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Thomas B. Hess

Thomas B. Hess Chart


Thomas B. Hess was the editor of Art News, the oldest and most widely-circulated fine arts journal in the world. From editorial assistant to executive editor and finally to managing editor, from 1965 until his death, Hess was an early proponent of the work of Willem de Kooning, a close confidant of Elaine de Kooning and Harold Rosenberg, and an integral member of the famed Artists' Club on East 8th Street. Throughout his career Hess played an integral role in championing Abstract Expressionist art and art criticism.

Key Ideas

Much like his friend and contemporary Harold Rosenberg, Hess generally disliked the formalist approach to art criticism championed by Clement Greenberg (although both men did admire Greenberg's writing). Hess believed that this approach performed a disservice by ignoring the individual actions, and in some cases, struggles, of the artist.In any work of art, the thing that mattered most to Hess was the individual artist; his motivations, emotions, religious beliefs, personal behaviors, etc. For a critic to ignore the individual was to ignore an artwork's uniqueness. Hess had his doubts of the existence of an avant-garde in the arts. If one did exist, it was embodied in the achievements of the individual artist, and not representative of some larger movement.
Hess challenged the notion of an avant-garde in the arts, by which he meant a forward-thinking group of artists who continually stretched the boundaries of Modern art If one did exist, Hess believed, it was embodied in the achievements of the individual artist, and not representative of some larger movement.


Childhood and Education

Thomas Baer Hess was born to Gabriel Lorie Hess, a lawyer based in New York, and Helen Baer. Hess spent some of his formal years at a boarding school in Switzerland before enrolling in Yale University to study French art and literature. He graduated from Yale magna cum laude in 1942

Immediately after graduation, Hess took a summer job at The Museum of Modern Art, working under Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and MoMA's full-time curator, Dorothy Miller. At summer's end Hess enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and became a fighter pilot during World War II.

EarlyHess begins work at Art News

Hess returned to New York in 1944 and married Audrey Stern. The following year he found work as an editorial assistant at the magazine Art News. In 1949 the magazine's editor in chief, Alfred Frankfurter, promoted Hess to executive editor.

Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase and the'Hess Problem'

In 1951 Hess published his first book, Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase, the first substantial book to address the development of abstract art in America. In one of the book's more controversial passages, Hess implied that abstract painting and Expressionism were interconnected, almost interchangeable, entities: "The tendencies toward and of abstract painting and Expressionism may be the most important movements in the art of the first half of our century, and the most relevant ones to more recent developments."

The book sparked a fury among the New York School of artists. Many, like Jackson Pollock, did not like the label "Abstract Expressionism" and believed Hess' book was only encouraging the use of a false and inappropriate label coined by Robert M. Coates in 1946. Several artists convened at The Artists' Club on East 8th Street to conduct panels, led by the Club's Philip Pavia, on the issue of "Abstract Expressionism" and what many perceived as the "Hess Problem." Little was settled by these panels, and few of the artists in attendance were able to agree on much of anything, but the very fact that "abstract" and "expressionism" were now regularly placed together bothered many artists, and Hess was a convenient target for them.

Hess and 'The American Action Painters'

In 1952 Harold Rosenberg, upon completing his essay "The American Action Painters," asked his friend (and lover) Elaine de Kooning to read it and provide feedback. She in turn passed it along to Hess, for whom she was a regular contributor to Art News. Much like Rosenberg, Hess had grown weary of formalist art criticism (the champion of which being Clement Greenberg). In "Action Painters" Hess saw a finely-tuned essay that dealt specifically with the artist's alienation and personal struggle to create meaningful art in postwar America. Hess personally edited Rosenberg's essay, and within a few months it appeared in the pages of Art News. Rosenberg praised Hess for his "marvelous editing," and from this collaboration, a friendship was forged.

Hess, de Kooning, and the Artists' Club

Throughout the 1950s, Hess continued to cause a stir among the New York School of artists. He was not a critic content to sit and observe; he very much wanted to pose challenging questions to artists and to force them to question what it meant to be a Modern artist, a purveyor of the avant-garde, or whether there even was an avant-garde anymore (more on this in Theory section).

Both Hess and Willem de Kooning were regular attendees at the Club's panel discussions, and Hess remained a steadfast promoter of de Kooning's work, even after others like Robert Motherwell grew suspicious of the aging de Kooning's dominant influence. When Hess invited the artist Lionel Abel to speak at the Club, Motherwell intervened and urged Abel not to go. "You know what the Club is, don't you?" Motherwell said, ".. I'll tell you what it is .. It's Bill de Kooning's political machine."

Hess and Barnett Newman in Conversation

In 1965 the Managing Editor and President of Art News, Alfred Frankfurter, passed away and was succeeded by Thomas B. Hess . Hess' first order of business as the new managing editor was to recruit the poet John Ashbery to write about art for the magazine.

One year later, on May 1, 1966, Hess and Barnett Newman conducted a public conversation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum during Newman's solo exhibition, Stations of the Cross. In their conversation, Newman explained his works by saying, "When I call them Stations of the Cross, I am saying that these paintings mean something beyond their formal extremes ... What I'm saying is that my painting is physical and what I'm saying also is that my painting is metaphysical ... that my life is physical and my life is also metaphysical."

Hess posed a question about the lack of color in the works, to which Newman responded, "Tragedy demands black, white, and gray. I couldn't paint a green passion, but I did try to make raw canvas come into color. That was my color problem - to get the quality of color without the use of color. A painter should try to paint the impossible." This conversation had a profound affect on Hess' view of the life's work of Barnett Newman. Shortly after the artist's death, the exact nature of Newman's art would become a point of debate between Hess and his friend Rosenberg. (More on this in: Newman, Rosenberg, and the Question of "Jewishness")

Later Period and Death

In the early 1970s, Hess began writing art criticism for the magazine New York, in addition to his regular duties at Art News. In 1972 Hess published what is possibly his most celebrated and widely cited book, Barnett Newman, in conjunction with a retrospective show at the Tate Gallery in London.

In 1974 Hess put together a retrospective of Abstract Expressionism for the New York Cultural Center, entitled Grand Reserves. A sequel to this exhibition was held three years later in 1977 at the New York State Museum in Albany, simply called The New York School. Both of these retrospectives were praised for doing justice to the era of Abstract Expressionism.

That same year, Hess was appointed to consulting chairman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Department of 20th-Century Art. In this new role, Hess set a course to make the Met a major destination of Modern art. Less than a year after this appointment, Hess collapsed suddenly from a heart attack while working at his desk. He was dead at the age of 57, and strangely enough, his death came only days after that of his close friend and colleague, Harold Rosenberg.


Thomas B. Hess is in a distinguished company of art critics who were instrumental in championing Abstract Expressionism in the early stages of the movement. In particular, the careers of both Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman benefited greatly from the writings of Hess. As the executive and eventually managing editor of Art News (the most widely-circulated arts magazine in history), Hess not only had free reign to talk and write about whomever he desired, but also enjoyed a huge readership; more than Greenberg and Rosenberg's combined in their early years. With close ties to the Artists' Club, Rosenberg, the de Koonings and others, Hess circulated among Modern art royalty for most of his life, and helped many of them achieve fame and stature in the art world and beyond.

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