Reuben Kramer, a life dedicated to art; Renowned sculptor is dead at age 89

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Reuben Kramer, Maryland's most celebrated sculptor who is best known for his touching depictions of the human figure, including portraits of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, died yesterday at College Manor retirement home in Lutherville. He was 89.

Mr. Kramer died of natural causes, College Manor officials said.

Honored with many state, national and international awards, his artwork has been praised by critics for its craftsmanship, humor, vitality and optimism. His drawings and sculptures can be found in the homes of many Baltimore art lovers, but they have also been exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

"I have a list of adjectives I use to describe him -- self-reliant, diligent, economical, frugal, generous, humanitarian, perfectionist, reliable, integrity, commitment to quality and enduring values," said Amalie Rothschild, a Baltimore County artist and a friend of Mr. Kramer's for nearly 60 years.

Of those attributes, his diligence stands out, Mrs. Rothschild said.

"He knew what he wanted to do, and he never looked left or right," she said. "His whole life was art. His only books were biographies of famous sculptors. He never had any other interests."

The son of an East Baltimore tailor, Mr. Kramer rejected his father's wish that he become a doctor or lawyer and was determined at a young age to live a life dedicated to art.

He was driven by a desire to create with his hands. One of his earliest memories was of taking discarded spools from his father's shop and an old cigar box to make a toy wagon. But his artistic interests did not receive the blessing of his family.

"I came from a Jewish family that thought you had to be doctor or a lawyer, but no work with hands," Mr. Kramer said in a 1994 interview.

When he announced he wanted to be an artist, his "father was furious," he recalled.

At 15, before finishing high school, he earned a scholarship to study at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He later studied for seven years at the institute's Rinehart School of Sculpture.

In 1934, he won the coveted Prix de Rome -- a national competition that brought with it two years of expense-paid study at the American Academy in Rome. His winning sculpture, "Dying Centaur," was 7 feet high and 10 feet long and weighed 6 tons. It graced the lobby of Baltimore City College until 1940.

In 1944, Mr. Kramer married Perna Krick, an Ohioan who came to Baltimore in 1927 to study at the Rinehart School. The couple lived for a number of years in a converted stable on Eutaw Place with a cold-water spigot and a potbellied stove. Their rent was $10 a month. One artist, Mrs. Rothschild said, described it as "a bit of Paris."

Mr. Kramer's fortunes changed in 1964 when he received a grant for sculpture from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and began to receive more commissions.

In 1965, the couple designed and built a studio on Mosher Street, where Mr. Kramer often stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning creating portraits, sketches, pieces of sculpture and jewelry.

"When I have nothing to do," he said in another 1994 interview, "I do another self-portrait."

A small man with a Prince Valiant haircut and oversized clothes, Mr. Kramer had no desire for worldly goods. His friends said that he hadn't been to the movies in 30 years and did not watch television or own a car.

"Reuben had one good outfit -- a tweed jacket and brown pants, a tie, white shirt," Mrs. Rothschild recalled.

Mr. Kramer was a meticulous craftsman who made his own sculptor's tools and kept detailed records of all his works, said William R. Johnston, assistant director of the Walters Art Gallery.

He worked in clay, then had many of his larger pieces cast in bronze.

From beginning to end

His sculptures -- there are believed to be about 300 -- went through a rigorous, multi-step process of creation from clay to bronze. Unlike some artists, who leave work to assistants, he participated in his sculpture from beginning to end.

He always said his work was modeled on the late 19th-century French sculptors whom he studied in Europe. But many of his sculptures had a more modern exuberance.

"I think he was as much inspired by Matisse, by the Matisse nudes that were making their first appearance in Paris at the time," Mr. Johnston said.

"I always thought the women looked like Perna, and the men looked like Reuben," said Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute. In a Kramer sculpture, "you really see the modeling of the clay and the work of his hands. That's what makes them recognizably his."

In 1977, Mr. Kramer won a competition to fashion a monument to Justice Thurgood Marshall. He labored for more than two years on the 8-foot-7-inch bronze statue, for which the justice returned to Baltimore to pose several times. The statue was unveiled in 1980 at a gala attended by six Supreme Court justices. It stands beside the rear entrance to the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Courthouse.

Mr. Kramer's pride in the Marshall sculpture stemmed from his interest in politics. He counted among his friends prominent politicians, including two-term Maryland Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin and Mr. Schaefer.

Committed to civil rights

"He always had strong opinions about everybody and everything," Mr. Lazarus said. "He was an incredibly prolific letter writer to The Sun, and he was very engaged in civil rights, very committed to it before others were."

"I think he would want to be remembered for the Marshall sculpture," said Mr. Johnston, a longtime friend. "He was very proud of it. The sheer size of it was an achievement."

Mr. Kramer was a favorite of the Walters staff and was equally devoted to the gallery, donating two sculptures and several drawings to its collection and rarely missing a show's opening night.

"He was as devoted to the Walters as the Walters was to him," Mr. Johnston said.

In 1978, at the opening of a Kramer retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Sun critic Barbara Gold wrote, "He is a man who, early on, found his style and has stayed with it. His gnarled bronze nudes, staring eyes, quickly sketched drawings and general air of optimism are essentially the same whether they were done in the Forties or the Seventies. Optimism rather than change, appears to be a major reason for his popularity. A Kramer is comfortable to have around."

In 1991, Mr. Kramer's wife died after a heart attack. From then on, he lived alone, often relying on friends to take care of him. The couple had no children, and he has no survivors, friends said.

"After her death, he took a turn for the worse," Mrs. Rothschild said. "He didn't know anything about cooking."

After he was injured in a fall several years ago, Mr. Kramer moved to College Manor. Vermelle Converse, a family friend, said his health had declined recently.

"He stopped drawing completely several months ago. I took him some paper, and he would sketch around a little bit. But he was sketching for his own fun," Mrs. Converse said.

Mr. Kramer deeded his home and studio on Mosher Street in Bolton Hill to the Maryland Institute. The school intends to turn the building into a studio and home for visiting artists-in-residence. Part of the property will house a permanent exhibit of Mr. Kramer's work.

He would approve of the choice, Mr. Lazarus said, because "he really was the ultimate committed sculptor, no matter what else happened. His life was devoted to his work. And even in the hardest of times financially, he didn't do anything but make art."

The school is planning a memorial service, Mr. Lazarus said.

Pub Date: 9/27/99

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