Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Feared and Fearless: Hilton Kramer, 1928-2012

(for comments by William King, Alex Katz and Vivian Tsao, please scroll to the bottom of the page.)

With Hilton Kramer’s passing last month, American high culture lost a fearless – and at times feared – dissenter.  He was also among the last of a remarkable generation of New York intellectuals.  A sometime idealistic anti-communist liberal turned neo-conservative, Kramer reshaped debates about politics and culture with unstinting passion and erudition.  His enduring legacy was The New Criterion, the journal he co-founded in 1982.

He had a long career in criticism that came to include almost two decades as the chief critic of the New York Times, his other posts – en route or subsequent to that defining appointment – including stewardship of Arts Magazine, critic’s chairs at The Nation and the New York Observer, influential teaching posts at Columbia, Berkeley, and Bennington, and the authorship of books and monographs.

Hilton Kramer, 1928-2012.  Photo (c) Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 1985

Hilton Kramer, 1928-2012. Photo (c) Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 1985

While his politics shifted significantly to the right, his artistic tastes, it can be claimed, remained consistent: the art world changed around him and he stuck to his aesthetic guns.  He was what can be called a soft modernist: he admired the historic avant garde, but strictly for its advances to the language of plastic expression, rather than for its revolutionary or subversive aspirations.  He was an ardent student, for instance, of the Russian Constructivists, planning later in his life to write a monograph on the subject, while having no particular affection for its political or theosophical ideals.  Among contemporary artists, beauty was invariably his criterion.  His critical mentors were John Ruskin, Roger Fry, T.S. Eliot (from whom of course he borrowed his journal title) and Julius Meier-Graefe to whom he owed more, in his formalism, than he did Clement Greenberg albeit that relations and interests were close with the latter.  His entry to critical debate was tellingly reactive: a rebuttal to Harold Rosenberg’s existentialist reading of action painting.

He was a curmudgeon, but to say this made him a maverick would constitute a misreading of American art writing: a majority of critics at any given moment pretty much subscribe to the less than augustly phrased observation by Charlie Finch that “most art sucks”.  Considering that his predecessor on the Times was John Canaday and that the three most illustrious art writers he patronized at the New Criterion were Jed Perl, Mario Naves and Karen Wilkin, it is difficult to single out his tastes as unusually conservative.  His negative tastes were also largely commensurate with those of Robert Hughes, Donald Kuspit and Peter Fuller, though each critic would have different cut-off dates as to when modernism went off the rails,  selective enthusiasms and varying political slants.  A Venn diagram, in other words, would see more of the circles of all these people’s tastes overlapping than not.

Unsurprisingly for a retinal hedonist, Kramer favored Matisse over Picasso, and gravitated strongly towards Americans who extended Matisse’s chromatic sensibility.  He was a dutiful advocate of Color Field Painting in the 1960s, but his heart seemed really to lie with Milton Avery.  Some of his most lyrical and persuasive art writing was devoted to figurative and landscape artists who emerged in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, artists who satisfied his longing for an art that reconciled social acuity, humane wit and visual pleasure.  William King and Richard Lindner occasioned some of his best criticism, while the “inspired insouciance” of Alex Katz takes us “out of the Existentialist wood, basking in the clear, bright light of an easy sociability.”

But Kramer will always be remembered less for his avowals than for his put-downs, most infamously the one meted out on that now unassailable contemporary art saint Philip Guston, whose 1970 Marlborough Gallery show, signaling a turn from polite lyrical abstraction to the rambunctious personalism of his late style, earned him the epithet “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum.” In a way, however, Kramer’s cutting phrase became a boomerang, for increasingly the reactionary Times critic became not merely out of step with a conceptual, post-modern art world, but a necessary fixture whose dismissals served as an avant garde validation.  A stumblebum, in other words, still wearing the mantle of a mandarin.  Kramer became a latter day Louis Vauxcelles, the critic who – in backfiring attempts to bury them – ended up christening Fauvism and Cubism.  As Alex Katz intimates below in his note of tribute to his sometime scourge and later champion, a bad review from Kramer could be worn by a self-respecting artist as a badge of honor.

