An Interview with Artist Burton Kramer

July, 2005

Burton Kramer is an abstract painter living in Toronto, Ontario. Born in New York City, NY, Kramer did his undergraduate work at The Institute of Design in Chicago, IL, and received his MFA from Yale in New Haven, CT. He also studied at the Royal College of Art in London as a Fulbright Scholar. Kramer taught at the Ontario College of Art and Design for 21 years. He is the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate (D.Des.) from the College. A highly successful graphic designer, Kramer was awarded the Order of Ontario for his contributions to the cultural life of the Province. Kramer’s paintings were most recently on view in a solo exhibition at the Arta Gallery of Toronto.

Julie Karabenick: You refer to your paintings as “ColorSignals.”

Burton Kramer: Yes, they are my signals to all who can “read” visual images. They are signals of joy, of exuberance, of rhythms and percussive beats, of my attempts to make sense of the overall senselessness, and to send a resounding “Yes!” of creation in opposition to the consumers of our air, water, and overall environment. ColorSignals implies communication in a most positive way.

JK: And you’ve said that they offer a “lighthearted visual positivism and order.”

BK: When I began seriously painting, it was important to me that my paintings bring these elements to the fore. It seemed to me—and still does—that we have enough violence, horror and destruction confronting us every day. News is bad news. Good news is rarely news. So it seemed important to me to create good news.

Resonant 2
Resonant 2, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 152 cm (30 x 60 in), 2001

JK: And it’s in this sense that you call yourself a dyed-in-the-wool Modernist?

BK: I believe that to be a Modernist is to be an incorrigible optimist. For me, being a Modernist implies a very positive sense of development and growth; it implies that it is possible to do it better, to invent, to refine, to move forward. It denies that simple longevity equals everlasting quality. To be a Modernist is to not rely on the solutions and stylistic quirks of the past, but to become part of creating an idiom of today and tomorrow.

MoogMusic 7A
MoogMusic 7A, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 122 cm (24 x 48 in), 2002-03

JK: Was this attitude influenced by your studies at the Institute of Design in Chicago, formerly the New Bauhaus, founded by Moholy-Nagy?

BK: When I first encountered at age 18 the work and thoughts of Moholy-Nagy in his seminal Vision in Motion and The New Vision, I was more than thrilled and excited. His ideas opened a new universe for me. When I later read and viewed the works of other Modernists, it seemed clear to me that the Bauhaus embrace of the machine, melded with an artistic sensibility, offered the potential to better the lives of a great part of the world population. When Le Courbusier built his Unitée d’Habitation in Marseille, it attempted to meld all aspects of life in a positive way. This epitomizes for me the promise of Modernism.

Contredanse 2
Contredanse 2, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 152 cm (30 x 60 in), 2005

JK: And you’ve been able to sustain this optimism of your student days?

BK: I have always believed that architecture, design and planning, the creation of beauty in the broadest sense could and would influence environments and through those environments, lives, for the better. And I still believe that whatever does not happen by design happens by accident. We see a resurgence of Modernism in public architecture here in Canada, while in many countries, Modernism was and is the continuously developing approach in architecture and design.

JK: And an aesthetic preference for simplicity, straight lines, symmetry, economy, and regularity—these struck a responsive chord in you and have influenced your painting?

Flicker/Blue/Yellow/Red, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 234 cm (30 x 92 in), 2002-03

BK: I’ve always been attracted to solutions embodying simplicity and restraint, perhaps because we are all surrounded by and exhorted to excess—”you deserve it.”

JK: Are there other sources for the geometric form and structure in your work?

BK: We city folk, or as Frank Lloyd Wright called us, we “dwellers in the shadow of the wall,” live in an environment of geometry. We are surrounded by grids. Our buildings, our walls, our city streets are all geometry-based. Most of the furniture and appliances we own have been conceived to fit into or relate to the environment of rectangles and squares. At the same time, we live in an atmosphere of what might be kindly called “out-of-control chaos.” I think that working with geometric forms modified by color is a good way to get some measure of control over the chaos. It always seemed to me that if one considered the life experience of Josef Albers—the rise of Naziism in Germany, the closing of the Bauhaus and all of the ensuing horrors—it was very natural that this artist would choose to work with the stable form of the square and try to paint paintings of great control. The paintings become keys to contemplation in the same way that much great music does this for many of us.

