American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America

Robert Hughes, Author Alfred A. Knopf $65 (648p) ISBN 978-0-679-42627-1
Hughes, an Australian citizen who has lived in New York since 1970, when he became the art critic at Time magazine, describes his history of the objects and images created in America since the arrival of Europeans as a ""love letter to America."" Judging from the impassioned, often scathing tone of this unabashedly personal book, theirs has been a stormy affair. Like The Shock of the New, Hughes's 1981 look at modernism, this richly illustrated (330 illustrations, almost all in color) chronicle of American art from Puritan meetinghouses to Barbara Kruger's photo collages grew out of a public television series. But this is no bland, dumbed-down survey intended to flatter its subject or its audience. Hughes writes with an aesthete's disdain for political posturing, a traditionalist's belief in the importance of technical skills (painters are frequently taken to task for their shoddy draftsmanship) and a pragmatist's contempt for mystagogical bunk. Perhaps because he ultimately distrusts grand schemes, his overview isn't determined by a larger argument, such as defining what makes American art American. And while initially he uses art as a window onto American culture as a whole, that sense of perspective ebbs as Hughes approaches our contested times. With his rhetorical temperature rising, he seems almost burned out by the end, and his account of the contemporary scene is disappointingly brief. (Readers of his 1993 jeremiad, The Culture of Complaint, will recognize the tone and themes--and at least one recycled passage.) This slashingly witty, briskly paced, ferociously opinionated tour of the American visual landscape is a book that even the most un-likeminded readers will love to hate. 100,000 first printing; BOMC and QPB main selections; author tour. (Apr.) FYI: This book grew out of scripts for the eight-part TV series due to air from late May through early June. As Hughes points out in his introduction, each 3000-word script translated into a book chapter of more than 20,000 words.
Reviewed on: 03/31/1997
Release date: 04/01/1997
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