Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Konrad Cramer and Mr. Stieglitz

In the first two decades of the 20th century there were few “Modernists” among the painters and sculptors in America. This country was behind the times compared to an expanding avant-garde in Europe with special attention given to the recent developments in Cubism taking place in France. Picasso’s notorious Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, arguably the first “Cubist" painting, had been completed in 1907 but was not seen by the public until 1916. Picasso had shown his novel canvas to friends and had received mixed reviews. Braque and his dealer, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler were supportive of the new work, but his friend and life long rival, Matisse was not.The more lyrical Matisse considered Picasso’s sharp angles and masked whores “hideous” and the work an assault on the efforts of other modern painters. Picasso would roll up the painting and keep it out of site for years and his direction took a tamer route before arriving at Analytical Cubism.

At about the same time Picasso was experimenting with Les Demoiselles, Alfred Stieglitz, along with Edward Steichen, were working in New York City to elevate the craft of photography to the same heights as painting and sculpture. They were pioneers in the Photo-Secession movement and began a gallery on 5th Avenue to showcase the work of early photographers. In 1908 the gallery shifted across the street and took up the name 291, that of its address on Fifth Ave.Stieglitz broadened the venue and began showing works by the European Modernists. Auguste Rodin exhibited a series of watercolors and Matisse exhibited his first works in America at 291.Stieglitz had established a beachhead of modern art in America. He envisioned the gallery as a place where dialogue between artists and patrons could exist and where new ideas about art could be available to the public. Alfred Stieglitz would persistently and slowly change the way America felt about Modern Art and provided one of the only places in New York for young American artists to see modern European art.

Brancusi Exhibition at “291” in 1916

photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, published in Camera Work

The Young Konrad Cramer came to New York as a German immigrant. He had recently married a young American art student, Florence Ballin, in 1911 and settled in New York. He soon became an acquaintance and friend of Alfred Stieglitz, as he was most likely drawn to 291. The two shared a common history. Stieglitz who was a first generation American of German-Jewish parents had moved back to Karlsruhe, Germany with his family in 1881 when he was a teen. Kramer had studied at Karlsruhe Academy. Their common background and love on modern art must have generated many interesting conversations. Cramer also enjoyed photography and over the course of his career he devoted more and more time to this. At one point he felt his pursuit of painting was exhausted, but he was invigorated by the photographic medium. Much of his passion for photography could have been derived from his association with Stieglitz.

Konrad often came to “291” and in 1913 he visited the gallery to see an impressive collection of watercolors by the French painter Francis Picabia. Picabia was in New York City, for the important 1913 Armory Exhibition. He was the only Cubist to attend the exhibition and was able to witness his works hanging alongside those by Kandinsky, Picasso, Matisse and the controversial Marcel Duchamp with his painting Nude Descending a Staircase. The public furor surrounding the exhibition was considerable, but Stieglitz was impressed with the work. He purchased Kandinsky's The Garden of Love (Improvisation No. 27) and offered Picabia a one man show at "291."Three days after the close of the Armory Exhibition Picabia's show opened at "291." The works were completed during his stay and represent the artist's interpretations of New York. The show was influential to Cramer and he immediately wrote his wife to suggest that she see the exhibition. 1.

Stieglitz was helpful to Cramer’s career. Although he never offered Konrad an exhibition at 291, he did place him in a number of group exhibitions he curated. Cramer was expanding his own photographic career, experimenting with the possibilities within the photographic medium. He was a proponent of the new 35mm Leica camera and started the “School of Miniature Photography” in Woodstock (miniature because of the “small” 35mm negative size). Cramer also started one of first photography courses offered in a college program at Bard College. Stieglitz wrote his letter of recommendation for the position.

Perhaps the most endearing connection between these two artists exists in a series of portraits taken by Stieglitz in the gallery at 291. After the session Cramer writes about the experience and demystifies the process. He makes Stieglitz seem to be a magician with the medium, using the simplest of tools and adjusting light from an overhead skylight with the simplest of techniques. Here is Konrad’s observation of Stieglitz’s photographic method.

The Equipment was extremely simple, almost primitive. He used an 8 x 10-inch view camera, its sagging bellows held up by pieces of string and adhesive tape. The lens was a Steinheil, no shutter. The portraits were made in the smaller of the two rooms at 291 beneath a small skylight. He used Hammer plates with about three second exposures. During the exposure, Stieglitz manipulated a large, white reflector to balance the overhead light. He made about nine such exposures, and then we retired to the washroom which doubled as a darkroom. The plates were developed in a single tray. From the two best negatives he made four platinum contact prints, exposing the frame on the fire escape. He would tend to his prints, with more care than a cook does her biscuits. The finished print finally received a coat of wax for added gloss and protection. 2.

