Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On Never Meeting The Master (Hilton Kramer Obituary From New York Sun)

NOTE:  I read the following short obituary/tribute this morning regarding the critic Hilton Kramer and thought it was good and worth sharing.

By FRANKLIN EINSPRUCH | March 27, 2012

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

   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 (Link) 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.

Jane Freilicher, Harmonic Convergence, 2008

   While doing some research for a Fairfield Porter review last year, I ran across Kramer's essay (Link) 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.”

 Fairfield Porter, Daffodill and Anemone, 1965

    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.”

Edouard Vuillard, Intérieur à Table à Ouvrage, 1893

   I longed to meet him, but each of our several 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.

Franklin Einspruch is the art critic for The New York Sun. He blogs at


  1. Lovely ... and RIP Hilton Kramer.

  2. Thank you. I thought this was a fine piece of work and particularly admired the Porter/Vuillard remarks. The Freilicher painting appeared in the original Sun obit and is beautiful. Curtis

  3. The truth is, even among his friends and admirers it was widely recognized—even if seldom admitted—that, although being an artist was essential to his social position, Warhol was far more important as a social phenomenon that he ever was or could be as an artist. That was what gave him his special aura, after all—and his influence. As an artist he ended his career exactly as he began it— as a gifted commercial artist with a flair for the arresting graphic image and skillful layout. He was never much of a painter, and as a sculptor he didn’t exist. (As for his movies, it is probably enough to observe that, having served their purpose—which was to propagate the Warhol myth—they had long ago predeceased their creator. Of aesthetic merit they had none whatever.) Warhol’s “genius” (if it can be called that) consisted of his shrewdness in parlaying this essentially commercial talent into a career in an art world that no longer had the moral stamina to resist it: a career that would have been unthinkable, for example, ten years earlier.

    _ -- HK's obituary for Andy Warhol. Moral: Even if you are as important as Hilton Kramer thought he was, beware of pronouncements beginning "The truth is . . . ." Sorry, Hilton, I can't resist. I no longer have the moral stamina. Still, RIP.

  4. Oh, I agree (with you, not with Kramer about Warhol). I do like the Fairfield Porter comment, however, and thought it was a lovely short memorial piece. Can't decide whether to be sunny or gray here, kind of like me. But Jane's returning from Denmark later and I'm happy about that (a lot). Curtis

  5. Hilton was an excellent writer, and provocatively disagreeable. I can't say the same about his successor Roger Kimball.

    I think Fairfield P. would have been just as celebrated without Kramer, though.

    There's a nice picture by Jane F. coming up at Sotheby's. And an ok one by Fairfield P.

    Ron Padgett is having (hosting? appearing at?) a book party at Tibor de Nagy soon for the publication of The Library of America's Joe Brainard collection.

  6. Agree with what you say, but am less familiar with Kimball than you are. I just liked what the Sun writer included about Porter. Would love to know more about the Brainard event. Curtis

  7. It is always sad when a bold voice of import passes. And so it is with the passing of HK. I've thought much or what he had to say about art to be spot on . As for his socio/political views less enthused . For me , much is summed up in a passage from HK's critique of Varnedoe's MOMA Exhibition 'High /Low' when he states " becomes a mere coefficient of material culture and is thus denied that element of aesthetic autonomy and transcendence that has been one of the hallmarks of the modernist spirit." It is hard to come up with any art in the postmodernist realm that is transcendent. So HK passes and 'art 'carries on. Henry

  8. Thank you for passing along that Kramer quote. I'm going to consider it while driving to PA today. I have always had a hard (actually, impossible) time dealing with the word "post-modernism," let alone its products. As I mentioned above, I published this obituary piece here because I thought it was excellent and it caught me by surprise. It also provided an opportunity to post the paintings. Curtis