HOW WE MET: ROBERT HUGHES AND BERNARD JACOBSON

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The Independent Culture
The art historian Robert Hughes was born in Australia in 1938. Since 1970 he has lived and worked in the US, notably as 'Time' magazine's art writer for the past 25 years. He is one of the world's most admired critics and has won numerous awards, including 1997's Richard Dimbleby Award for his TV series 'American Visions'. He lives with his wife and children in Shelter Island, New York State. The art dealer Bernard Jacobson, 54 (far right), is possibly the leading dealer of modern British art. Until 1969 he worked as a journalist in London and New York; he then started his own business, eventually establishing a stable of 'names' that includes Henry Moore, David Hockney and Sam Francis. He lives in London with his wife and children

BERNARD JACOBSON: We probably first met in the Sixties, when I was very young, in the back room of a gallery run by a London dealer called Kasmin. Robert was from Australia, had this incredibly beautiful long blond hair and was part of Kasmin's entourage, which was very glamorous and impressive - David Hockney and all these amazing artists from New York. I was nobody - the schoolboy who knew a bit about painting from Kasmin; they were the stars. But I loved being in the art world in Swinging London: drinking, having fun, while Bob was obviously doing a grown-up, serious job.

We really met, I think, when he went to interview the artist Sam Francis. There was a party given for Sam in LA in 1969. Bob turned up to this party, again with very long blond hair, all in leather on a big hairy Harley- Davidson, which I thought was very exciting for an intellectual - this beautiful wild thing on the back of a motorbike.

Bob is usually wary of art dealers - he loves art more than collectors - but he became fond of me; cooked for me, had me to stay, that sort of thing. I have a lot of admiration for him - I don't know if he'd say the same for me. We are very strong personalities, Bob and I. Bob is very demonstrative, he's a very big man with a big personality. He's absolutely incredible with words on and off paper, and he is immensely well-read. It's quite hard to get a word in edgeways (you know, "I ... don't quite ... agree ... I don't think ... Freud's very good"), and when we meet he definitely talks more than me. I listen a lot to him, and I'm not sure how great a listener he is. But because I sometimes feel inadequate in his company - he is this huge personality - I accept it.

We've grown up together. We're not in our twenties and thirties like Damien Hirst and his friends, so we've been round the block a few times and we're a little sceptical. But the reason why Bob and I get on is because we're not jaded. He can talk to you on so many subjects beyond art, unlike most art critics - he's a real liver, a wild man. He's a maverick and I'm a maverick, and we both say things you shouldn't say about artists we think are terrible. We both have the same list of people we like and dislike.

I also love the way he hates poseurs, art phonies and bullshitters. I can't imagine him sitting in the same room as a poseur. I think he'd hit him. And Bob and I are both extremely heterosexual kind of people and so we're kind of outsiders in the art world - it's a very effete world and Bob is straight up and down.

Bob lives in America, so we have to see each other when we can - he'll come to the gallery if he comes to London, although that's quite rare. When I'm in New York I'll look him up. We once spent a week together on Shelter Island with our families. He cooked some great meals for us - he's a fantastic cook. It was pretty nice squid stuff, all very Aussie. But then Bob's that kind of person: a great Aussie with no bullshit, so he serves no-bullshit food. His whole lifestyle is like that.

I do have memories of Bob being down and saying: "Life's not great, is it?" He's a man of great passion and has his downs; so I would like to think I am there if he needs me. People see me as being incredibly successful, incredibly secure, but Bob's one of those people to whom you can say: "What's it all about?" And he knows I mean it. I'm supposed to be the big dealer in modern British art; but then I'll start thinking: "But how good is modern British art anyway?" And Bob'll say: "Don't be like that, you're great!" He's up there for me.

I think we both think you've only got one life and then you're going to die, so you might as well get it right and leave something behind - and I think Bob's contribution is going to last a long, long time. American Visions has done very, very well in America and hugely well in Australia. While Bob was in Oz for the book's launch, he went to a football match in a stadium the size of Wembley - and on the stadium's huge screen it said: "Welcome Home Bob Hughes!" There aren't many British art critics who'd get a "welcome home" message at, say, Highbury.

