interview: David Kramer
fields editor Sean Redmond first came across David Kramer’s work about 10 years ago. He has since followed his career in earnest, watching as Kramer gained representation by European art galleries and his paintings and writings appeared in The New York Times. Kramer’s art appeals to the pessimism that has taken hold since the Great Recession, and he evokes nostalgia for the ever-fading concept of the American Dream with a wink and a nod. His work can seem sardonic, yet is surprisingly warm and honest in a distinctively American way. After trying and failing to interview Kramer for our first issue, we were excited to finally speak with him about his life and work.
I don’t remember how I became introduced to your work… It was in 2007 or 2008. I had printed out copies of your drawings and put them on my wall, just these pieces of paper. And then I left them—I lived in Japan for a few years, and I left them in America, and I was trying to think, because I remembered you and I wanted to see what you’d been up to, but I couldn’t remember your name. So I made my parents dig through my belongings to find those pieces of paper that I’d printed out and determine your signature on the paper, so I could look up your name. And they were like, “I can’t read it! There’s a K and some letters…” and I remembered it was Kramer, something Kramer! I spent a whole day trying to figure it out.
DK: I’ll tell you a really funny story. As a kid growing up—I was born in Manhattan, but I grew up mostly in New Rochelle, in Westchester [County, New York]. So when I was a kid, I lived in a house in the suburbs in the ’70s, and we would get all these magazines delivered to our house, like Life and Look and The New Yorker, Esquire. And as a kid, I just loved looking at the cartoons in The New Yorker, they were always this—they still are these iconic-looking things. So anyway, I had heard, about two years ago, four years ago, I had heard that you could go up and see Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor, and he would entertain looking at cartoonists’ work. So I gathered up some drawings that I thought he might like—I don’t really think of myself as a New Yorker cartoonist, but people have said to me enough, “Oh, your jokes are like New Yorker jokes”—so I gathered up some stuff and went up there to pay a visit, to the Condé Nast office in Times Square, and I went up on the elevator and I sat on this couch in this empty room, and he invited me in, and I talked to him. I met with him actually more than once, and he was telling me that he really liked my work, and it was really interesting to him, but in the end, the last time I met with him, he said to me, it was very rejecting, he said, “You know, we at The New Yorker”—and he used those words—“we have this iconic look to our works, and your work doesn’t really fit in the New Yorker model. And we’re not going to change that for you, you know, this is something we’ve built, and I like your work, but I’m the cartoon editor, and we’re never going to publish it.” So I went back out, and I was sitting on the couch, and by that point, I’d gotten to meet the cartoonists from the two or three times I’d been up there. So this guy says, “What’s in your portfolio? I want to see,” and so I opened up my portfolio, and I was showing him my work, and this other cartoonist says, “That guy is ripping off David Kramer!” And I said, “Wait a minute! I am David Kramer!” And he goes, “No way! I have some of your drawings on the wall in my workroom! I’ve seen them online, I’ve printed a couple of them and I just really love these things.” And I was like, “Are you kidding me?” and it was such a funny, amazing moment. So then I was leaving and I was taking the elevator down, and I got on the elevator with these—even these old-school cartoonists who still publish regularly come on Wednesday, to see Bob Mankoff at that time—and I got on the elevator with this guy who was a regular, published New Yorker cartoonist, and he said to me, “So, what do you get for your drawings?” And I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “What do you sell them for?” and I tell him “You know, I sell them for a couple thousand dollars each.” And he says, “Why the fuck are you coming here? We get like nothing to publish these!” [laughing] Anyway, I still was dejected, but I left feeling kind of redeemed after that. Sort of like a loser story with a nice silver lining to it.
That’s wild, that you’re so recognized. It seems that sort of thing happens fairly often.
DK: It still surprises me every time.
So you were born in Manhattan, grew up in Westchester, and you live in NYC. Have you always lived in New York?
DK: I moved with my family when I was just a young kid to New Rochelle. I grew up in the suburbs. My parents were both workers, both had jobs in New York, and when I was old enough to be in high school, I remember saying to them, “Why do you get to go to the city every day and I’m stuck here?” I went to college not in New York, I went to Washington, DC—I applied to NYU but did not get in. I got into George Washington University and I went there. And while I was there I enjoyed being there, it was great, but as soon as I realized, really, that I wanted to be an artist, that that was what I wanted to do with my life, I finished school and I immediately moved to New York and went to Pratt, in Brooklyn, and I’ve lived in New York ever since. I graduated from GW in 1985, so I’ve lived in New York since ’85.
And you were just in DC last week?
