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Konrad Cramer: A Woodstock Artist of Ambition and Invention - Part 1

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

By Bruce Weber

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)

Konrad Cramer at 291, 1914

Platinum print

National Gallery of Art

Throughout his long career the artist Konrad Cramer (1888-1963) was open to working in new techniques, styles and media. Restlessly creative he worked with a broad variety of materials, and in addition to his activity as a painter, printmaker and photographer, he dabbled in making textiles, batiks, hand-tinted lithographs and screens (which he designed and made in the mid-1920s with Robert Winthrop Chanler), and even created modern letters for a new alphabet of his own creation. Cramer also somehow found the time to fish, garden, practice archery, play the marimba, accordion, and tympanum, keep bees, and build radios with his artist friend Judson Smith. He grew food for family use, and he raised chickens when meat and eggs became hard to come by during World War II.(1)

Cramer is pictured above in one of a series of photographs taken in 1914 by Alfred Stieglitz, in the smaller room of Stieglitz’s New York gallery 291. He is posed in front of a framed picture, under the shifting illumination of a skylight. Born in Wurtzburg, Germany, Cramer's grandparents were painters and his mother was an actress and close friend of Johannes Brahms, who bounced young Konrad on his knee.(2) Between 1906 and 1908, Cramer studied with Ludwig Schmid-Reutte. Shortly after he moved to Munich, and developed an association with Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group. His earliest known work is an oil of a female nude reclining in a landscape, painted in an expressionist style verging on abstraction, with bright colors and solid areas outlined in heavy black.

Florence Ballin Cramer (1884-1962)

Self-Portrait, 1906

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

Florence Ballin Cramer (1884-1962)

Lasher House (Woodstock Public Library), 1909

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

In early 1912, Cramer met Florence Ballin, who was studying in Munich. Born in Brooklyn in 1884, to a German-American mercantile family, Ballin spent several years in Europe as a child, and spoke German fluently. She showed artistic talent at an early age, and was awarded a silver medal for one of her drawings in a newspaper competition. Beginning in the autumn of 1902, Ballin studied at the Art Students League in New York. Among her teachers there were Frank Vincent Dumond and the illustrator Frederick Coffay Yohn. (Woodstocker Hermine Kleinert was a fellow student.) From 1906 to 1909 she attended Birge Harrison’s classes at the Woodstock Summer School of Landscape Painting. Among her fellow students and friends were Andrew Dasburg, Henry Lee McFee, and John F. Carlson.

In July 1910, Ballin left for Europe, By this time she was acquainted with modernism through her association with Dasburg and Lee Simonson, and her recent visit to the exhibition of Henri Matisse’s work at 291. Ballin visited France and Switzerland before traveling to Germany in 1912, where a lieutenant in Frankfurt gave her a letter of introduction to an artist friend in Munich. The friend, in turn, invited her to attend a costume ball, where she met Cramer and danced with him for the evening. They married four months later in England. During their time in Germany they paid a visit to the studio of the artist Franz Marc.

Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Group of Blue Horses, 1911

Walker Art Center

The Cramers traveled to the United States in the late fall of 1912. At Florence’s urging they settled in Woodstock, first staying at the Cooper House, a popular boarding place for aspiring artists on Tinker Street. Among the other artists who boarded there were Frank Swift Chase, Walter Goltz, John W. Bentley, Cecil Chichester and Allen Dean Cochran. They then lived in a barn on Rock City Road, which later belonged to the artist Julia Leaycraft, sleeping in a hay loft, collecting water from an outdoor well, and taking meals nearby at the Riseley and Magee farmhouses. Eventually they bought an old farmhouse off of Ricks Road. Through the teens the Cramers spent six months of the year in Woodstock and wintered in New York City.