We don't always agree about art. Some years ago I got disillusioned with abstraction and went back to figuration as something that I could get hold of. I went for Lucian Freud in a big way in the early 1980s, but I've swung back again to abstraction, which I think is the one great hope. Right now I feel more strongly, say, about Rauschenberg than even Bob does. So we're like that [points in opposite directions]. We're like a lot of people who read and think about art, we're always questioning stuff. But if Bob were to suddenly freak out and decide the ruralists were the greatest artists ever, I'd still love him.

ROBERT HUGHES: I don't have a specific recollection of how we first met. I think it was in the late Sixties in London, but I honestly don't know. That's often the case with my friends - I remember where I met strangers, but not friends. His description of me on a motorbike is right, but it wasn't a Harley: it would have been a Kawasaki. And I wasn't all dressed in leather - I just had a leather jacket on, which was purely practical.

I don't usually have art-dealer friends. Bernard is the exception because he has never tried to sell me a line - which is a rare enough thing in the art world. I never had the feeling that Bernie was ever trying to involve me in a business deal. I think there's always a tension between the dealer and the collector as there is between the dealer and the critic. So there's no self-interest in Bernie's and my friendship, as I genuinely don't buy anything from anybody. But we still talk about individual artists and their shows; we talk about the art world as well as about our children, or whether we've made money - the things people talk about.

I suppose our friendship developed in the usual way. I've been living in America for about 30 years, but I quite often come to London, and I'd always drop by for coffee or lunch and a chat. From the start I enjoyed talking to him, because he had a different take on contemporary art. And we both hated the hype; we both hate pretentious people - they set my teeth on edge. I'd rather be strangled by bears than have that sort of conversation, and the art world is full of that kind of people. Bernie enjoys the art world for its pretensions, he can be very funny about that. But then he'll come out with some pretty outrageous remarks which I can't agree with.

We probably see each other three or four times a year. I'll drop by and he'll usually be despairing over the latest auction figure. When he comes here he and his wife drop by Shelter Island. As for the cooking, well I think I take a back seat to my wife. But it's great to look at Bernie eating - we'll make something like clam bake with fresh clams from the sea, and he'll be constantly amazed. "Where do these things come from? The clams came out of that mud?" He's very much a city boy, and I like that, although it's not the way I live.

With some of my other friends I go fishing, but Bernie's sublimely uninterested in that sort of thing. I can't imagine shooting ducks with him. Oh he'd have a go, but he bumbles along when anything physical is concerned. In fact I've never taken him fishing because I'm worried he might get seasick. Bernie is not the world's greatest athlete and I'd be worried about him falling out of the boat. He's very much the indoor type.

On the outside Bernie has a pretty strong feeling of underdogship; he sometimes feels not accounted for, or dismissed as the Jewish kid in town. I also joke with him about Jewishness. It's difficult for Jews to joke about Jewishness in the US because it's all so serious, but we'll play games - he plays the Jewish stooge. We both have a slightly malignant sense of humour but Bernie is more generous in his expression than I am. He feels there's common good.

I have this feeling that we can take up a conversation exactly where we left off even if we haven't seen each other for ages. With some people you have to crank up the conversation each time you meet, but with Bernie it's just assumed that we both know what we're talking about and it's amiable.

He has respect for me as a writer and I think of him as a very honest guy with a considerable fund of cultural passion underneath. He's committed in terms of his taste, and I respect that. He sticks to his guns, but I don't think we've ever violently disagreed. That doesn't mean that I agree with him about artists. And as for Bernie's feeling on Lucian Freud, well nobody's perfect. You can't agree on everything and it would be rather suspect if you did.

Assuming I'm still alive in 20 years' time, I hope that we'll still be friends. Maybe I'll persuade him to come fishing.

! 'American Visions' by Robert Hughes (Harvill Press, pounds 35) is out now. 'British Modernism' is at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, Clifford St, W1 (0171 495 8575).

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