Navigate to News section

Life Is Short, Art Is Important: Hilton Kramer

Shivah Stars

Marc Tracy
April 05, 2012
Hilton Kramer in 1985.(Jack Manning/NYT)
Hilton Kramer in 1985.(Jack Manning/NYT)

Each week, we select the most interesting Jewish obituary. This week, there were actually very few prominent deaths to consider (good for the Jews, bad for The Scroll), so let’s dip into one from last week: that of Hilton Kramer, who died Tuesday before last at 84. Kramer’s was a familiar name and byline to fans of intellectual skywriting: from various perches, including Partisan Review, The New York Times (where he was chief art critic from 1974 to 1982), and finally The New Criterion, a journal he also edited, he lashed out at what he saw as postmodernism’s distortions of the traditional modernist and pre-modernist aesthetics, most explicitly in the world of visual arts but also more broadly in the culture. A native New Englander, his patrician accent made him, he said, “insufficiently Jewish” in Alfred Kazin’s eyes, which is pretty funny.

Despite an idiosyncratic taste for the postmodernist (and also Jewish) artist Julian Schnabel, anyone basically after Abstract Expressionism (which the New York Intellectuals loved) was no-go for him; and during his years at the Times, no Whitney Biennial was safe from his pen. As he wrote of the 1975 iteration: “The Whitney curatorial staff has amply demonstrated its weakness for funky, kinky, kitschy claptrap in recent years, and there is the inevitable abundance of this rubbish in the current show.” For that sentence’s full effect, read it aloud.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.