Hilton Kramer, art critic and editor who was champion of artistic tradition, dies at 84

March 27, 2012

Hilton Kramer, a journal editor and sometimes pugnacious critic who forcefully argued against what he saw as the decline of the nation’s cultural standards at the hands of a misguided elite, died March 27 at an assisted living facility in Harpswell, Maine. He was 84.

He had a blood disorder that led to a fatal heart ailment, said his wife, Esta Kramer. The couple had lived for the past decade in Damariscotta, Maine.

As chief art critic of the New York Times from 1973 to 1982, Mr. Kramer was one of the country’s most influential voices in the world of art. But it was not always a world he fully embraced.

He often railed against the excesses of galleries, museums and artists, particularly when he thought they were slumming in the realms of pop culture, identity politics and simple bad taste.

In 1989, when an exhibition including homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe was withdrawn by Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, Mr. Kramer strode to the front lines of the controversy with an essay in the Times called “Is Art Above the Laws of Decency?”


Journal editor and critic Hilton Kramer, who died March 27 at 84, often railed against the excesses of galleries, museums and artists. (No credit; undated)

After leaving the Times to become founding editor of the New Criterion, a highbrow monthly journal, Mr. Kramer was often identified with the neoconservative movement.

“He wrote as much about literature, politics and the world of ideas as about art,” Roger Kimball, the New Criterion’s current editor and publisher, said in an interview. “He had an allegiance to high culture as an ennobling endeavor.”

Mr. Kramer derived much of his influence from his persuasive and often-elegant prose, which bore the ornate imprint of his favorite writer, Henry James.

“Kramer is probably the best art journalist of our time,” architectural historian James S. Ackerman wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1974. “He knows his subject in depth, understands his audience, and is scrupulously fair as well as courageous in his attacks on wrongdoing and sham”

Mr. Kramer helped establish the reputations of 20th-century painters Arthur Dove, Milton Avery and Helen Frankenthaler, but he may be better known for his memorable and unsparing critical put-downs.

When the artist Christo displayed his orange fabric “gates” in New York’s Central Park in 2005, Mr. Kramer called them “nothing less than an unforgivable defacement of a public treasure.”

The biennial exhibitions at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art were, in his words, little more than displays of “funky, kinky, kitschy claptrap.”

The role of the critic, Mr. Kramer maintained, was not merely to describe what came before his eyes but to defend a cultural heritage dating back centuries. He wrote witheringly about many “postmodern” developments since the 1960s, including performance art, video art and what he considered meretricious incursions of pop culture into classic artistic traditions.

For Mr. Kramer, the arguments over the purpose of culture were more than mere academic exercises.

“Without art, without high culture,” he said in 2004, “sooner or later we’ll all be barbarians.”

Hilton Kramer was born March 25, 1928, in Gloucester, Mass., where his father ran a dry-cleaning business.

Gloucester had many artists and galleries, but Mr. Kramer was always more interested in writing than in becoming a painter. His wife said that a high school English teacher, Hortense Harris, was a guiding influence.

He studied English at Syracuse University in Upstate New York, graduating in 1950. He attended graduate school and taught at various universities before making his name with an essay for Partisan Review in the early 1950s, challenging the ideas of then-powerful art critic Harold Rosenberg.

Mr. Kramer worked for Arts Digest magazine and contributed to Commentary, the New Republic and the Nation before joining the New York Times in 1965.

The New Criterion, which Mr. Kramer launched in 1982 with pianist and writer Samuel Lipman, took its name from the Criterion, a journal founded in the 1920s by poet T.S. Eliot. Mr. Kramer endorsed Eliot’s goal for his publication — “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste” — as his own.

Although the circulation of the New Criterion is less than 10,000, it has had a distinguished roster of contributors and is recognized as an intellectual standard-bearer for the neoconservative movement. Nevertheless, it has been criticized for what Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight has called a “prevailing tone” of “the arrogant sneer, filed to a keen edge.”

Mr. Kramer published several collections of essays, including “The Revenge of the Philistines” (1985), “The Twilight of the Intellectuals” (1999) and “The Triumph of Modernism” (2006), and edited several others.

Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Esta Teich Kramer.

According to an account in the New York Sun, Woody Allen once met Mr. Kramer at a social gathering and asked whether he was embarrassed to meet people whose work he had vilified.

“No,” Mr. Kramer said. “I expect them to be embarrassed for doing bad work.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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