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Hilton Kramer obituary

Former New York Times art critic known for championing the modernism of his youth

Hilton Kramer, who has died aged 84, was the most lucid art journalist of his generation. From his early days on Arts Digest and the New York Times, he compelled attention with the forensic skill of his arguments, the accuracy of his praise and the ferocity of his disembowellings.

He was judge, jury and scourge of, among others, Kirk Varnedoe, curator of painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1988-2001), for what he regarded as Varnedoe's betrayal of the trust passed down from Moma's great founding director, Alfred Barr. In 1980, he skewered the art academic Meyer Schapiro for an analysis of Cézanne that brought "discredit upon the whole Freudian enterprise", concluding: "There thus remains an unresolved conflict – the conflict between the aesthete and the ideologue – that sooner or later will have to be faced if this author is to be taken seriously as a significant analyst of our artistic heritage."

Kramer started out as a moderate lefty but by the mid-1960s was well on his way to becoming the self-professed neocon who considered that the steely-eyed president Ronald Reagan had "won" the cold war, and who basked in a climate in which liberalism, socialism and communism co-existed in a miasmic mindset as a threat to western democracy; west of Rhode Island, that is.

In 1982, he resigned as art critic of the New York Times because he considered it too leftwing and became founding editor of the New Criterion, where he could open a broad front in defence of the achievements of modernism against the philistines, but also continue the battles of the McCarthy years, mentioning senator Joe McCarthy rarely but comrade Joe Stalin often. He raged against those on the Hollywood blacklist of artists suspected of communist sympathies, from the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to Charlie Chaplin, and particularly the Hollywood 10, toilers in the movie vineyard who refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to prison.

The intransigence of Kramer's political views sits awkwardly with the subtlety of his perception in his writings on the arts but brought him a devoted public following as well as the scorn of many, particularly painters and sculptors practising today.

Kramer was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the son of Russian immigrants, and received a BA in English from Syracuse University in New York state, then took postgraduate courses at Columbia, Harvard and the New School for Social Research, covering cultural and political issues, but not art. In 1953, bugged by Harold Rosenberg's description of abstract expressionist paintings as psychological events, he wrote an attack which Partisan Review accepted and which turned him into an overnight celebrity, bringing him a job he had not known he wanted.

He became an editor at Arts Digest (later simply Arts) and in 1965 he joined the New York Times as an art critic, later becoming chief art critic. He used his slot to defend the achievements of modernism up to the 1950s and to excoriate most of what happened later, though there were occasional surprising exceptions, such as his judgment in a New York Review of Books article in 1969 of Claes Oldenburg, "whose zany sculptures and offbeat designs for monuments," he wrote, "offer a robust engagement with the world we actually encounter beyond the perimeter of the art gallery, the museum, and the millionaire's fancy pad".

He brought an acerbic sanity to his occasional ventures into British territory, particularly in puncturing the Bloomsbury revival in a fine essay of 1984 which ends by quoting JM Keynes's rueful view from hindsight of the "superficiality, not only of judgment, but also of feeling" of Bloomsbury, in which Kramer included the underpowered work of Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell and the negligible Duncan Grant. In the course of a richly appreciative assessment of Kenneth Tynan, he wrote: "As a critic, Tynan worked very much as certain high style actors do, always ready, with the rhetorical flourish or the coup de théatre that disarms complacency and causes both shock and applause."

Norman Podhoretz, Kramer's fellow neocon and contributor to the rightwing magazine Commentary, summed him up best: "Hilton came to occupy an almost uninhabitable critical space of his own construction, in which … the daring and experimental art and fiction and poetry of his own youth was considered highly praiseworthy, whereas the transgressive efforts created and displayed in his middle age drew from him exactly the sort of response the abstract expressionists had drawn from leading critics in his own early days."

In 1964, Kramer married Esta Teich, who was an assistant editor at Arts. She survives him.

Hilton Kramer, art critic, born 25 March 1928; died 27 March 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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