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Thomas Hess papers, 1939-1978

Biographical Note

Thomas B. Hess (1920-1978) was an editor, art critic and curator who worked in New York City. He was on the staff at Art News for 26 years (1946-72). Starting as an editorial associate, he was named managing editor in 1948, then executive editor in 1954; he assumed the top editorial post in 1965 upon the death of long-time editor Alfred Frankfurter. In his critical writing from the late 1940s on, he was an influential supporter of the Abstract Expressionists. He wrote widely on other topics as well. In 1972 he left Art News after an ownership change. He then became the art critic for New York magazine (1972-78), a large-circulation weekly reaching a much larger public. (He was also, in the late '60s, a correspondent for the French daily newspaper Le Monde.)
Over the years he undertook several major curatorial projects including traveling retrospectives for Willem de Kooning (1968-69) and Barnett Newman (1971), which he organized for the Museum of Modern Art. His "New York School Painting and Sculpture" appeared at the New York State Museum in Albany in 1977. Both MoMA exhibitions were accompanied by comprehensive monograph/catalogues: Willem de Kooning (1968) and Barnett Newman (1971). Hess's other books include Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase (1951, Viking); Willem de Kooning (1959, Braziller); De Kooning, Recent Paintings (1967, Walker & Co.); Barnett Newman (1969, Walker & Co.); De Kooning: Drawings (1972, New York Graphic); and The Art Comics and Satires of Ad Reinhardt (1975, De Luca Editore, Rome).
Hess became consultative chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Department of 20th-Century Art a few months before his death from a heart attack in July 1978, age 57. Already under way were a Clyfford Still retrospective and a smaller show of recent paintings and sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly. Both exhibitions, completed by Philippe de Montebello (the Met's then new director) and Lowery S. Sims (the Met's then acting 20th-century curator) respectively, took place the year after Hess's death.
Thomas Hess was born in Rye, New York, to Gabriel Lorie Hess, a lawyer, and Helen Baer. He attended school in the United States and Switzerland. He continued his education at Yale University majoring in French 17th-century art history and literature. After graduating in 1942, Hess worked for a short period at the Museum of Modern Art under Alfred H. Barr and Dorothy Miller, before entering World War II as a pilot. In 1944 he married Audrey Stern with whom he had three children, William, Philip, and Anne Helen.