A hardworking family guy with a wife and three kids to support, St. Paul painter Paul Kramer was too busy to chase fame or to indulge in high-minded musings about the meaning of art, or life, for that matter. He just went about his business.
Over the course of a 60-year career, Kramer painted signs, ran a frame shop and gallery, managed the Minnesota State Fair art show, taught art in local colleges and the state prison, sold antiques and American Indian artifacts, and along the way turned out hundreds of paintings — 25 of which are on view in an attractive, well-chosen display through Oct. 13 at the James J. Hill House Art Gallery.
The pictures follow a loosely autobiographical arc, starting in the early 1950s when Kramer honed his spare, realistic style on urban scenes and family portraits steeped in oblique symbolism. They follow his travels and his return to St. Paul, where he favored still lifes and often painted the cathedral, Fort Snelling and Mickey’s Diner and roamed southward to picturesque towns like Lanesboro, Minn., and Fountain City, Wis.
Though superficially homespun, Kramer was anything but provincial — he served in World War II, studied at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and moved his family to Europe for yearlong painting sojourns in Spain and Scotland.
Echoes of the trips abroad accent such pictures as “The Rooftops,” a handsome 1957 study in taupe and gold of the steeply angled walls and roofs of Alicante, Spain, and “The Boat Builders,” an oddly melancholy image of skeletal boats looming over a tiled town below a hulking mountain topped with a terraced ruin. A bullfight poster and Franco graffiti announce the era, but a bald, gray-skinned bicyclist in the foreground injects the boat-building scene with unsettling gloom. Peopled by tiny figures on distant balconies or half-hidden in shadowy doorways, such images seem to map psychological states rather than places.
“I don’t try to be a realist in the sense of it’s exactly like you see it, ” he told biographer Julie L’Enfant months before his death last summer at age 93. “I’m a realist but then I also carry it beyond — kind of a dream world.”
Midwesterner at heart
Deep-rooted in the Midwest, Kramer was born June 4, 1919, in Sheyenne, N.D., the eighth of 10 kids in a hard-working family of Mennonite farmer/entrepreneurs. Their no-nonsense, can-do attitude shaped his art as much as his personality.
Abstraction and gestural painting were gaining traction when he launched his career in the 1950s, but he always hewed to an older style of landscape and portraiture grounded in close observation, careful composition, thin paint and a studied atmosphere reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper, both of whom he admired, along with the Spanish master Francisco Goya.
Suffused with surrealistic stillness, Kramer’s pictures are ripe with ambiguous meaning. Their human characters seem frozen in place and holding their breath, as if an offstage director had just yelled, “Hold it,” and they did.
Wherever they are, whatever they’re doing, Kramer’s people appear to be thinking, observing, mentally sorting things out.
Such illusions are not easy to convey in mere paint. The dreamy gaze of his wife in “Mary With Yellow Flowers” (1959) is especially tender, while his own self-portraits are piercingly skeptical.
All realist artists are masters of abstraction, although they typically apply that skill on such elusive stuff as skies, water, walls and drapery. Kramer is more confrontational.
In “The Patchwork Quilt,” a 1959 painting more than 4 feet square, he depicts his young son Leon peering somberly from a corner while a patchwork quilt, draped over a clothesline, fills 90 percent of the canvas. Figure aside, the painting is obviously a riff on abstract art, a Midwestern riposte to “Bed,” the actual quilt-and-pillow that Robert Rauschenberg infamously splashed with paint in 1955, and to Jasper Johns’ famous flag paintings of 1958.
A bravura display of Kramer’s talent for making illusions from pigment, “Patchwork Quilt” proudly asserts his allegiance to traditional skills while taking on the big boys in Manhattan. Not surprisingly, that quilt reappears in the background of many Kramer paintings over the years.
Elsewhere, in “Apartment Walls” (also 1959), he splits a 5-foot-wide canvas between a cathedral vista on the left and a pretty geometric abstraction on the right — the latter disguised, however, as the exposed interior of a torn-down building. As in so much of Kramer’s work, “Apartment Walls” is a beautiful but melancholy vision of lonely people in a fast-changing world.
Like the hauntingly empty train stations and city squares designed by the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico, Kramer’s bucolic Midwestern scenes are meditative moments marked by undercurrents of social commentary, human drama and a pervasive sense of loss.