Mr. Kramer had an incisive style and combative temperament that
made him one of the most influential critics of his era, both at The
New York Times and The New Criterion, which he founded.
Hilton Kramer, whose clear, incisive style and combative
temperament made him one of the most influential critics of his era,
both at The New York Times, where he was the chief art critic for
almost a decade, and at The New Criterion, which he edited from its
founding in 1982, died on Tuesday in Harpswell, Maine. He was 84 and
lived in the southern Maine town of Damariscotta. His wife, Esta
Kramer, said the cause was heart failure.
Admired for his intellectual range and feared for his imperious
judgments, Mr. Kramer emerged as a critic in the early 1950s and
joined The Times in 1965, a period when the tenets of high Modernism
were being questioned and increasingly attacked. He was a passionate
defender of high art against the claims of popular culture and saw
himself not simply as a critic offering informed opinion on this or
that artist but also as a warrior upholding the values that made
civilized life worthwhile.
This stance became more marked as political art and its advocates
came to the fore to set off the culture wars of the early 1980s, a
struggle in which Mr. Kramer took a leading role as the editor of
The New Criterion. In its pages, he aimed at a long list of targets:
creeping populism at leading art museums; the incursion of politics
into artistic production and curatorial decision-making; the
fecklessness, as he saw it, of the National Endowment for the Arts;
and the decline of intellectual standards in the culture at large.
A resolute high Modernist, he was out of sympathy with many of
the aesthetic waves that came after the great achievements of the
New York School, notably Pop ("a very great disaster"), conceptual
art ("scrapbook art") and postmodernism ("modernism with a sneer, a
giggle, modernism without any animating faith in the nobility and
pertinence of its cultural mandate").
At the same time, he made it his mission to bring
underappreciated artists to public attention and open up the history
of 20th-century American art to include figures like the sculptor
David Roland Smith and the painters Milton Avery and Arthur Dove,
about whom he wrote with insight and affection. Some of his best
criticism was devoted to artists who had up until then been regarded
"Nothing gives me more pleasure," he wrote in a 1999 catalog
essay for the painter Bert Carpenter, "than to discover unfamiliar
work of significant quality and intelligence."
Roger Kimball, editor and publisher of The New Criterion, said of
Mr. Kramer: "As a critic of culture, he had a broad range. He wrote
on everything from novels and poetry to dance and philosophy, but it
was as an art critic that he was best known. His chief virtue was
independence. He called it as he saw it -- an increasingly rare
virtue in today's culture."
Hilton Kramer was born on March 25, 1928, in Gloucester,
Massachusetts. As a boy he gravitated toward the local artists'
colony and spent long hours in Boston's art museums. After earning a
bachelor's degree in English at Syracuse University in 1950, he
studied literature and philosophy at Columbia, The New School for
Social Research and Harvard.
While studying Dante and Shakespeare at the Indiana University
School of Letters in the summer of 1952, he struck up an
acquaintance with Philip Rahv, the editor of Partisan Review, who
encouraged his critical ambitions.
Art, by pure chance, provided his entry point -- specifically
Harold Rosenberg's essay on action painting, published in ARTnews in
Mr. Kramer regarded it, he later said, as "intellectually
"By defining Abstract Expressionist painting as a psychological
event, it denied the aesthetic efficacy of painting itself and
attempted to remove art from the only sphere in which it can be
truly experienced, which is the aesthetic sphere," Mr. …