JK: You seem to achieve a feeling of stability and order in much of your earlier work through the use of symmetry.

Antibes Sun
Antibes Sun, acrylic on canvas, 51 x 152 cm (20 x 60 in), 1993

BK: My early paintings were always based on a symmetrical sequence or sequences. The geometric basis of each composition provides a framework for the interaction of color without unneeded literal content affecting or diluting the message.The way(s) in which the colors act and interact was my primary concern, and the center axis arrangement seemed the clearest, strongest way to achieve my color-oriented visual goals. These works all visually speak of energy emanating from a central core. The sun? The life source? Central axis work has been a longstanding concern of artists like Albers, Vasarely, Newman, Noland, Anuskiewicz, Stella, and others.

I always assign a primary role to color. The mood of each painting is very strongly under the influence of its color environment. I am always striving for color combinations that are unusual, less familiar, and that provide a new melody or flavor. In the Josef Albers color course at Yale, we had the opportunity to explore a wide range of color relationships, and through this we lost a lot of our color preconceptions and inhibitions, learning that colors are always seen in relation to others, and that it is a rare instance when a color stands unaffected by its surroundings.

JK: And it appears that you also used symmetry to explore a variety of compositional issues, as, for example, in the painting Chorale?

Chorale (triptych), acrylic on canvas, 107 x 264 cm (42 x 104 in), 2001

BK: Chorale is the largest painting I’ve done, approximately 9′ long in three sections. It radiates energy outward and was an ambitious experiment with horizontal banding of colors that may tend to fuse. The feeling this work was intended to convey was that of a large chorale group performing a work that was inspirational. I have not pursued this compositional direction.

JK: And your work gradually began to move away from symmetry?

BK: It was odd for me to find myself fixated for a time on symmetry as a base for my ColorSignals, but that, like much of life, is always in a process of change.

JK: You’ve said that the move toward increasing asymmetry was a move into uncharted territory.

BK: I now think that the asymmetrical works are more inherently part of a risk-taking process in that the guarantee of the stability or order of the structural basis is not certain, while that of a symmetrical work will always be guaranteed. I think now that attempting asymmetrical work implies greater freedom, to dare to take risks. And that is a great part of the excitement of conceiving and realizing a work. Having said all this, there is no denying the power and impact possible through symmetry.

My change from symmetrical to asymmetrical work came about because I was feeling I’d accomplished what I could with symmetrical painting and needed the possibility to explore more than color-form relationships. The asymmetrical work also allowed for more informal, less fixed forms in spatial relationships. Leaving the monumentality of symmetry happened with the beginnings of the MoogMusic paintings.

MoogMusic 5C
MoogMusic 5C, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 137 cm (36 x 54 in), 2002-03

JK: The work in this series and in other more recent work seems to call for very different strategies for achieving balance or equilibrium.

BK: I’m not sure that balance is the word I might use, or exactly how to verbalize what it is that holds my paintings together, but it is a delicate and careful balancing act, more to do with acrobats, wire walkers, and gymnastics than with any conventional rules for balance. What I look for is a combination of elements, groups, stresses, and implied motion that are carefully combined to produce with Bucky Fuller would probably have called in his work a “tension-compression structure.” The composition is so composed that moving any one element would likely destroy the dynamic equilibrium. This sense of tension-compression is what intrigues the viewer. It conveys a sense of carefully contained energy.

JK: And a sense of potential movement in multiple directions?

BK: This painting developed over time. The rhythms, beats, and implied motion(s) went through a lengthy development process, with elements being added over several years. There is activity on two simultaneous planes, with elements recognizable as groupings relating to one another through both planes. A sense of space is encouraged through the contrast of elements with their respective backgrounds. Diagonals come to the fore and are replaced by horizontal and vertical groupings.

