Hilton Kramer, 84, Cultural Critic and Sentinel of High Art

By Grimes, William | International Herald Tribune, March 29, 2012 | Go to article overview

Hilton Kramer, 84, Cultural Critic and Sentinel of High Art


Grimes, William, International Herald Tribune


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 as footnotes.

"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 December 1952.

Mr. Kramer regarded it, he later said, as "intellectually fraudulent."

"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. …

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