It was big news in the world of journalism when Hilton Kramer left The New York Times in 1981 to become the first editor of The New Criterion. Few could understand why the chief art critic of the newspaper of record should choose to leave his post to edit a fledgling magazine of art and literature, and fewer still why he wished to ally himself with the conservative foundations that provided the seed money to launch the enterprise. How could Hilton Kramer, an eloquent voice for abstract expressionism and high modernism, enter into an alliance with conservative business leaders whose range of interests (it was said) did not extend much beyond free enterprise and supply-side economics? Hilton’s critics had a point: It was an unusual alliance. They doubted it would last for very long. As things turned out, it was Hilton Kramer more than anyone else who made it work.

I had just joined the staff of the John M. Olin Foundat ...