JK: And a series would be made up of a number of color variations on a single composition?

Blue Song, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2000
Deep Song, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2000

BK: I have often worked on series based on one basic composition where the series developed out of variations in color treatment. It gives me a chance to totally vary the mood of any given composition as in music. This allows me a fascinating and rewarding exploration. My series, which have been comprised of as many as 18 works, have become more like three lately. Although Albers said that if you painted squares for 30 years, people began to realize you “meant business,” I find that I need to feel I’m moving on. I’m always questioning what I’m doing and where my next work is going.

JK: Would it be correct to say that you create a fairly shallow space in your work? And is spatial ambiguity important?

BK: When I studied photography with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan in Chicago and at Yale with Herbert Matter, the unique flatness of the image was often considered desirable as it was in the days of Clement Greenberg’s influence on the New York painters. I think my paintings have a certain limited depth, and for me that is enough. Were depth a greater concern, it, like brush stroke or texture, would further complicate the image, which for me is complicated enough. I am always more interested in movement in my paintings, but movement into great depth has never been my concern. Spatial ambiguity, that is taking the viewer into a new, unknown place, has always been an important goal.

Alhambra, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2005

JK: I notice that you continue your compositions around the edges of your paintings.

BK: Yes. All of my paintings, to that point, had been painted right around the edges, creating paintings that were more than two-dimensional. One day, in looking at the edge of a MoogMusic painting, I realized that the images on the edge formats were exciting and interesting enough for me to suspect that I might make some paintings on a tall, narrow format. I took that chance and the result has been more than 25 TTH paintings in 5 or more series. The TTH series are painted on 1/8″ aluminum floating 1′ off the wall. They have unpainted edges, so the visual image seems to hover or float in space.

JK: Are they meant to be viewed singly? And their height seems to relate to human scale.

BK: The TTH series paintings are meant to be standalone pieces, and yes, to have a relationship to human scale. More recently, I’ve done two series of three each that are meant to group, to hang within inches of one another. Until people are able to see a TTH painting in its own environment, they are rarely able to see how such narrow visual elements are able to activate a wall.

TTH series
Five individual works from five TTH series, acrylic on
aluminum, each 152 x 8 cm (60 x 3 in), 2002

JK: Turning to the titles of your paintings–MoogMusic, Fanfare, Baroque Brass, Vivace—they suggest that you strongly relate your art to music.

BK: The eye experiences painting as perceptual music. The subject of most musical composition is pure sound, often unrelated to literal representation; painting should enjoy the same clear dissociation from the familiar, representational world. For Bach, it was instrumentally produced, elegant sound that generated pleasure. In my paintings it is color integrated in a geometry-based structure creating a new “musical” visual composition that satisfies a similar need. They are visual music meant to be “heard,” experienced with the eyes and the senses more so than with analytical thought. Perhaps more related to Orpheus and/or The Pied Piper.

Baroque Brass 2
Baroque Brass 2, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 91 cm (24 x 36 in), 2004

In my work, the placement, size, shape and organization of the geometry provide the musical structure, while the use of rich, often quirky color provides the sounds. The arrangement and relationships of the forms to one another create a rhythmic beat. The sense of movement I try to establish in all of my paintings is planned as integral to the composition. The title, referencing musical forms or terms, is a literal clue for the viewer, a reinforcement or confirmation of what they see.

JK: The works that involve symmetry seem to yield a very different rhythmic structure than those that are asymmetrical.

BK: While a painting like Chorale can definitely be seen as classical music, the later asymmetrical work is more related to less obviously structured music such as bebop, jazz, scat, the so-called modern music of John Cage or Earl Brown. I’m not sure that visual artists and musicians, composers, jugglers, acrobats and magicians are so very different. They just depend on different sets of primary senses and muscles.

JK: So music provides both a powerful source of inspiration for you as well as a source of organizational or structural possibilities?

