A champion of Motorcycling has died after a long illness; Robert Hughes, creator/host of the ‘Shock of the New’ television series and long-time art critic for Time magazine. While artists and public television watchers knew Hughes for his acerbic opinions on art and artists (he once described the work of Jeff Koons as “so overexposed it loses nothing in reproduction and gains nothing in the original”), he was also a motorcycle fan. More importantly, he was the most visible and well-known art critic to defend the inclusion of motorcycles in the Guggenheim Museum, at the ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ show.

Robert Hughes with the Honda CB750 he mentions in his infamous Time magazine review of the ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum (photo -w/notes- from the Duluth Art Institue blog). And isn’t that jacket something!

The most famous art critic in the world ‘came out’ as an avid motorcyclist in his Aug 18, 1998 column in Time magazine, ‘Art: Going Out on the Edge’: “The fact that the great spiral of New York City’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is at present full of motorcycles has annoyed some critics. Not this one. If the Museum of Modern Art can hang a helicopter from its ceiling, why can’t the Guggenheim show bikes? “The Art of the Motorcycle” may seem an opportunistic title until you actually see the things. Design is design, a fit subject for museum consideration, and in any case I’d rather look at a rampful of glittering dream machines than any number of tasteful Scandinavian vases or floppy fiber art.”

Art critic Robert Hughes in 1986

The article laments the inclusion of only a single ‘custom’ motorcycle in the ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ show; the ‘Captain America’ chopper designed by Cliff Vaughs for the film ‘Easy Rider’: “…everything in [the show] is stock, so that it ignores the creative ingenuity that has gone into making the custom bike one of the distinctive forms of American folk art.” Of course, the international explosion of Custom motorcycles since this 1998 article has merely reinforced Hughes’ opinion on their importance at the ‘art’ end of the motorcycle spectrum.

Cliff Vaughs’ design for the ‘Captain America’ chopper, as exhibited in the Guggenheim’s ‘Art of the Motorcycle’, which was called by Hughes ‘…a distinctive form of American folk art.”

Hughes wrote of owning two Norton Commandos before moving on to Honda CB750s in the early 1970s, and to having a bad accident on a Kawasaki, which ended his biking career. A fascinating and controversial writer, he drew from a deep reservoir of historical knowledge to support his arguments, whether or not you agreed with them. More important to The Vintagent, that seminal Time article championing Motorcycles was read by millions, far more than than were able to attend the Guggenheim show itself, and helped usher a sea change in public opinion about bikes, as worthy subjects of study and exhibition.

For Hughes’ obituary in the New York Times, click here.

For a selection of his scathing art criticism, click here.