New York

Harry Kramer

Brata Gallery

Harry Kramer’s current show at Brata reconfirms the importance and vitality of painting as a traditional concern—the discovery of relationships of marks on canvas. Kramer has produced work of great energy by restricting his vocabulary to straight lines and angles and by using only black, white, and gray.

The lines of pencil and paint seem to describe the edges of planes as they emerge and intersect, fading in and out of the picture until the entire surface becomes a concatenation of angles. The variety in the quality of marks, from razor-thin lines to thick dripping stripes, appears to result from light as it strikes the picture. A tension is created between the perception of these marks as defining angles emerging from within the painting, and seeing them as purely graphic elements activating the surface.

The apparent arbitrariness of certain lines and drips seems to result from the combination of chance and design in Kramer’s choice of marks. Of all the possible lines that might have surfaced, Kramer preserved certain ones, occasionally eccentric and awkward, and obliterated many others with white paint. Consequently, one feels the experiment and discovery in Kramer’s finding of relationships and his attempt to create meaningful connections between marks. The first aleatory elements are made necessary through subsequent judgments. There is occasional willful wrongheadedness; he places lines where they cannot belong and tries to make them work. The relationships don’t always make sense—sometimes they lead to greater activation of the surface, but at other times fall into convention and finickiness.

The success of the paintings depends on Kramer’s ability to transform all marks from loose cogs to engaged elements. When he locates a plane in the right area of a painting, the entire surface opens up and is diffused with light. While there often remains a sense of the arbitrary, this cannot be faulted when the lines function actively. When they fail to do so, the painting dissolves into a collection of meaningless elements. In the largest picture, for example, the lines act not as planes but as purely surface phenomena. They are too short and picky to activate the whole canvas, fragmenting instead of modulating the light of the work. Because of this, Kramer has had to shade several areas, like the convention of Analytic Cubism, to unify the light, create greater pictorial variety, and add color. In the more successful paintings, the shaded areas work as atmosphere preventing the painting from seeming to describe shredded objects. Another problem in some of the paintings occurs if a geometric shape, a square or triangle, for example, sits flatly and inertly on the surface.

Kramer runs into these problems because of the balance he is trying to effect between pure activation of surface and the creation of space and light. In paintings with too much illusionism, there is some similarity to Futurist or Vorticist painting. But Kramer tries to do away with the illustrative character of such abstraction. His paintings are not about speed, time, or energy. The urgency of diagonals and counterpoints are balanced by the insistent two-dimensionality of the lines. Vorticist painting described some solid in motion, allowing the viewer to predict the way the object would be energized. In Kramer’s work, the white canvas is the medium of exchange, to be probed and tested. Unlike action painting, there is no residue of gesture—each mark is placed thoughtfully and dispassionately. The best works in the show contain fewer elements, letting in more light, erasing all other possible marks. Superfluity is reduced and chance has become necessity.

Lizzie Borden