Art critic Hilton Kramer died yesterday, and the responses to his death have been as polemic as his writing. A member of the old guard, Kramer was a modernist who tried, but failed, to grasp important trends in contemporary art; he also successfully identified many of its weaknesses. We admire his strong, provocative voice and fearless finger-wagging at bad taste. His assertion that defining Abstract Expressionism in terms of the artist’s psychological state turned everything to shit and replaced aesthetics with biography (we’re paraphrasing) still rings true.
Kramer was widely read, but just as widely despised. The many essays written about his passing express these sentiments: was he a certified jerk, or just a critic? Because only one essay can't do justice to Kramer's long and controversial career, we've rounded up several of the best—and most controversial—obituaries. In hopes of giving the late critic a well-rounded portrait, we've provided links to these essays and our own commentary below:
To this day, The Times appears fiercely supportive of him, even though his status as an adamant “warrior” for Modernism caused him to leave his position as the chief art critic at The New York Times to start his own publication. Kramer hated post-modernism, but at The New Criterion, he was free to “take a contrarian view of multiculturalism, ethnic and gender politics, and other currents coming into prominence in the arts.”
The Los Angeles Times gives an acrid view of the late critic; you might hate Kramer after reading this one. The essay digs into Kramer's staunchly conservative views on art and culture, including his opposition to feminism, politics, and federal art funding. Yeah, I can't stick up for Kramer here.
City Journal couldn't be more pleasant about Kramer's time as “one of the last of the New York Intellectuals.” Highfalutin praise aside, this obit reveals Kramer's feisty side: after leaving The New York Times in the 1980s, he began writing a weekly column in The New York Post (yes, that highly-respected tome) where he criticized his former employer. What a jerk!
While chief art critic at The New York Times, Kramer wrote a film review that caused him more trouble than anything else he ever wrote. Kramer had a problem with The Front, an Oscar-nominated a film starring Woody Allen, which was a dark comedy about censorship in the McCarthy era. What was the big deal? In the pages of The Times, Kramer assailed the film for “assiduously turning the terrors and controversies of the late 1940s into the entertainments and bestsellers of the 1970s.” Like Clement Greenberg before him, Kramer took a hard-line on art and culture, believing the two should never meet.
Charlie Finch sure knows how to show reverence for his “good friend” Hilton Kramer, who he claims was fired from The New York Times in the early 1980s. Finch recalls how Kramer “knew nothing about art, because even his male gaze was, in the end, impotent and tasteless.” Damn. Say what you will, but Finch knows male gaze: take, for example, this piece mentioning Vincent Fremont's “sexy, zaftig daughter.”
Finch's off-base explanation of Kramer's “firing” from The New York Times has already been criticized by Roger Kimball, someone who was a better confidant to Kramer (he's currently the editor of The New Criterion and he's co-edited multiple books with him).
On a lighter note, art critic and journalist Deborah Solomon reminisces about how, while other girls daydreamed about pop stars, she dreamt of Hilton Kramer. More than silly childhood remembrances, this essay brings up one of the most compelling reasons for Kramer's enduring talents: he commanded a national reputation as an art critic, by no means an easy feat. Also noteworthy: Kramer disliked children and once referred to babies as “drunken houseguests.”