Milton Avery, Blue Trees, 1945, Oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches. Permanent Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York; Gift of Roy R. Neuberge

Milton Avery, Blue Trees, 1945, Oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches. Permanent Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York; Gift of Roy R. Neuberge

What is likely lost in reading Kramer’s excoriations of the NEA or lambasts of academic political correctness and trendy sexual politics is that Kramer was actually a remarkably judicious man with enduringly liberal tastes.  He was a fastidious attendee of press previews and conferences, a diligent note taker, an old-school scholar-journalist.  He cared about details, an attitude that came across in his editorial work.  I remember proposing to write a review of a big Calder show in DC for him, after publishing a couple of short pieces at the Criterion; he had to go see the show himself before assigning it, and actually decided that serious flaws in the curatorial process didn’t make it worthy of attention in his pages after all.

I had first met Hilton as a wet-behind-the-ears graduate student visiting New York in the mid-1980s.  I went to interview him about Patrick Heron, the British abstract painter and staunchly anti-Greenberg but nonetheless formalist critic.  Kramer heard me out and methodically refuted all of my queries and contentions, defending Greenberg against all of Heron’s charges.

A couple of years later I had a call from Hilton’s secretary saying he would be in London and would like to meet for a drink.  I immediately assumed that they had me confused for someone else, that so important a figure couldn’t possibly mean to waste precious time on me, even calling to good-humoredly explain the mix up.  But I was wrong, he meant me, and in fact,  I would discover, Hilton thrived on the company of younger people.  Despite seeming set in his thinking he liked to hear what others had to say—although he certainly also enjoyed an audience for his own ideas and anecdotes. I recall the salacious delight of his recounting the tale of one of his erstwhile protégés (none of those cited above, incidentally) found tied-up on the roof of his apartment building after a romantic tryst.

I have fond memories also, on that London visit, of taking Hilton to dine at St John, the trendy eatery specializing in offal and innards, much frequented by the YBAs. He was totally in his element, unfazed.  In turn there would be the great pleasure, for me, of lunch as his guest at the Century Association where he was a bow-tied fixture.  I will never forget, when a demure lady nodded at him as she passed our table, his expression of ever-so wistful regret that a court order had obliged the club to accept women as members.

Hilton was an early guest of my series of dialogs with American art writers at the New York Studio School, the Craft of Criticism.  One great line I remember was his describing the effect on his spirits of a Soho afternoon of particularly desultory art.  He had to go to Dean & Deluca, he said, and look at some fruit and vegetables just to restore a sense of nature and color to his mind.

  • William King

    He gave me a stunning, delicious review early on (’50’s?), and I called or wrote to say “thank you, o lordly one”. He responded, nicer than this, of course: “You poor sap, you think I wrote that for YOU? You must be confusing me with ********** or *********** or even ***********!” Lemme tell you that was a lesson-and-a-half re the NY ArtWorld!
    But, over the years, he kept taking my work very seriously, and I took THAT very seriously, he giving me to understand I had a permanent place on the Art Curve! Have you any idea what that means to a budding hick artist? Does that still happen?
    “He’d stand in front of a work of art and literally, yes literally, lick his chops” Anita Ventura told me.

    • Melany Terranova

      thanks for sharing……..your human reaction/observation brings life and
      spirit to the article….

  • Alex Katz

    I’ll always have a warm place in my heart for Hilton. he gave me my first long, bad review, and a reproduction of “Lawn Party” filling one third of a page of the Sunday Times to prove his point. I met him at a party and told him my mother liked the review – he said, “I wish other people did.” (my mother’s quote was “It’s about time someone got interested in you.”) He took me out of the crowd and gave me a bad review on a level of the bad reviews he gave Bill de Kooning. I still remember the shock of the review. Thanks Hilton, you really could write a bad review. (He later gave me a rave review for my show at the Wadsworth and I think it launched my career.)

  • Michelle Mackey

    I respected Kramer’s intellect through his writing,
    but now I have a fuller picture of his professionalism, his thoroughness, and his context.
    Thank you for the personal insight, David, I really enjoyed that.

