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.