Alfred Stieglitz © George Eastman House

Konrad Cramer at "291" 1914

Alfred Stieglitz © George Eastman House

What is interesting in these two photographs is how Stieglitz poses the painter in front of different framed pictures in the gallery. He carefully aligns the picture frame with the edge of the photograph, making them appear as two parallel rectangles that hold the figure in suspension in a shallow three-dimensional space. Cramer is positioned diagonally in each picture resting his elbow on the shelf that ran the perimeter of the room. This helps to stabilize the sitter during the long three-second pose. Konrad also seems to have a fixed view as if told by Stieglitz to look at a specific point on the opposite wall. The overall effect shows the power behind a Stieglitz portrait; posed, framed and contemplative it allows us to look into the subject and find meaning in the soul of this particular artist. Both Stieglitz and Cramer seem to have reached an understanding at this moment. The photographer capturing the essence of the painter as the painter relays the simple method of the photographer in his description of the process.


It is surprising to note how few individuals there were in New York City in the first decades of the 20th century involved with progressive ideas with a commitment to shaping the future. Parkhurst, Cramer, and Stieglitz were certainly three such individuals. Their lives intersected because of their visions for a more open, accepting, and to them, natural society. Parkhurst was life long friends with the artist, Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz’s wife. Parkhurst remained involved in the small world of modernist art in New York City through these and other friendships.

In my research I am still searching for more answers to questions about individual story lines that keep crossing. A case in point is a recent discovery in the Dalton Archives from the December 1933 issue of the Daltonian, Volume 1 Number II. The school was preparing for the annual Christmas Pageant, an important event at the school from that time, and I was caught by one of the news items: “Along with the pageant comes the Christmas card contest, from which is chosen the official school card. This year the judges were Dorothy Brett and Mr. Alfred Steiglitz [sic]. The two cards chosen, one to be used for the cover of the pageant program, were two exceptionally beautiful ones by Mariam Rous.”

So Stieglitz, the champion of modern art in this country and one of the world masters of modern photography helped select the student card for the Christmas pageant at Dalton in 1933 - how about that.

1. Tom Wolf, Konrad Cramer: His Art and His Context (1985 New York University Institute of Fine Arts Ph.D. dissertation)

2. Katherine Hoffman, Stieglitz A Beginning Light, © 2004 Yale University Press, page 276

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Konrad Cramer Heads the Art Program at Parkhurst’s School

Konrad Cramer and his wife, Florence Ballin had settled into the life of country artists as they moved to Woodstock, established studios and continued painting. The rural environment provided a rich experience for the young couple. Konrad began teaching at The Woodstock School of Painting and Applied Arts and the Cramers began remodeling a pre-revolutionary house in nearby Bearsville. Florence had established a shop, selling art books, prints, jewelry and antiques to supplement the couple’s income. It was a productive and energetic time for them. Life was simple, money sometimes scarce, but in comparison to their previous life in New York City, the rural setting allowed time to paint and provided an active social community.

Some time before moving to Woodstock, Konrad had met Helen Parkhurst. The two shared conversations regarding education, and Cramer may have spoken of his experiences while visiting Europe in the spring of 1920. While abroad, the artist had studied the educational methods used in the training of craftsmen and designers. Parkhurst must have been impressed with Cramer, as she asked him to join the faculty of her Children’s University School in its new quarters on Manhattan’s West 72nd Street. Cramer at first refused, preferring to continue his studio activities and Woodstock teaching. But finally money became scarce, as Florence wrote in her diary at the time, “we are damn broke.” Konrad acquiesced and accepted Parkhurst’s offer to teach in Manhattan.

In the fall of 1927, Konrad Cramer became the head of the Children’s University School’s art department, framing the art program and becoming the first active artist to teach at the school. It is not know how many classes or teachers were working at the school, but there are a few surviving photographs of the art room from 72nd street. They show multiple activities. While students in these photos are most likely posed, the picture does reveal the range of art activities that were offered at the school. Weaving and embroidery (sewing), drawing and painting, sculpture, and ceramics, and printmaking seem to be offered to the children.

Arts Students from the Children's University School

Josephine Boardman Crane Papers Relating to the Dalton School.

Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Cramer dedicated himself to developing art curriculum. He spent his weekdays in New York City and traveled north to relax and enjoy weekends in Woodstock. Because of the busy schedule, he was unable to produce any new art while teaching. Florence laments the fact that her busy husband has not done any painting for a long time.

Konrad managed to stay at The Children’s University School for two years. At times his wife Florence also came to New York and conducted classes at the school. Cramer finally decided not to return to teaching at Parkhurst’s school for the fall semester of 1928. The artist must have parted on good terms for when Parkhurst decides to expand school facilities and move to a new location on East 89th Street, building a new building there, Konrad Cramer is commissioned to paint murals for the classrooms. It is at this point that The Children’s University School is transformed into The Dalton School, taking the name from the “Dalton Plan” which was the foundation for Parkhurst’s educational model. The name “Dalton” comes from Mrs. Josephine Boardman Crane’s home in Dalton, Massachusetts where Parkhurst first formulated her educational philosophy, with Crane’s encouragement, as she privately educated Crane’s three children.

When Cramer begins to work on the Dalton murals he returns to cubism, yet retains much of the dynamism of New York City. Despite the fact that we only have documentation of one mural constructed for one of the 5th floor mathematics classrooms, there is evidence there were two. In Florence Cramer’s diary there is a reference to multiple murals at the school,

For a time he was head of the Art Department of the Children’s University School in New York, and later did mural abstractions, in oils, for two mathematics rooms in this school. This mural was paid for by Mrs. Victor Harris, and Cramer was assisted by Woodstock artist, Lorenzo D. “Tode” Brower.”

Though the mural does not survive today, we do have Cramer’s preparatory study, an unfinished drawing, showing the geometric composition and beginning to hint at his color choices. The final painting was estimated to be 3’ x 9.5’ and has the top of a doorway cut into the bottom edge of the mural, just to the left of the center. Cramer builds a dynamic composition of carefully scribed lines, concentric marks and architectural details. His imagery represents a modern Manhattan at the beginning of its jazz age – skyscraping towers, an airplane ready for take off, the luxury of a fine Ruxton motor car with it’s spare tire resting on the front fender as it speeds uptown, all displayed in a cinematic flux. The discernable elements of airplane and automobile erode to the geometries of engineer’s drawings showing the draftsman and mathematician’s craft behind these modern forms. Cramer provides inspiration for the daydreaming student showing the beauty and potential behind mere number study. This work is unquestionably the most avant guard mural to be commissioned in New York at the time. The works of famous Mexican Muralists and those by Thomas Hart Benton and others would embellish the next generation of skyscrapers, yet would come a decade or two after Cramer’s work. The significance of Cramer’s modernist approach to imagery, a cross between the pulse of the city and the mechanics that lies underneath were surprising. A momentous, though largely unrecognized chapter in modern art, known only to the children who took their classes in this mathematics classroom for three and a half decades. A later head of school, Donald Barr, removed the mural in the 1960s. It is the only work like it in Cramer’s oeuvre and seems his only attempt at mural painting.

Konrad Cramer

Study for the Dalton School Mathematics Classroom

mixed media on paper

Courtesy of Franklin Riehlman Fine Art

Study for the Dalton School Mathematics Classroom (detail showing Ruxton Automobile)
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Though Konrad Cramer’s time at Dalton was short, his influence set the groundwork for the importance of including art as part of every child’s education. Parkhurst continued the program and as she did with Cramer, she looked for individuals who represented a new wave of thinking and teaching to influence her school and the young minds of her students.
Dalton School 5th Floor Mathematics Classroom
A corner of Konrad Cramer's mural can be seen in the upper right of the photograph.
© The Dalton School Archives

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Konrad Cramer (1888 Wurtzburg, Germany - 1963 Woodstock, NY)

Konrad Cramer
Self Protrait, 1925
Oil on Masonite
20" x 16"
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

Konrad Cramer was born in 1888, in Wurtzburg Germany. He studied at Karlsruhe Kunstakademie in Munich from 1906 -08. Kramer found his interactions with fellow students to be much more stimulating than many of the art classes at the Academy. He did, however, study with Ludwig Schid-Reutte who most likely introduced him to cubism, an approach that would remain central to Cramer’s work throughout his life.

In 1909 and 1910 he had the opportunity to see two exhibitions of French artists in Munich, among them Picasso and Braque, along with post-impressionist paintings by Cezanne, Seurat and others. He was part of the bourgeoning Blaue Reiter group where artists were beginning to exhibit a new form of Expressionist art. Kramer was particularly influenced by the spiritual and improvisational nature of Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings of the period. Cramer visited Franz Marc’s studio, bringing along his young American fiancĂ© Florence Ballin before they married in London and moved to New York.