Cramer loved Woodstock. In a diary entry of April 1918, he noted how “it is strange how we react to weather, especially in the country where our life is so much more closely connected and dependent on the elements—but I think that this is really an advantage, for it forces us into harmony with nature, from which we have been all together removed too far by our modern way of living.”(3) That same month he related that “after reading all day I left the house at 6 and took one of those wonderful walks where when you are dressed properly you don’t care what the weather does, and it was very wonderful to walk through the stillness.”(4)

Cramer became deeply involved in the Woodstock community, founding the Woodstock Artists Association, assisting Judson Smith during the 1930s on the government relief program for artists in the Woodstock area, acting as a founder and vice president of the Historical Society of Woodstock and as director of the Woodstock Community Association. He played a role in the formation of the Woodstock Guild of Craftsman, for which he served as president in the mid-1950s. He supported the local library as well as theatrical and music venues. His daughter Aileen was involved in experimental theater and was deeply engaged with the Woodstock Artists Association, where she played a major role in the establishment of the permanent collection.

Cramer’s arrival in Woodstock affected the congeniality of the artists in the village, due to the close relationship that he formed with Andrew Dasburg. Cramer became a leading figure in the group of fledgling modernists in the town. He was a regular visitor to 291 on Fifth Avenue in the city, and Stieglitz asked him to contribute his thoughts on what 291 meant to him for the July 1914 issue of the periodical Camera Work, which contained the opinions of various individuals to whom the gallery was of great importance. Influenced in part by Wassily Kandinsky’s essay on the question of form, Cramer wrote that 291 “is like a straight line rising, a line of living red, rising, above gray angles. Some almost run parallel, others melt gradually into it: some meet it at right angles; others cross it like the slash of a sword.”(5)

Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)

Strife, 1913

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Cramer’s most radical works date from around the years 1913-1914.(6) His earliest abstractions, such as Strife, recall the paintings of Kandinsky in their liquid application of color, merging of soft edges, heavy black lines, and diagonal orientation of movement. Strife is probably one the six improvisations that Cramer exhibited in late 1913 as part of a group exhibition at the MacDowell Club in New York, which also included abstract works by Dasburg and Cubist experiments by McFee.

Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)

Improvisation, 1912 [1914]

San Diego Museum of Art

Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The fIrst two paintings in Cramer's Improvisations series were exhibited at the MacDowell Club. Like Kandinsky’s early abstractions, compositional elements often bring to mind the shapes of hills and mountains. The compositions are dominated by shifting planes composed of rhythmic curves, jagged geometric forms outlined in black, and straight lines.

Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)

Untitled, c. 1914

Weatherspoon Art Museum

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)

Portrait of Berlin, 1913

Beinecke Library, Yale University

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)

Indian Composition, 1914

Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

In 1914, Cramer began to incorporate abstract symbols into his paintings. This group of works was influenced by the abstract paintings Marsden Hartley had on view at 291 earlier that year. Cramer may have been alerted to Hartley’s work by Dasburg, who informed his associates in Woodstock about the showing at 291, which included the painting Portrait of Berlin, which was bought by Dasburg’s close friend Mabel Dodge and includes large upright triangles in the center, a cross, several circles and cloud forms. In Cramer’s canvas a male and female are symbolically united in a mystic cross, and rise together to god and the heavens. At the bottom of the composition the earth is represented by trees and an equestrian figure, whose appearance brings to mind Hartley’s Indian Composition of 1914. At the upper left the emblematic sign for female appears next to a mirror (representing vanity), and at the upper right side the sign for male appears next to a book (representing intellect) – not a very flattering distinction. The blade reportedly signifies the potential power of women to wound.


Florence Ballin Cramer’s Shop

Hue and Cry, August 23, 1923

Historical Society of Woodstock

At the beginning of World War I, Cramer suffered financial losses due to the collapse of his investments abroad, and was forced to find employment. He organized the first taxi service in Woodstock, worked as a carpenter and textile designer, collaborated with Wilhelm Hunt Diederich in designing batiks, and was hired by the Rockefeller Foundation to prepare a report on the continental education of industrial artists.

To help out, his wife Florence opened the short-lived Florence Gallery in New York, a cooperative space whose goal was to show the work of promising young artists who had not yet had the opportunity to exhibit in the city. In later years Florence sold art books at the Woodstock Market Fair for the New York art dealer and book shop owner Erhard Weyhe, and by 1923 she had a shop on the Bearsville Road where she reconditioned and sold antiques, art books, prints and Navaho jewelry. She also was engaged with her friends, the sculptor Elie Nadelman and his wife Viola, in the collecting of American folk art, some of which Florence procured for them in the Woodstock area.

Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)

Landscape with House (Landscape), 1919

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

View of the Domaine St. Joseph, late 1880s

Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the teens Cramer followed Andrew Dasburg’s lead and painted landscapes under Cézanne's influence. The development occurred immediately after Dasburg’s return to Woodstock from New Mexico in May of 1918, when Cramer had a conversation with Dasburg regarding his frustration with his recent paintings. Now Cramer sought to develop a deeper understanding of form and color. The scholar Tom Wolf has noted how Cramer’s Landscape with House is almost a simplified version of Cézanne's View of the Domaine St. Joseph, which was the first Cézanne to enter an American collection.(7) The painting was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art out of the 1913 Armory Show.

Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)

Landscape with Cliff, 1918-1920

Cramer applied Cézanne's method and style to his depictions of the Woodstock environment. He favored a blue-green color scheme, block-like brushstrokes, shimmering surface effects, and a relatively naturalistic treatment of space. Following a sketching trip to Eddyville, near the Rondout in Kingston, with Dasburg in September 1919, Cramer related that he had been “up early and to Eddyville to paint with Andrew. A bright day and cool in the morning. Painted 14 x 17 from the west side of the bridge—not bad in color but the treatment of the objects too objective. The charm of a thing is rendered greater by merely suggesting its salient characteristic like this . . . . Don’t consider a house as a human dwelling with four sides, a roof and windows. Forget all that and read it as an apparition of form and light.”(8)

Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)

Figure, c. 1919

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

In 1919, Cramer also followed Dasburg’s lead in exploring the figure in an outdoor setting. He attended Dasburg’s outdoor figure class at the Art Student League's summer school in Woodstock, and followed his friend’s method, and that of Dewing Woodward’s Blue Dome Fellowship in the nearby hamlet of Shady (see my blog on Dewing Woodward), of placing models under a blue scrim or canopy that cast a colored reflection upon the figure. These works are part of Dasburg and Cramer’s overall return in the mid and late teens to painting traditional landscape, still life and figurative subjects, and the creation of a mode of representation that employs the formal and stylistic devices of Cézanne, as well as some of the formal elements of Cubism in the service of identifiable subject matter.

Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)

Corner Porch and Barn, 1922

Oil and collage

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

Corner Porch and Barn of 1922 is made up of a combination of oil paint, photography (the glued on photograph of leaves at left of center), and collage (the corrugated cardboard painted red at far right of center). Cramer transplants the Synthetic Cubist paintings and collages of Braque and Picasso to a rural American setting. The space is fragmented into large intersecting planes. The earth tones of brown, green and clay red, and the hazy-blue sky-like atmosphere ground the work both in the landscape and in reality.

Max Weber (1881-1961)

Chinese Restaurant, 1915

Whitney Museum of American Art

Cramer’s work may partly have been created in response to Max Weber’s iconic Chinese Restaurant. Cramer turned the urban subject around on its head.

(1) Tom Wolf’s doctoral dissertation remains the finest and most complete study of Cramer’s life and art. See Tom Michael Wolf, “Konrad Cramer: His Art and His Context” (Volumes 1 and 2), New York University, 1985.

(2) Manuel Komroff, “Florence and Konrad Cramer,” essay in Memorial Exhibition: Florence and Konrad Cramer (Woodstock, New York: The Woodstock Guild, 1963), n.p.

(3) Cramer is quoted in Wolf, p. 73.

(4) Ibid., p. 73

(5) Cramer is quoted in “What 291 Means to Me,” Camera Work, no. 47 (July 1914): 33.

(6) For an important study of Cramer’s early abstractions and their relationship to the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Marsden Hartley see Gail Levin, “Konrad Cramer: Link from the German to the American Avant Garde,” Arts Magazine 56 (February 1982): 145-149.

(7) Wolf, p. 77.

(8) Cramer is quoted in Wolf, p. 76.

285 views2 comments


As always, a great read. Thank you for reminding us of the people and events that came before us.


Excellent commentary on Cramer...a Woodstock icon.

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