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Reuben Kramer, mortal man, immortal works


The magnificent Reuben Kramer, approaching his 84th year, doesn't seem to get it: He isn't like the rest of us poor mortals who want to live forever or die trying.

He can never die, not as long as there are formerly lifeless chunks haunting the landscape which Kramer's hands have transformed into living faces and bodies.

Like the statue of Thurgood Marshall outside the federal courthouse, or this bust of Golda Meir sitting in his studio, or the John Kennedy resting in Kramer's basement. As long as somebody gazes at them, Reuben Kramer lives forever.

Still, he sits in his Bolton Hill studio on this brilliant spring afternoon with thoughts of mortality. An updated final will sits on a table, with a couple of house cats striding past it. He mentions certain pieces of sculpture he is planning to leave to specific institutions.

And he opens a conversation by declaring, quite casually, "I'm getting ready to meet my maker. I'm down to two cats."

Always, the seriousness is lightened with deadpan humor, a philosopher amusing himself between insights, the lofty artist stooping to scratch a cat and sidestep any pedestals.

The cats seem to have the run of the place, but not quite. Over in a corner, Kramer's posted a sign -- "No cats in this area. You will be persecuted" -- as though the cats can read.

Near the sign is a bust of a man: Kramer's father, some years gone, whose features Kramer is sculpting "pretty much from memory. You know, he didn't want me to be an artist. He thought art was a way to get out of work. Anyway, I got some old photographs, and if it doesn't look like him -- well, this is what it's gonna look like."

He smiles impishly and runs one hand across Prince Valiant bangs falling down his forehead. His hands are lean and veined, so narrow you can see throbbing beneath the skin, a life system pulsing down there in the muscles.

"Yes," he nods, "I have no fat on my hands. You can see through them."

It comes from a lifetime of using them to make a vision of life where none existed before, and to do it with such skill that Kramer has been honored as virtually no other sculptor of his extended era.

You walk through the front door and find yourself initially stunned: Who invited all these people? And then you realize, they've all been invited by something that sprang out of Reuben Kramer's genius.

This studio, these rooms, the basement -- all are filled with his work, much of it neatly lined up on sturdy shelves built by Kramer himself.

"Beautiful work," Kramer is told.

"The work, yes," he says, "but what about these shelves? I'm just as proud of the shelves. I built every one. I wouldn't let a carpenter near here."

Always, he is working: all day and into the night, usually till 3 or 4 in the morning, then awake and working again at 9 or 10: portraits, sketches, pieces of sculpture, jewelry.

The work is his life. Relaxation? He hasn't been to a movie in 30 years, he says.

"When I have nothing to do," he says dryly, "I do another self-portrait."

There are a few of them around the studio, recognizable at a glance, the image of the artist now imperishable. But they make up a tiny sum of his remarkable work. To describe the output, or to list the awards he has won over the past seven decades, is to diminish it.

And yet he seems to have come to this summing-up period of his life, talking of mortality, pointing to shelves stacked with magazine articles glowing about his work, reminiscing about various periods in his history.

"And then," he says at one point, "I got another award. For something,I don't know. . ."

The voice trails off, self-deprecatingly. He knows he is a larger-than-life figure in his world, and yet there is something of the self-doubt felt by any sensitive human being: At the end of the day, we all still wonder: Am I as good as I want to be? Does my work really stand for something? And how much does any of it matter?

Ultimately, the questions are unanswerable. And so Reuben Kramer finds himself, on a spring afternoon, in the winter of his life, sidestepping the great questions with a little levity: tales of sculpting mud pies at age 2; of battling with his father over career plans; of old dialogues with Thurgood Marshall and Theodore McKeldin and others he immortalized in sculpture.

And, not to be forgotten, in the process immortalized himself.

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