[Marxism] Reactionary croaks
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 27 11:02:04 MDT 2012
NY Times March 27, 2012
Hilton Kramer, Critic Who Championed Modernism, Dies at 84
By WILLIAM GRIMES
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 nine years, and at The New Criterion, which he edited from its
founding in 1982, died early Tuesday in Harpswell, Me. He was 84.
His wife, Esta Kramer, said the cause was heart failure. He had
developed a rare blood disease and had moved to an assisted living
facility in Harpswell, she said. They lived nearby in southern
Maine, in Damariscotta.
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 time 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, igniting the culture wars of the early 1980s, a
struggle in which Mr. Kramer took a leading role as the editor of
The New Criterion, where he was also a frequent contributor.
In its pages, Mr. Kramer took dead aim 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
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 Milton Avery and
Arthur Dove, about whom he wrote with insight and affection. Some
of his best criticism was devoted to artists who had hitherto 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, the managing editor 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 Cape Ann, Mass. 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
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 Art News
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. Kramer said
in an interview on the occasion of receiving a medal from the
National Endowment for the Humanities in 2004. “It reduced the art
object itself to the status of a psychological datum."
He wrote a rebuttal to Mr. Rosenberg and submitted it to Partisan
Review, which published it in 1953. The magazine’s enormous
prestige established him as an important art critic overnight,
giving him, as he recalled in a 1996 essay, “a ticket to a career
I wasn’t yet certain I wanted.” He was invited to write regular
art reviews for Arts Digest, a fortnightly. Clement Greenberg, the
most powerful critic of the day, asked him to write on art for
In 1955, Arts Digest became a monthly magazine, Arts. Mr. Kramer,
who was hired as its managing editor and became its chief editor
in 1961, turned it into one of the most highly respected art
journals in the United States. He also wrote art criticism for The
New Republic and The Nation.
He married the former Esta Teich in 1964. She is his only
immediate survivor. Mr. Kramer became art-news editor of The New
York Times in 1965 and in 1973 succeeded John Canaday as the
newspaper’s chief art critic. He was a prolific, forceful critic
at a time when the art world was undergoing sweeping stylistic and
institutional changes. Pop Art, Minimalism and the myriad
tendencies grouped under the term postmodernism asserted their
claims after the heady days of Abstract Expressionism. Museums,
eager to capitalize on the public’s growing appetite for modern
art and enticed by the box-office success of blockbuster
exhibitions, took a more populist approach to the kinds of shows
they mounted and the way they presented them.
Mr. Kramer made it his mission to uphold the high standards of
modernism. In often withering prose, he made life miserable for
curators and museum directors who, in his opinion, let down the
side by exhibiting trendy or fashionably political art.
The Whitney Museum of American Art, in particular, felt the full
force of his scorn every time it raised the curtain on a new
Biennial, whose roster generally favored installation, video and
performance art, usually with a political message and an emphasis
on gender and ethnic identity.
Mr. Kramer would have none of it. “The Whitney curatorial staff
has amply demonstrated its weakness for funky, kinky, kitschy
claptrap in recent years,” he wrote in a review of the 1975
Biennial, “and there is the inevitable abundance of this rubbish
in the current show.”
Two years later, he threw his hands up in despair. The Biennials,
he wrote, “seem to be governed by a positive hostility toward — a
really visceral distaste for — anything that might conceivably
engage the eye in a significant or pleasurable visual experience.”
Mr. Kramer was impassioned in his praise when art met his high
expectations. “He was a high modernist, but he embraced a rather
diverse lot that ran the gamut from Richard Pousette-Dart to
Pollock to Matisse to the Russian constructivists,” Mr. Kimball said.
He could surprise. Julian Schnabel, precisely the sort of artist
one would have expected him to eviscerate, won qualified praise.
He was at times, Mr. Kramer wrote in reviewing one of Mr.
Schnabel’s first shows in 1981, “a painter of remarkable powers.”
He would later greet with enthusiasm, at least initially, the work
of the highly eccentric Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum.
“He really had a good grasp of modernism — maybe too good a grasp,
because he tended to ignore other things,” the critic Donald
Kuspit said. “I admired his seriousness, although I think he
became more and more frustrated with the scene, the focus on
emerging artists at the expense of mature artists.”
In 1982, Mr. Kramer left The Times to edit The New Criterion, a
monthly journal of culture and ideas created to take a contrarian
view of multiculturalism, ethnic and gender politics, and other
currents coming into prominence in the arts, as well as a
neoconservative take on cultural politics generally.
He plunged into acrimonious debate on cultural politics, staking
out a conservative position in attacks on the artists and programs
financed by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National
Endowment for the Humanities, and revisiting the political debates
of the McCarthy era and the 1960s.
In his mind, the battle lines were clearly drawn “in this age of
irony and institutionalized subversion.”
On the one side, postmodernism, “a revolt against the basic
traditions of Western civilization.” On the other, modernism,
whose ideals he characterized as “the discipline of truthfulness,
the rigor of honesty.”
From 1993 to 1997 he wrote a column in The New York Post devoted
to criticism of what he regarded as liberal bias in the mainstream
Many of his essays on art and politics were republished in four
collections, “The Age of the Avant-Garde: An Art Chronicle of
1956-1972” (1973); “The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and
Culture, 1972-1984” (1985), “The Twilight of the Intellectuals:
Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War” (1999); and “The
Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985-2005” (2006).
Mr. Kramer remained unfazed by the furor his criticism aroused and
professed to be somewhat puzzled at his reputation. “I’m really
not very angry at all,” he told New York magazine in 1984. “I am
appalled at times; astonished, disappointed, anxious, worried. I
think of myself as judicious.”
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