Interview with John Kramer by Philip Kramer, 2002

Where and when were you born?

I was born in Worcester in 1946.

Were you always interested in art as a child?

Yes definitely. Even in sub A.

When did you first gain an interest in art?

I liked to draw and so on when I was young… and then I don't really remember. I liked to draw cowboys and things like that and I was quite good… it was the thing I did best.

Would you say you had an inherent talent?

One doesn't worry about talent when you're in Sub A, but even then I knew what I was going to be.

So looking back you think you did have a bit of a knack?

I could draw the best in the class, that's what I did well and so that's what I pursued.

Were you encouraged to paint when you were young?

I used to make drawings and sell them to my grandmother when we were on holiday at Onrust. I had an uncle, Uncle Theo, who used to draw with me - he worked at an advertising agency at the time - he used to draw shoes and various adverts that used to fascinate me and there was always a smell of oil paints - like a magical smell.

You did art while in high school, but not in the actual high school. What's the story there?

Worcester was very fortunate in that it had an art center and it had a very famous artist who lived there, in fact a number of famous artists - one of South Africa's first artists was Hugo Naudé, and he built a house in Russell Street which was quite a modern thing, which on his death was donated to be used as an art school. Jean Welz, the famous artist was the first principal. So one of the things you could do in Worcester was to take art as a subject in school, which was quite unusual at the time - you could either do it here in Cape Town at the Frank Joubert or in Worcester at the Hugo Naudé Art Centre. It was part of the school curriculum, but it was at a separate art school. Our teacher was Bokkie Basson. Classes were held there in the mornings for below Std 6s, but if you took art as a subject, you went in the afternoon so it was like going to a proper art school, with easels, still life things to draw, silk-screen printing and exhibitions in the town by Jean Welz, Bill Davis or sometimes a Canadian abstract painter. Bokkie Basson was a great abstractionist so there was quite a cultural center in Worcester and in the library were exhibitions every month and the library had an excellent collection of art books and the latest magazines like Domus and Design, so if you were interested in art you could make a study of it. Of course, Bokkie Basson and Hannes Koertsen, the other teacher, were both abstractionist, quite avant guard artists.

After high school how did you further your artistic training?

If you wanted to make art your career, the next step was to get into Michaelis Art School (University of Cape Town). With a good word from Bokkie Basson to one of the lecturers, I was accepted quite easily - in those days it was not particularly difficult to get into University.

What influenced you in Art School?

You go to art school to learn. In your first year - in a large class of 30 - 40 people - You are exposed to things like life drawing two or three times a week and design and you just draw - you are exposed to ideas from fellow students and occasionally the lecturer comes in and gives you a few hints and so on, but basically you just keep drawing. You look and you see. You don't worry too much about a style…you just work. Sculpture was also part of the course, and we had very good teachers - Richard Wake, a modernist, and Bill Davis, who did more traditional work. You really did as much as you could and I did very well.

Nobody in particular at the school influenced me at that time - I liked American painters like de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg and Claus Oldenberg - there was no pop art or hard edge art yet. The school was coming out of a Matisse period. I regarded the teachers' stuff as being a bit old fashioned - Karl Buchner and Maurice van Essche. In my third year I won the coveted Michaelis prize for a painting I did at the last minute in a kind of painterly frenzy - a gray background with just one hint of colour, an apple.

Your first career was not as an artist. What did you do first?

When I was in art school I was not really thinking about a career, but eventually when I graduated and was out of the cocoon and out on my own I began to paint - Straight after art school, however, one has not really developed a style of one's own yet - as an artist you have to have your own style. I went back to Worcester and painted portraits and landscapes. Eventually my parents began to wonder when I would earn some money. Then I applied for a job at an advertising agency - doing finished art as a junior artist. I had to learn lettering and so on. After that I moved to the South African Museum as an artist. I had always been interested in natural history and I loved it there.
I stayed for 32 years!

What about your art?

Well the job itself was very creative. But I have always painted throughout the years - most artist have to have a 'day job' to keep themselves going. But I never stopped painting - in the evening and at weekends. I gradually developed a style and started exhibiting at small shows and participated in various shows and competitions and gradually made a name for myself. It's not a case of just making money, it's a case of staying true to yourself and being accepted by your peer group. Now I am in the position where I can pursue my painting career full time.

