Suddenly, Everyone’s Got an Opinion on Hilton Kramer

by Corinna Kirsch on March 28, 2012 · 8 comments Obituary

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:

“Hilton Kramer, Art Critic and Champion of Tradition in Culture Wars, Dies at 84”

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.”

“Hilton Kramer dies at 84; polarizing but widely read art critic”

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.

“What a Brilliant Man!”

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!

“Hilton Kramer's Provocative Time at The Times”

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.

“Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead”

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).

“Deborah Solomon on the Cuddly Side of Hilton Kramer (1928-2012)”

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.”


Deborah March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm

I waited on Hilton Kramer in 2003. He had a lot of opinions, one of which was insightful, and tipped 10%. 

Corinna Kirsch March 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Ha. Let it go down in history that Hilton Kramer was a bad tipper. 

Franklin March 29, 2012 at 2:46 pm

If anything, let it go down in history that “Deborah” here was an inadequate waitress.

Will Brand March 29, 2012 at 5:25 pm

“Deborah” is a real person named Deborah, I promise. You can just call her Deborah. 

Also I’m just gonna put it out there that you probably don’t have any idea whether a person whose existence you apparently doubt was a bad waitress or a person you never met was a bad tipper, once, eight years ago.

Franklin March 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm

 You’re right, I don’t. I do know that between the two of them, Deborah is alive to defend herself.

Franklin March 29, 2012 at 2:42 pm

For more, James Panero is compiling a comprehensive list (minus Finch’s tasteless idiocy) at his blog. (Full disclosure: James is my editor at The New Criterion and the list includes my piece for The New York Sun.) Another point of error of the Finch piece is his mangling of the name of Aristodimos Kaldis.

Will Brand March 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm

That’s a really nice piece (yours, I mean). It’s a shame so few of the other obits have included his own writing to any meaningful extent. 

Franklin March 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm

 Thank you. To me, the bottom line on Kramer is that much of his writing is superb. What a critic is for matters more than what he is against, and in his advocacy he wrote some brilliant prose.

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