I first worked with Hilton as his fact-checker at The New York Observer, where his weekly front-page art column raised hackles and hosannas in equal measure for more than fifteen years. After a few weeks of apparently competent work on my part, Hilton seemed relieved. “Thank you for your good queries,” he said, “a great improvement over the fact-checker who once asked me if the painters in a Cubist exhibition I was reviewing were, in fact, all born in Cuba!” His voice fluted up into the higher register he reserved for uproarious stories, followed by full-throated laughter. Like so many truly serious people, Hilton loved to laugh and his stories were hilarious and lighthearted.
After I came to work for him at The New Criterion, he was a generous mentor—assigning me books to review and introducing me (both in person and through his writing) to the canon of modernist painting. Hilton possessed the finest critical sensibility of anyone I’ve ever known. He was also a consummate pro, never once missing a column that I can remember. On the morning of a deadline (he usually had two or more a week), he would arrive at the office and type out his piece on a manual typewriter from top to bottom, with no mistakes save a word excised or inserted here and there. He worked out the entire column—lede, argument, quotations, conclusion—before he began typing. It was a high-wire performance, an art now lost to computer cut-and-paste.
Hilton was equally in his element in the galleries, at his typewriter, and in public conversation and debate (he could expose a mendacious argument so summarily it left his opponents speechless). Another place he seemed most at home was visiting artists’ studios. I rarely spoke on the few occasions I accompanied him, just listened (alongside the artists themselves) to Hilton’s responses to the work. The encouraging and illuminating way he spoke about what he saw taught me what it means to stand in front of a work of art—a joyful and serious activity.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 30
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