When and where was your first exhibition?

I participated in group shows and then in 1981 I had my first one-man show…which was a sell out - no one had seen anything like the realist paintings of buildings before.
I had my next show in 1985, which was also a sell out. I haven't had another show since then because my work is constantly in demand, I haven't been able to keep enough paintings back to have a show.

When did you start selling work?

I sold work even when I was still at school.

Where do you paint?

I have a studio at home - in a coach house next to the house. It's important to have your own space to work in.

What do you work from?

I work from photographs. I was interested in photography. I had a 35mm camera in the late 60s. There was a bit of an economic boom on and I noticed every time I returned to Worcester that some buildings had been demolished. The town was changing and one way of capturing it was to photograph it and record some of the buildings. In the 70s there was a movement in America called the neo-realists and photo-realists. Realism had not even been conceived of in Art School in fact you had to be expressionistic - anything realistic was frowned upon. But I had good technical drawing skills and when neo-realism arrived I had the skills to be a realist. Realism came as a shock to the art world - paintings of ordinariness of everyday life and that appealed to me. I started experimenting with hard edge paintings. But I realized that if one wants to make a mark on the South African scene, there is no point in imitating ideas from overseas. There is no point in trying to paint like a New York artist. You are going to deal with what you understand. Nobody was doing anything local - everyone wanted to paint like an American painter. One day I was looking at these photos I had taken - the Scala bioscope and the milk bar and realized that this was like American realism, but set in South Africa.

This was very weird, because nobody had painted these scenes of South Africa before - everyone was painting Cape Dutch buildings. So I decided to use some of the photo-realistic techniques and did a small painting of a car and a building and people found it shocking.
I put some work up and a famous critic from New York, Clement Greenberg said that these were the only three paintings that he had seen in South Africa, which reflected something - the real South Africa.
Then I entered a huge realist painting of a family group - a painting of a snapshot - into a competition and did very well. People could understand realism, but not neo-realism.

What does your art focus on?

I realized that no one was commenting on ordinary buildings in South African towns. I decided to record it before it disappears and use it as my inspiration. I work from photographs - I am not interested in the reality - the changing clouds, I am only interested in the moment that I capture on the photograph. I am looking for something very specific on the photograph - it has to have a mood and feeling. There must be no people and it must have a slightly surrealistic quality. I capture that with my camera - that's my sketchbook. My real aim is in 50 or 100 years time when the kind of world that I lived in has gone, people will say he saw that and recorded that. I am capturing a kind of life which existed once.

Do you regret having to sell them?

No I love it - the biggest thrill is knowing that someone wanted it enough to pay for it and hang it in their home. The artist wants to communicate his ideas as far afield as possible. There isn't any point in hanging onto your own paintings.

What medium do you use?

At first I used acrylic for its flat hard-edged feeling. Now (for the last twenty or so years) I have used oil almost exclusively.

Why is that?

I find oils give greater control…they have a longer drying time, allowing for more subtle blending …it has richer tones. You might say it has a softer feel…which I prefer at the moment.

Would you describe your work as realism or super-realism?

The aim was to work from photos the flat, two-dimensional image. Look at the image and see the qualities in the flat image. It could be overexposed. The camera sees different to the human eye. Photo-realism looks different to artists who paint from reality because artists who paint from reality keep adjusting to conditions. A photo-realist is interested in the exact way the light is falling and it stays that way forever. You are actually being inspired by that flatness. You are doing an impression - you are painting exactly as it is - skew drainpipes, peeling paint etc. Neo-realists are trying to show you that if the window is skew, that is how it is painted.

Now my work is not fanatically photo-realistic - it is the same idea, but I show a few more brushmarks, and one moves on a bit. Few people really understand realism. I have focused in on a particular style of painting and a particular subject matter that people now recognize as being a Kramer painting. Once people have seen a Kramer painting, they begin to notice the banal buildings, which they never would have before, and that's great … because I have made them more aware of their surroundings.

2010 All rights reserved. Origination by Di Conradie.