DK: I was. I have a sister that lives there now, so I went to visit her with my son and my wife and spent a couple of days there. I hadn’t been there in four years or so. My younger sister is a terrific person, but she makes me feel guilty, like I haven’t visited her in so long. I was supposed to visit her about a year ago, I had planned a whole visit, and then I got invited to do a show in Paris, and I blew off visiting her, and she’s been mad at me for a year. [laughing] I didn’t like the treatment I was getting, so I succumbed to her anger and went to go visit her.
You mentioned a show in Paris. You have two shows happening in Paris right now, at the Galerie Laurent Godin and the Centre Pompidou, yes?
DK: That’s right. In fact, tonight is the opening, the Grand Vernissage for the show where I’m showing some videos. I didn’t have the money to travel to Paris to go to the party; it would have been really nice and I would have gone if I could have, but it’s really amazing. For whatever reason, my career over the past five, six years has been really dominated by shows in Europe. I’ve had a few shows in New York, and I did a show in Washington four years ago, I’ve done some shows in America and I’ve done some shows at some art fairs in New York, I’ve had a lot of great exposure in Miami, but for whatever reason the Europeans seem to really like my work a lot, which is really amazing to me, because, you know, in France, they don’t like to speak English. [laughing] They all do speak English, but they don’t like it. And my work has gone over really well in Paris. I have a gallery in Brussels that I work with, and I’m going to have a show in Munich in September, I did a show two years ago in Beirut… It’s really amazing to have these shows in these different countries, these different cultures. I guess, in some ways, from an outsider’s perspective, my work is very American, in a way that travels well.
Do you think that’s why Europeans have more interest in it?
DK: They’re just smarter. [laughing]
DK: I do think that America is a really interesting experiment to a lot of other people, and I think that they do have a love and hate relationship with American culture, because they love film and books and art and culture from America, but they do kind of feel overwhelmed and sometimes like it’s stuffed down the throats of outsiders, because pop culture is in many ways an American export. But I do think… in many ways, honestly, I feel like what I’m always doing is writing about or painting and writing about things that are from a very personal perspective, but the universality, the way that I address these things, pokes holes in that American façade. And I think that gets appreciated outside of America, because I think that, you know, it’s not just laughing at America, but laughing at oneself for aspiring to what is so American. And I think that that is what is appreciated outside of America, this sort of pathos of aspiration that people love and hate about their own selves, because they’re like, Why is it that we all love and want these things that have been imported or exported from America? So I think that that is part of what it is, I think that is part of why my work has been received well abroad, for that reason.
Yeah, it really seems to strike a chord. A lot of your work deals with themes of disappointment and anxiety about the future, but the way you tackle them is almost lighthearted. In your paintings and drawings you have this ’70s-style advertisement aesthetic, and that, combined with the way that you twist these clichés into not-quite-cynical expressions of hope—you can see behind it. You are sort of pulling aside the curtain, and there is this subtext of Is this something that is worth striving for? And I do think that this creates a sense of wistfulness for an American dream that maybe never really was.
DK: You said “cynical,” and to me, I’m more into the satire of it. The satire is that every day I wake up and think that I’m going to accomplish my goal—but my goals are so absurd! [laughing] The goals are like I’m going to run it off into the sunset and have drinks in a beautiful lounge with some gorgeous woman, but these goals are just ludicrous, so then I go to sleep disappointed.
Are those really your goals?
DK: I’m being a little facetious, but the satire, that is my goal. To live the advertisements that I saw in those magazines, growing up as a kid, on the coffee table in the house in the suburbs, it’s like this is what it’s supposed to be like. It’s supposed to be this urban lifestyle, just fantastic, and all the details are gorgeous, the settings are right, it’s all art directed—but I could hardly live out those dreams. So I paint them, I draw them. I vicariously live them through my work. And the text, like I said, is deeply personal in a certain way; there are ultimate truths about where I’m at in reality when I’m making the piece of work that I’m making that are somehow distilled and written onto the surface of what I’m drawing. So yeah, I’m aspiring to things that—as you said yourself, and I would totally say that—they are things that I don’t know if they’ve ever existed. But because I’ve seen an image of it, it’s got to be true, and I’ve got to have it, I’ve got to experience it. And it may not be real—it might just be something that was set up in the studio, that was created. I’ve never watched that TV show Mad Men, I’ve never seen it, I don’t know why, it’s just sort of escaped me. But I bring it up because I really understand that whole era of advertising very well, and I find it really fascinating. That was during an era when there was no Photoshop. There were photographs taken of things, and every detail was set up in the take, and it was taken. And maybe you could go back and airbrush it, and change it a little bit, but really what you had was what was there, there was no ability to go back and collage things in like there is digitally now. It was real for an instant, and that’s the instant that I’m chasing after, which is completely fleeting.
