Hilton Kramer, a widely read art critic who died Tuesday at the age of 84, hurled thunderbolts at major figures and movements in the art world for decades, often from his home on a quiet back road in Westport.
He wasn't just admired for his insights and knowledge. He was also feared for his courage in identifying what he found awful, no matter how popular it was or how many enemies he made by saying what, according to his best judgment, he thought was true.
New York magazine dubbed him the "scourge of the art world," and Newsweek reported in the mid-1990s that according to one survey he was the second-most read critic in the arts world. Kramer was said to be the kind of critic that "the galleries and museums of New York keep an eye out for ... to shutter the shop before he gets there."
"Particularly if you're a writer who deals with controversial issues, as I have been through most of my career, you have to be prepared to alienate friends," Kramer told me in an interview in 1995 for an article in The Hour of Norwalk. "But of course you also make friends. [...] I've been very lucky in my friendships. I'm not eager to make enemies, but I'm not going to lie in order to maintain friendships. It's painful—but, you know, truth counts for something."
After stints as art news editor and chief art critic for the New York Times, Kramer left to found his own magazine, The New Criterion in 1983 and maintained both a column on the arts at The New York Observer and, for a time, a media criticism column on the New York Post op-ed page.
Kramer died from heart failure, according to his wife, Esta. According to his long obituary in the Times: "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."
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Kramer grew up in Gloucester, MA, and as a teenager wanted to be a painter. He studied literature at Syracuse University and later met Philip Rahv, the editor of Partisan Review, while studying at Indiana University.
With Rahv's encouragement, Kramer wrote an article on the arts for Partisan Review and suddenly found his services as a critic in demand. After working for Arts Digest magazine, he was offered a job as arts news editor at the New York Times, where he started in 1965.
Kramer was a lover of abstract expressionism, an art movement that had thrived in the New York arts scene, but in the 1960s and afterward, other art movements became popular. He was disgusted by much of it, and said so in his reviews and articles.
Kramer appeared mild-mannered and spoke in a soft voice. In Westport he worked in a barn-like building behind his modest 1850s house. Inside, books were stacked in shelves or simply on top of each other in the glorious mess of a typical writer's workshop. There was a heater for the colder months, but it must have been drafty.
He would sit at his typewriter, amid the quiet and after walking through the flower garden that his wife, Esta, tended so avidly, and excoriate the kings of the art world, declaring them naked of talent.
As the article in The Hour put it, "Back in the Westport garden, the butterflies float through the breeze, the bees pollinate the flowers ... and Kramer stings:
- "Saying Roy Lichtenstein is 'the most vacuous of our Pop painters.'
- "Calling Robert Mapplethorpe 'the most overrated photographer of our time.'
- "Labeling artist Jenny Holzer 'a totally banal figure.'"
He could also find much to praise in artists, including the late of Darien, Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum and the realist painter William Bailey. He both criticized and praised the sculptor Richard Serra.
Kramer was a very serious man with a devotion to high art, and he criticized not just certain art movements and artists, but museums that concentrated on blockbuster exhibits that he thought pandered too much to the public at the expense of quality.
Yet he seemed to take pains not to seem snobbish. He didn't criticize the public for wanting to see great art at blockbuster exhibits or anywhere else. Although he at one point taught art appreciation classes, he said scholarship wasn't the best approach to appreciating art.
Kramer's advice on appreciating art
He advised people to see art, then discover what they like and want to see again. Look closely at it, he said, and see what elements of it you like. You may then want to learn more about it in books, but that will always be secondary to appreciating it directly.
A person looking at an artwork "is more likely to enjoy it and be responsive to it if the question he brings to it is 'What is it?' (rather) than 'What does it mean?'" Kramer said in 1995. "Because if you approach a work of art attempting to abstract from it some general or abstract meaning, the whole experience is going to be lost."
The art critic had moved to Westport in 1968, but the town's reputation as a haven for artists and arts lovers had nothing to do with it, he said. He and his wife visited friends and stopped at an antique show in town. The dogwoods were in bloom (as they are right about now) and the Kramers were charmed. They bought a home within weeks and stayed for decades.
Kramer was later disappointed with the repacement of locally run shops with chain stores in downtown Westport, he said.
He didn't socialize much in town, instead using his Connecticut home more as a retreat from New York City. In the mid-1990s, Kramer spent about half of each week in Westport and the rest in the city. The Kramers, who had no children, spent summers in Maine.
Several years ago, the Kramers moved from Westport, James Panero, managing editor of The New Criterion, said in an email. "He had two buildings of books to relocate, which was quite an ordeal."
The New Criterion has announced on its website that the May issue will be devoted to Kramer's legacy. Links to articles about him are on the magazine's blog, "Arma Virumque."
Kramer's media criticism column in the New York Post initially was called "Times Watch" and focused on criticizing the New York Times, often sharply, for political bias and dumbing down its arts coverage. The Times declined to comment when I called them for reaction to some of Kramer's stinging criticisms.
The critic said he wasn't surprised. "Yeah—because they're all cowards."