In New York City he befriended the photographer and gallery owner, Alfred Stieglitz, who studied at the Karlsruhe, Realgymnasium in Munich in 1881. Stieglitz’s gallery 291 was the only place New Yorkers could find the contemporary art from Europe and later its counterparts in America. It was 291 that established what we now consider to be the model of a private contemporary art gallery. Cramer maintained a close lifelong friendship with Stieglitz. He contributed to the periodical Camera Work and had his portrait taken by the photographer, offering an insightful description of the simple techniques employed by Stieglitz to make a photographic portrait.

In America, on the heels of the controversial Armory exhibition of 1913, Cramer became an important early figure of abstract modern painting, developing a style closely related to the works of Kandinsky. In November of 1913 he held his first exhibition of 6 non-objective paintings at the MacDowell Club at 108 West 55th Street. This 10 day exhibition represented some of the most radical paintings shown at MacDowell at the time. A number of paintings are titled “Improvisation” a reference to the work being generated by Kandinsky in Munich around same time.

Konrad Cramer

Improvisation, circa 1911 - 1913

Oil on Board, 16" x 18 3/4"

Christie's Sale October 4th, 2000

Discovering Early Artists at Dalton

During my research I have focused on 5 avant guard artists who contributed to the early development of the art program at Dalton. These individuals evolved highly personal styles rooted in the cubist and post cubist experiments of early modernism. They approached art making with a fervor and commitment to the new vocabulary of abstraction, moving away from the stagnancy of the 19th century art academies. These 5 Dalton artist / teachers from the 1920s-1940s represent a diversified group, bringing various permutations of modernism to New York City from art centers in Munich, Vienna, Kiev (by way of Paris), and Mexico City. When they arrived in New York they were part of a small group of contemporary artists striving to bring new ideas to a rather provincial American art world.
Helen Parkhurst must have been attracted to these individuals and their dedication to a progressive modernist spirit. Like her, they were ready to bring new ideas to the discussion and to reevaluate the status quo. Parkhurst deliberately wanted a global approach to learning, with many opinions and experiences to help broaden the learning base.
Dalton’s ties to modern art may have come from Helen Parkhurst’s close association with Mrs. Josephine Boardman Crane who was Parkhurst’s unflagging supporter, confidante, and spokesperson for the Dalton Plan. Crane had employed Parkhurst to educate her own three children in Dalton, Massachusetts and so believed in her theories of progressive education that she provided the financial underpinnings for The Children’s University School that opened on West 72nd Street in New York City. Crane moved to New York in 1922 after the death of her husband, U.S. senator and governor of Massachusetts, W. Murray Crane. Mrs. Crane would become one of the founding members of the Museum of Modern Art and was elected to the Board of Trustees in October 1929. As well as amassing a personal art collection, she also opened her home on Park Avenue for a weekly literary salon, which attracted writers and poets of the time (Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein to name two).
I would like to believe it was in the bond between Parkhurst, the educator, and Crane, the New York philanthropist, and their collaboration on the founding of the school, which eventually became Dalton, that included a fundamental component in the arts. Their determination was that this way for children to explore and express personal creativity is so important in the education of the whole child and as a citizen of the world.
Parkhurst definitely saw the values of the arts in education. She personally hired all the early art teachers and even recruited Konrad Cramer to be one of the first department heads in 1926 (he was eventually commissioned to paint mural(s) for the new building on 89th Street in 1929). The five art teachers were:
Konran Cramer studied in Munich and taught at Dalton from 1926 – 1928. He was also commissioned to painted a mural for the mathematics classroom in 1929 for the newly constructed building at 108 East 89th Street.
Erika Giovanna Klien studied with Franz Cizek, the "Father of modern art education" in Vienna. She taught at Dalton between 1932 – 1935.
Vaclav Vytlacil was born New York. He was one of the first Americans to study with Hans Hofmann in Munich. Vytlacil taught at Dalton from 1937 – 1943. He was also part of the faculty from 1947 -1954.
Alexander Archipenkpo studied in Kiev, Ukraine before moving to Paris and then Berlin. In 1923 he emigrated to the United States. Archipenko taught at Dalton in the early 1940s.
Rufino Tamayo was born in in 1899 in Oxaca de Juarez, Mexico. He moved to Mexico City in 1911 and then to New York City in 1926. Tamayo taught at Dalton from 1940 - 1947.
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