  • Vivian Tsao

    It seemed only yesterday when Mr. Hilton Kramer, dressed in a light blue shirt accented with a deep red bow tie, handed me a copy of the summer issue of The New Criterion from the other side of his desk. He said, “This is for you.” In mid summer of 1984, I was about to conduct my first interview with the art critic whose reviews and book The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and Culture 1972-1984 had enlightened and impassioned me as an artist. I thought I should introduce the man and his words to the Chinese art public. My essay on his writing and our two in-depth interviews that year were published in the Chinese language art magazine the Hsiung Shih Art Monthly in Taiwan. In the 1980s before the open cultural exchange took place between Taiwan and Mainland China, this magazine reached the Mainland and was kept in the library of institutions such as the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Chinese artist/writers like Mu Xin and Chen Danqing who were then residing in New York thought these interviews and my translation of his reviews opened a new window to Western art criticism for them. The poignant words by Kramer were not the usual generalizations of art by familiar Western names. These two artists who were searching for a channel to connect to contemporary art valued what they heard from Kramer.

    When I told Mr. Kramer the topic for our subsequent interview “Beckmann and the Neo-Expressionists” in October, his face suddenly brightened up with joy. He said,”This is very close to my heart.” Several days before Thanksgiving, the critic made an exception to come to his office. When I asked him if he felt that Beckmann was like a visitor from another civilization as he wrote in 1969, Mr. Kramer, dressed in a dark gray wool suit and a white silk tie that echoed his white shirt gave me a surprise answer. He said that the cultural climate for contemporary art had changed markedly since that article “Max Beckmann: The Quality of Pulsating Life.” The emergence of the Neo-Expressionism in Europe and U.S. that occurred within the past decade was a sign of the welcoming back of the Expressionist impulse in art. “No. He seems now to be considered something of the father of our own civilization.” replied the critic.

    When he heard my question, “What do you think is the role of an art critic?” the seasoned writer with fine features lowered his head. After a moment’s thought, he said, “The role of the critic was defined by T.S. Eliot many years ago in a way that I think has rarely ever been improved upon. Eliot said the role of the critic consisted of two things primarily: the elucidation of works of art, and what he called the correction of taste. I think that these remain the two primary functions of criticism.

    On the one hand, (there is) the illumination of works of art, both past and present. By the correction of taste, I think he meant to describe all those functions that the critic takes on in
    explaining why works of art are important to us: what values they encompass, what perspectives
    they lead to, what is important in the work of the past as well as the present, how certain works in
    the past have lost their meaning for us–meanings that they might have had for an earlier

    By taste, I think Eliot meant something broader than what we normally mean by it. He meant a
    kind of spiritual affinity, a spiritual outlook. I think that (central to this is) the combination of both
    the analysis of objects–what we call the explication of works of art, the elucidation of works of
    art– and on the other hand, the larger cultural, critical task of correcting taste, correcting values–
    affirming some and denying others. I think those remain the primary functions of criticism today.”

    As our taped interview gradually came to closure, I realized that I was having a privileged
    experience in discovering the answers to my long term questions. I am grateful that these
    in-depth interviews and my essay “Poetic Reflections” which focused on the writings on Morandi
    by Kramer and by poet W.S. Di Piero are included in my book in Chinese The Mark of Time:
    Dialogues with Vivian Tsao on Art in New York. The well-illustrated book, published by Hsiung
    Shih (Lionart) Art Books in 2003, lives in the Chinese world. Mr. Zhong Han, art critic and
    professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, found the book inspiring. Not only
    that, its art magazine that first printed these interviews is being archived in its original format in a
    Chinese language digital file that will soon become available. The sudden realization that the
    voice of art critic Hilton Kramer will be heard by new readers around the globe was magical.

  • Paul Kraus

    When I think of Hilton Kramer, I remember his remark upon visiting the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. He said: “It’s a nice museum; now all it needs is some art.”

  • Pat Lipsky

    Hilton Kramer gave me my first New York Times review. It was good. Among other things he wrote that I had “a strong pictorial intelligence.” It happened I think because I’d had a bad review the week before in New York Magazine. I was new to the art world and didn’t know Hilton or John Gruen, whom I immediately donned John Ruin. I always thought that Kramer had read the Ruin review and found it over the top. So he went over to Emmerich and checked the work out himself.
    A witty and interesting man, with a solid intellect. “We will not look upon his like again.”