Reuben Kramer - a life in bronze

Sculptor: The artist shaped his art in Baltimore, scattering his works throughout a grateful city.

September 29, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

You can see the hand of the artist at work in the sculpture of Reuben Kramer, the marks of his tools, the mediation of his mind and the feeling in his heart.

He formed his figures and his portrait heads from lumps of clay, pressed and prodded into place with his fingers, worked with knobs and scrapers and knives, and cast into bronze with the marks of his workmanship left undisguised, as a hallmark of his integrity.

"He had a distinctive technique," says Virginia North, librarian and archivist at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the repository for a rich selection of Kramer's work, his notebooks, many drawings and several of his tools. "You could tell a Reuben Kramer by his technique."

William Johnston, the associate director of the Walters Art Gallery, agrees: "He was so conscious of his material and he knew how to exploit its potential."

The Walters has eight or nine of Kramer's bronzes and a half-dozen drawings. And the Baltimore Museum of Art also has several bronzes and drawings. (The works are not on display.)

Kramer, 89, died Sunday at a retirement home in Lutherville, his work finished except for a few drawings created for his own pleasure in his final years.

He developed his figurative sculptural style in the 1930s and refined it for the rest of his life. His sculpture survives in caches and collections and solitary niches in all the old familiar places around Baltimore and in lots of unexpected ones.

His commemorative bust of Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, the South Baltimore street kid who became the governor of Maryland and twice mayor of Baltimore, rests in a balcony niche under the City Hall rotunda just outside the mayor's office. Firm, determined and downright noble in suit, vest and tie, with a bronze boutonniere, McKeldin looks ready to burst into the orotund oratory for which he was famous.

Kramer's bronze portrait of Gerald W. Johnson, one-time Evening Sun editorial writer, national political commentator, author and his Bolton Hill neighbor, occupies its niche on the second floor of the Enoch Pratt Library's Central Branch. You can follow the movement of Kramer's hands as he shaped the head of his old friend.

The Jewish Museum mounted a retrospective exhibition of Kramer's work in 1994 with nearly 60 bronze works, along with many photos and artifacts from the sculptor's life. Among the bronzes that remain at the museum are a self-portrait from 1981 in which Kramer looks straight ahead with wide-eyed and, perhaps, sorrowful clarity at the world.

And next to Kramer in the Jewish Museum collection is the 1984 portrait he did of his beloved wife, Perna Krick, who died in 1991. She's as wide-eyed as he, but where he seems tentative, her face is strong and settled, patient and slightly smiling.

In storage during renovations, the two portraits have been frequently displayed in the museum's library.

North recalls that when Kramer called her he always asked, " `Now I want you to get this straight: How do you spell Reuben?' And I would dutifully spell it, correctly. He'd say, `You know a lot of people don't know how to spell Reuben.' "

Johnston remembers Kramer as "deadly serious." But he had a playful side, too, North thinks.

Her favorite bronze is "Mr. Who Me?" That's a work about a foot high of a beleaguered modern Job peering upward and pointing questioningly toward his chest: "Who me?"

"When it first came to us, I had it on my desk a few days," North says. "I love the quizzical look on the guy's face. I sort of have an affinity for him."

Kramer made his own tools. Calipers and scrapers and an exquisite letter opener, beautifully wrought of boxwood and ebony, stainless steel and aluminum. They're small works of art in their own right, as fine as the man who made them.

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