Hip-Hoppin' 2
Hip-Hoppin’ 2, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 137 cm (36 x 54 in), 2004

BK: Yes. The painting I’ve titled Hip-Hoppin’ represented what I felt was a breakthrough for me in that it incorporated many of the elements of earlier paintings in a looser, freer, more playful way, allowing me to successfully juxtapose two visual/musical themes.

JK: Turning to your working process, to what extent do you plan your work before actually beginning to paint?

BK: All of my paintings are preplanned. I may make a maquette from cut, pasted papers, changing elements and colors until I’m pleased with the result. If this is how I begin, I then “draw” the maquette in the computer. This gives me the opportunity to explore color variations and often variations in the size and placement of elements, to print out and tweak the result until I’m satisfied with it. Having arrived at a solution, I then scale it up to final painting size. All colors have to be mixed to match the computer printout maquette. As totally exact color matches are never likely, this may result in remixing and painting over colors once the planned painting is at a completed stage.

JK: Do you feel that the computer influences the nature of your art?

BK: No. It is a tool, as useful as the artist can make it. The computer is a very efficient way of trying out, of exploring color and size/placement variations. And it has become more possible for me to draw the first maquette of an idea directly on the computer. This may start with a musical phrase, a color mood, and a certain sense of activity/energy/rhythm.

JK: And as you paint, you aim for a uniform, flat application of color?

Epiphany 2
Epiphany 2, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 2005

BK: I have found, over a period of time, that the use of shading, brushiness or texture tends to confuse and/or weaken the visual music of my paintings. The colors are applied flat, though they have a certain even, very lightly textured, matte surface. This approach seems to provide the best ingredients for the interaction of form and color. There is no typical painter’s handwriting and viewers usually find this unfamiliar. It is all related to the question: “How much is enough?” The answer is different, depending on the viewer, and we live in a climate where moderation and restraint are rarely, if ever, an applauded component of pop culture.

JK: And also a culture which undervalues training visual skills?

BK: Most basic and later professional education have a very small visual component, and rarely contain an historical survey of how painting got from there to here—as with music, dance, or architecture. Without this educational component, people have not learned to see.

JK: You’ve said that you don’t consider your paintings to be abstractions.

Vivace 3
Vivace 3, acrylic on canvas, 41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2005

BK: They are not abstractions of previously experienced, identifiable reality, but offer their own reality, a reality of many varied moods created by the experience of visual music. The wonderful thing about making artwork is that the artist alone decides who, beyond him/herself the audience is, what he/she wants to communicate and, it goes without saying, must then live with whatever follows from that decision. My paintings are not abstractions; they are, if anything, doors to be entered. What occurs beyond the door is up to the viewer.

High-Stepp’n (triptych), acrylic on canvas, 76 x 229 cm (30 x 90 in), 2005

JK: Besides an impoverished visual education, what other forces might prevent a potential viewer from entering your doors?

BK: I’ve become convinced that conservatism casts its shadow over everything, and that at its root is fear of the unknown, mistrust and/or fear of the new, of experimentation, of anything unfamiliar, and a general insistence that the tried, true and familiar is comfort food.

JK: And this attitude often precludes the appreciation of abstract art?

BK: When I recognize something, and it’s not a tiger that may want to eat me, I can place it immediately in a non-threatening category. Since I may not be able to do that with an abstract image, it becomes, at the least, borderline threatening—or some sort of hoax perpetrated by the artist.

JK: And yet abstract art is certainly no longer new or avant-garde.

Kramer in his studio
Burton Kramer in his studio

BK: Humans are born with no memory; that’s a problem. My kids once announced with excitement that they’d discovered this fantastic jazz man. It turned out to be Louis Armstrong. For them, he was new—and in the same way, everything is new and unknown for each generation.

In fashion—and more and more, everything is fashion—the old is constantly new again. The farce that new is better, that new is always admirable, denies historical development and refinement based on it. It may be far more important to know who did it best than to know who did it first. First models are rarely refined.

More information about Burton Kramer at

Interview images and text copyright©2005 Julie Karabenick and Burton Kramer. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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