Konrad Cramer was born in Germany, but worked his entire adult life in the United States, dividing his time between New York City and Woodstock, New York. His early life was spent in the city of Wurtzberg, where his mother was an opera singer and an uncle was a successful painter of still lifes. He was exposed early in his education to the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. The former instilled in him a prescient view of the power of abstraction, and the latter, a fellow Bavarian, left a stylistic mark on young Cramer that would resurface again and again throughout his career. In 1911, Cramer met a young American named Florence Ballin, to whom he was swiftly married. Florence, also a painter, brought Konrad to New York, where she studied painting at the Art Students League. Cramer brought his deep understanding of German Expressionism to the crucible of New York’s community of Modernism. He worked in a variety of styles through his career, but the uniquely American synthesis of Bauhaus-esque design with vernacular subjects would be a lasting influence on American Modernism and the Woodstock colony that he helped build.
The present work was executed early in Cramer’s New York years. The influence of the Blau Reiter Group is still apparent in this work, and in particular the artist’s thinking was still greatly shaped by Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky was an advocate of a synesthesia in modernism: he believed that elements of the aesthetic experience of a painting overlapped or mimicked experiences of other senses, most particularly music. While other artists – notably JAM Whistler – alluded to musical themes in the titles of their work, Kandinsky moved the observation into an entire aesthetic theory in his 1910 treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Concerning the Spiritual in Art is still influential today, but in 1911 it was a revolutionary text. Modernism, by way of the Post-Impressionists and Cubists, was still developing in Paris, but full-bore abstraction was still radical in the vanguard Parisian circles – in New York, it was virtually unheard of. The Kandinsky program embraced the canvas as a playground for visual ideas, untethered from “content” in the same way that an orchestra develops musical ideas without reference to an outside narrative or subject. While the synesthetic overlap between music and visual arts remains controversial, Kandinsky’s insight about abstraction in music was an essential step in the birth of abstract visual art. When Cramer arrived from Germany bearing these ideas, nothing had prepared the New York art world for this insight. Cramer was, as the present work evidences, an inspired practitioner of this new mode, and by the time of the Armory Show in 1913, abstraction was already a force to be reckoned with. Konrad Cramer’s works in this 1911-13 period are of immense relevance to the development of American Modernism. His work in the ensuing years would become increasingly influenced by the growing Modernist community around 291 and in the artist colony at Woodstock, New York, but the brisk and fertile period marked by his arrival in the United States is among his most sought-after periods.
Like many of Cramer’s works on canvas, Improvisation is unsigned. The daughter of the artist inscribed the backs of a great many of the works that remained in his estate after his death, and the present work bears such an authentication, reading: “Painted by my father between 1911-1913. Aileen B. Cramer, 6/4/69.” Cramer scholar Tom Wolf dated the work to 1912 for the Whitney Museum’s exhibition of Cramer’s abstraction. Wolf noted that “By 1916 he stopped painting abstractions and adopted a style inspired by Cézanne.” The work was certainly completed in time to be exhibited at the MacDowell Club in 1913 along with a half-dozen other abstractions – the sum total of his fully-abstract output, as far as scholarship has recorded.