Writing Archive

On Never Meeting the Master: Hilton Kramer, 1928-2012

The New York Sun, March 27, 2012 (read there)

Hilton Kramer and I never met, but I contribute regularly to the magazine he co-founded, The New Criterion, and I was saddened to learn that he died this morning.

Every issue proclaims on its cover, “The New Criterion: A monthly review edited by Hilton Kramer & Roger Kimball.” To me, this is a reminder to look deeply into the art I have proposed to write about, and hone my prose until it is as sharp as a Japanese sword.

I have developed an interest in a neglected group of modernists who admired the principles of abstraction while painting figuratively. My writing about them necessitates research, which often turns up a piece by Kramer. And there he is, lamenting the neglect years before I began to experience it myself, and writing scintillating passages like this one from 2004 about Jane Freilicher: “Cloudy skylines and vivid floral bouquets, still-lifes and landscapes, nasturtiums and petunias lording it over Manhattan’s imposing cityscape, the rectilinear cityscape itself dissolved into a phantom Cubist still-life - these are some of the suggestive incongruities to be savored in Jane Freilicher’s new paintings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.” When my turn came to write about Freilicher at Tibor de Nagy, I felt like I was staring up at a sheer cliff without a top-rope.

While doing some research for a Fairfield Porter review last year, I ran across Kramer's essay about the Porter show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 1983. “Abstract Expressionism thus served Porter’s artistic interests very much as Impressionism had served Vuillard’s,” it read. “It gave him the means of producing art that was modern as well as traditional—for producing an art that he could somehow regard as complete.”

On top of this perfection of summary, Kramer had keenly observed the social forces that conspired against Porter's due recognition. “Even journals that are normally content to act as if contemporary art does not exist—I think particularly of The New Republic and The New York Review of Books—felt obliged to make an exception in this case and pay the Porter exhibition some sort of critical attention. The former invited no less a literary personage than John Updike to review the show—presumably on the grounds that it takes a WASP to understand a WASP, and that only a professional observer of American middle-class manners could be expected to come to terms with the world depicted in Porter’s paintings—while the latter simply reprinted John Ashbery’s affectionate little essay for the exhibition catalogue. (Like many things written about Porter by his friends, this paid a handsome tribute to the man, but had virtually nothing to say about the paintings.) At The New Yorker, the assignment to cover the exhibition for “The Art World” column did not go to the magazine’s regular art critic—a specialist in the antics of Andy Warhol, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg—but to Whitney Balliett, the resident jazz critic and sometime reviewer of novels who happens to be the fortunate owner of one of the best pictures in the exhibition and may thus be presumed to be a passionate admirer of Porter’s work.”

I longed to meet him, but each of our few mutual contacts shook his head when I brought it up. “He's very sick.” I didn't inquire further. The details were none of my business. It was enough to have a distant mentor in the writings themselves, passages full of images seen as thoroughly as they could be seen, and people understood as thoroughly as they could be understood. It would have to be enough.

Word count: 593

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