It’s very clear that advertisements played an important role in the development of your aesthetic, but what about artists? Who have you looked to for inspiration? Who helped you to cultivate your style? Some of your work—especially some of your more recent landscape pieces—bears a similarity to the work of Ed Ruscha.
DK: I would say that Roy Lichtenstein is the person whose work I just adore, but at the same time, late Philip Guston’s work is work that I just adore as well. Lichtenstein’s slickness and topicalness is completely met in this way from Guston with this clunkiness and gritty reality. So, in terms of modern art, those guys really influenced me a lot. And even though I’ve lived on the East Coast my whole life, I have to say that Ed Ruscha and that sort of Californian conceptualism from the ’70s is really influential to me. There’s something very smart about West Coast art; there’s this patience about it that you don’t see in East Coast art that I really admire.
It has a more relaxed atmosphere.
DK: Yeah, I mean, I like Ed Ruscha, but I also like a guy from Vancouver, Rodney Graham. Rodney Graham produces videos, and they’re just really intense, long-winded jokes, and I find that really fantastic, that he can build a joke and make a film of it. You know, you have a joke and then you have to produce it, and really produce it, and I think that’s really interesting. I don’t see much of that kind of work in New York right now, and I think that’s why New York has always been kind of difficult for me in some ways, in terms of getting a really good reputation here, because it’s a different take on art—it’s not as slow, it’s much more immediate, in your face. Pop.
Ruscha once said that he likes “the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again.” How do you approach text in your images? Do you typically come up with the phrases first, or the pictures, and then match the phrases to them?
DK: The reason why the images are so important to me, as an artist, is that the rendering of the image is really where the words come out of. It’s sort of like while I’m looking at something and trying to recreate it in some way, in my own terms, that’s when my mind begins to race and when I start to have an inner dialogue, which is where the language comes from. So no, I do not tend to know what I’m going to say on a piece of canvas or a piece of paper until I’m in the process of making it, which is why I haven’t really ever been able to make work that is just text alone on paper that is satisfying to me. I think that what Ed Ruscha does is brilliant. Maybe he would accept it if I said that he’s a great craftsman, but his words are super smart—I think he intellectualizes the entire process of what he’s going to do from the beginning to the end, and I would say that he’s a craftsman because he can render what it is that he’s already thought of. I don’t really think that I can render like him, nor do I think that I can come up with ideas in a vacuum. I really need to be in the throes of making something in order to come up with my ideas. That’s why the image is so vital to me. It’s not finding an image to satisfy text. That said, sometimes I’m on the train and I think of something and I’m just like that is so funny, I gotta go write that. That does happen. But generally speaking, the text in my work is the result of the work that I’ve done, and so it’s always sort of—I don’t want to say it’s the last stage of anything that I do, but it comes at a point in the process where it does, at times, become the reason for the entire project, all the way at the end. Like writing happy birthday on top of a cake. You’ve done all the work, and then you write happy birthday, and then it’s a birthday cake.
What do you look for in images that you’re using? How do you go about choosing?
DK: I think for a very long time—this body of work I’ve made over the past five or six years—came initially from looking at magazines, and looking at vintage Playboy magazines and vintage Life magazines, and really just trying to capture the buttery light of those photographs—the clay in the paper. And more recently I’ve become more interested in finding images… I’m really looking for this element of perfection: the perfect sunset, the perfect smile. It comes from, a lot of times, now, from iPhone shots of things that I’m seeing. That’s what the landscapes really are becoming, more and more, just images out of my own traveling; looking at things and trying to replicate those images. I’m really interested now in landscapes. I think that the figures in my pieces were really great, and there was a real fantasy to that, but I think that there’s a real fantasy to landscapes, too.
Can you elaborate on that?
DK: Well, I think that there’s a fantasy of trying to paint the perfect sunset, or the perfect beach scene, the perfect mountain. It’s really escapism. And as much as I love looking at Roy Lichtenstein, I also just grew up in a certain way looking at those paintings in the galleries in Washington, DC, looking at the Monets and the Soutines and these real Expressionist, European paintings. And I’m really fascinated with that kind of painting, which is just elusive to me. I’m trying to paint something that’s just beautiful, but I’m still attaching text to it because it seems like a fitting way of completing these paintings—not that I need a solution, but because it’s like an endless road until all of a sudden the meaning of the painting emerges through the process of making it, and then I write this thing on it that sort of makes sense to me.
I think that that is what is appreciated outside of America, this sort of pathos of aspiration that people love and hate about their own selves, because they’re like, Why is it that we all love and want these things that have been imported or exported from America?
Your earlier pieces used a more limited palette, and the text was often scratched out; there was more of a sloppiness to your work. And now you work on larger canvases, with more color and a cleaner look, and you’ve shifted from people and cars to landscapes. How else do you see your work as having evolved?
