Overtaking the Avant-Garde

The Age of the Avant-Garde: An Art Chronicle of 1956-1972

by Hilton Kramer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 565 pp., $12.95

Like most collections of critical essays, the books under review are composed of pieces that have been written over many years, in Kramer’s case for the New York Times and, in Rosenberg’s, for magazines ranging from Partisan Review to Vogue. Almost all the essays in both books derive from events, such as art exhibits, the appearance of new books, or the organization of a symposium on an issue of current interest, so that the authors’ views cannot be as coherently presented as they might be had particular objects and themes been chosen for examination.

In both cases it doesn’t matter much whether one reads the whole book or parts of it, or in what order. In compensation for this lack of structure we are offered a kaleidoscope of cultural happenings in America—or more exactly New York—during a number of years, and an insight into the attitudes, methods, and to some degree the intellectual development of two widely read critics. The range of subjects is more likely to interest future historians than current readers, many of whom will have their own sense of recent cultural events; so these books will be of interest mainly to the extent that intellectuals who are concerned with such matters want to know more about the ideas of Kramer and Rosenberg.

Kramer is compelled by the policy of the New York Times to reveal his ideas in small and uniformly designed packages that provide the public with opinions on current exhibitions the day they open. We are intended to skim them while we drink our morning coffee. When they are presented in hard covers, it seems unjust both to Mr. Kramer and to the artists that exhibits should be evaluated in fewer than 1500 words (in one piece, three San Francisco artists are allotted a total of three pages) and that those words have often been written to meet a deadline. A novel does better in its Times review than twenty paintings and, characteristically, Kramer’s reviews of books by Clement Greenberg and Rosenberg are longer than any art notice in the volume.

Given these restrictions, Kramer has accomplished a lot in pieces on more than 125 nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists; the articles are consistently informative, acute, and helpful to the reader who wants some preparation for seeing an exhibit. Some, for example the essay on Medardo Rosso, are, to my mind, model reviews. Kramer is probably the best art journalist of our time; he knows his subject in depth, understands his audience, and is scrupulously fair as well as courageous in his attacks on wrongdoing and sham, as in an essay called “Art and Politics: Incursions and Conversions” (pp. 522ff), which indignantly rebukes a prominent critic, a leading minimalist artist, and the director of the Museum of Modern Art for their hypocrisy in suddenly announcing their discovery of the superiority of the art of the masses and the minorities.

But criticism does not flourish in these little boxes, nor does Kramer seem to want to…

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