new project until 1992, when the BBC signed up. "We figured Bob Hughes is a major cultural figure -- what does he want to do next?" Mr. Rossiter said. "We wouldn't have chosen American art, but Bob Hughes was very convincing."
Although WNET snapped up the series once the BBC backed it, it makes no excuses for failing to produce the show. "We are dealing in a financial situation in which it's difficult for us to do a program like this," said Jac Venza, the station's director of cultural programming. "Whatever we fund has to work for the nation."
On the strength of 15-page chapter outlines, the BBC put up $4.5 million. Later, Time Warner pitched in $1 million. WNET and PBS, meanwhile, helped raise about $1 million to buy the broadcast rights.
The real work began when the time came to give those outlines a filmable structure. An early breakthrough came, Mr. Rossiter said, when he watched a 1985 program on American art by Vincent Scully, a professor emeritus of art history at Yale who is widely credited with broadening the appreciation of art and architecture through his books and lectures. "It was incredibly static, very dry, shot in the Metropolitan Museum," he said. "I said to Bob, 'This is how not to do it.' "
They needed a narrative. History -- telling the American story through its paintings, architecture and decorative art -- provided it.
Clio is an exacting muse, however, especially given a mere eight hours. Mr. Hughes had hoped for a 10-part series, but only 8 segments could be financed, forcing a major winnowing of artists. "Selection," Mr. Rossiter explained, "was based on what did they tell about American history, about what an American is."
In contrast to European art, which is tied tightly to its past, American art, Mr. Hughes believes, revolves around an attachment to the land and a continual search for the new.
He was frustrated by the culling. "It was just driving me cuckoo," he said. He regretted the need to leave out the likes of Martin Puryear, Arshile Gorky, Frank Stella and Childe Hassam, but he tried to make amends to them in the book.
Once the choices were made, new selection questions loomed: Since this was not a gallery tour, just where should Mr. Hughes stand, literally, when he talked about the appeal of the wilderness and the Hudson River School, for example, or the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the skyscraper? And how should these scenes be shot?
"We realized early on it was too much work for one director," Mr. Hughes said. So they hired four. (A fifth was added when the final program had to be partly reshot by someone more attuned to contemporary art than the original choice.) "As it was," the task "nearly drove us into the ground."
On their odyssey around the United States, the crew members used one car and two vans, which created the potential for a literal pain in the neck. Because Mr. Hughes rose so early to write scripts, "he always had to have a sleep between 2 and 4 P.M.," Mr. Rossiter said. "So we put him in the back of the car while we were shuffling between locations."
"It was physically very grueling," Mr. Rossiter said, "especially for someone of Bob's age," which is 58.
The bare-bones production caused other problems, too. Filming at a Louisiana plantation, Mr. Hughes could not get his on-camera shot right, a legacy of the previous night's carousing in New Orleans.
"It was so suffocatingly hot, and you'd be soaked in sweat, and we had to do about eight takes," he said. "But I'd used up my supply of remotely clean blue shirts, and the nearest laundry was miles away in Natchez. Finally, I got it right on the last shirt."
There were moments that made up for the troubles, though. Like one in Maine: "I remember being in Prout's Neck, shooting about Winslow Homer," Mr. Hughes said. "It was a blustery autumn day, and that's a landscape that really hasn't changed, so I had this sense of looking at what Homer must have been looking at."
Another highlight was filming at Monticello in Virginia, especially in Thomas Jefferson's study, "all night, the only time they'd let us do it."
Mr. Hughes noted that "American Visions" was not supposed to be a television tutorial. "I'm not an educator," he demurred. "I think of my stuff as an intelligent entertainment."