A sculptor's life shown in art

September 10, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Reuben Kramer stands amid half a century of his sculpture and says, "I don't think I'm a failure."

Well, hardly. At 84 -- 85 on Oct. 9 -- he can look back on a life in which he has gone from child prodigy to star student to multiple award winner to darling of critics to dean of Maryland artists.

The latest event in this progression is "Reuben Kramer: A Sculptor's Life," a show at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland that traces the life and work of this Baltimore native.

At the show's opening ceremonies at 2 p.m. tomorrow, Maryland Sen. Julian L. Lapides will read a Senate resolution that says: "The Senate of Maryland offers its sincerest congratulations to Reuben Kramer in recognition of his lifelong achievement as Maryland's foremost sculptor."

To the general public, Kramer may be best known for his portrait sculptures of such well-known figures as Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

But to those who know his work well, Kramer's essential art divides into the two categories featured in the current show. There are the tabletop sculptures of men and -- more frequently -- women that combine age-old traditions of figural sculpture with the modern penchant for allowing the artist's hand to show in the surfaces. And there are the charming, often witty, drawings that he tosses off by the thousands.

His work has won awards and praise. Writing of a 1978 Kramer retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Sun critic Lincoln Johnson noted that "representation and abstraction, pathos and humor, tradition and modernity all flow together in these aesthetically rich and touchingly humane works, offering much delight in small scale."

Earlier, in 1957, another Sun critic, Kenneth Sawyer, wrote of the drawings, ". . . the perfect security of their arrangement, the economy of their execution, the mastery of their draftsmanship mark them as high art."

Kramer's mastery is so complete that at first glance it looks easy. But it's the result of a lifetime of 15-hour days in which work was the center of his existence -- just as his studio is the center of the Bolton Hill house he had built in the 1960s for himself and his late wife, artist Perna Krick. "No more than 15 [percent] of the whole building is for anything besides making and storing art," writes Bernard Fishman, JHSM director, in the ,, essay accompanying the exhibit.

graflead,1.5 The desire to create with his hands is central to Kramer's being. "I was practically born that way," he says. One of his earliest memories is of taking discarded spools from his father's East Baltimore tailor shop and an old cigar box, and making a toy wagon.

It wasn't, however, because he came from a family that encouraged his artistic bent. His parents were immigrants -- his father from Lithuania, mother from Russia. "I came from a Jewish family that thought you had to be a doctor or a lawyer, but no work with hands." When he demonstrated a desire to be an artist, "My father was furious," he remembers.

But he persisted, and when he was 15 won a scholarship to the Maryland Institute's evening school. He subsequently enrolled in the institute's Rinehart School of Sculpture, where he repeatedly won traveling scholarships. In 1934, he won the Prix de Rome, a national competition that brought with it two years of expense-paid study at the American Academy in Rome.

He made his last trip to the Old World in 1938, when he lived a year in London. "I tried abstract sculpture," he remembers of that time, "but it wasn't for me. It just wasn't for me."

So he returned to his first love, the figure, which became his lifelong work. Each of his sculptures -- he estimates there are 300 or so -- has gone through a rigorous, multi-step process of creation from clay to bronze. While others leave some of those steps to assistants, Kramer participates in the entire process. Maybe that's why a Kramer is so unmistakably a Kramer. "One client came in," he remembers, "and said, 'If I saw your work in China I would know who did it.' I thought that was a compliment."

As those who visit the JHSM exhibit will see, however, the fact that Kramer's style and subject matter have remained consistent doesn't mean his works look alike. Each has its own personality, and many are endowed with the Kramer touch of humor to give them added vitality.

The show is in two parts: Kramer's work, including sculptures and drawings; and his life, from pictures of his grandparents and his parents through his work for Army Ordnance in World War II, to his establishment of an interracial art school in Baltimore in the 1940s, to a 1970s photograph of the artist working on a portrait head of Baltimore's then-Mayor Schaefer.

As much as the facts and the memorabilia tell about Kramer's life, his essence is in his sculptures. Standing among them, asked what he thinks of the show, he looks around and says simply, "It's my life's work.

"I'm proud of it in a way."

Well, naturally.

ART SHOW

What:"Reuben Kramer: A Sculptor's Life"

Where: The Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St.

When: 2 p.m. tomorrow; then noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, through Feb. 26

Admission: $2; free to 12 and under

$ Call: (410) 732-6400

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