DK: I definitely think that I’ve learned how to paint recently.
DK: I think that, in a certain way, before, I was limiting myself. There was a long period of time where I was making drawings, and I was just making monochromatic drawings, using red ink, blue ink, red drawings with blue text, blue drawings with red text. I was really just learning how to draw at that point in some ways, and now I’ve started to use colors again, and—yeah, I’m learning how to paint right now. And it’s much more difficult—sometimes I just look at my paintings and I think I’m just a really bad photorealist painter. [laughing] Because what I’m trying to do is capture something that comes from a photographic image, in a way—you know, I do paint from photographs. I paint from and look at things for inspiration. And I don’t trust my own memory; I look at things and images that I’ve seen that resonate with me, and I want to replicate that, but in the process it becomes distilled, it never looks like what it is that I photographed or looked at. I don’t think that I want to become any more realistic than I am, I just want to somehow become more comfortable with the materials, with the paints, and let them do the talking.
Interesting. I wouldn’t have assumed that you were going for a more realistic style.
DK: Because I’m really bad at it! [laughing]
Well, I’m kind of glad that you’re not better at it. The roughness is appealing.
You have an exhibit happening right now called Stand/Up, is that correct? And that’s a collection of your videos?
DK: No. It’s a pretty big group show, curated by a couple of people, about artists who have used humor to make their point in their work. And they just included a couple of my videos. There was a long period of time where I was making a lot of videos, and that’s sort of subsided—recently I’ve been getting back into it—but the videos I made for a very long time were very much narrative videos, and some of them were very elaborate, they involved costumes and sets that I’d built, and some of them were more straightforward, with me just talking. But they always tried to take something that was happening to me in my life and tried to distill it for a moment into an art piece. For a long time the videos that I made were really about being kind of a loser in the art world all the time, being left out in the art world all the time. There was a lot of stuff there to make good films about that was really enjoyable, and it was really refreshing. But what happened was I started to have a lot more success with my work, and that narrative sort of lost its teeth to me, and I really stopped making films a few years ago because I felt that it was disingenuous to make films where the complaint was the premise of the film. So I lost my thread there, of what was feeding the films, and so I stopped making films for a while. And now I’m getting myself back into making videos, but in a very different way right now.
I saw some of the clips online, and I was very surprised, they were very funny. They have an unself-conscious charm, like the sort of viral videos that you always see going around.
DK: Well, I will say one other thing, and that is, around five or six years ago, YouTube suddenly emerged. And I really felt that, at that point, it had taken a lot away from what it was… I felt that my films were really based in a lot of ways on art videos. In some ways they were all jokes about what art videos look like in galleries. Some of them that I was seeing were just terrible, boring, self-serving kind of films, and I was kind of riffing on that, making my own terrible, boring, self-serving films. That was always my joke! People would say “What are your films like?” and I’d say, “Oh, they’re terrible!” I mean, that was really the point of them, in a way—they were sad and terrible and funny. But then when I saw YouTube I was like oh my god, I’ve really got to stop making films—all these people are doing this so much better than me! [laughing]
I don’t know if they’re better than you, but you did seem to be ahead of the curve on that one.
DK: To me, what it really was, it wasn’t that it was better, it was just that I needed to build a joke or a story or a punch line through a long-winded construction, and there were people who could just blow up a microwave oven in their backyard, and they’d get a million hits! I just couldn’t compete with the immediacy of YouTube videos. And now I actually think, as I understand it, it seems like there’s a saturation with that stuff, and now there’s a time again for the films that I was making. The audience has become more patient now, because they know what the joke looks like, they’ve seen that joke a million times; it’s not funny anymore to see a microwave blow up in the backyard. So I think my films were ahead of the curve, and now the curve is catching up, perhaps. It’s great to be showing these films at the Pompidou, I feel very excited about that. I wish I could have gone tonight to the opening—that would have been fun. Next time.
I will say, there’s a warmth to your videos that’s always been latent in your drawings and paintings, but it really comes to the surface, your sense of doubt and self-deprecation—it feels a lot more personal in this setting. What drives you to share your thoughts and insecurities in this fashion?
DK: Well, a long time ago, at Pratt, the motto of the school was “Be true to your art and your art will be true to you.” I never really enjoyed being in art school, and I worked very hard to forget everything they taught me there, but there is this idea that—and it’s true in comedy also—the best jokes have truth to them. The only way you can really render a joke that’s really funny is if it’s totally true. I was looking at some Facebook stuff, and someone had posted this Louis C.K. stand-up routine about him being broke, and I was just laughing out loud, it was just so funny, because it was made in 2004, and he could talk about being broke because at the time I’m sure he was totally broke! And in a certain regard—I’m not trying to say that I’m like a comedian—but in a certain regard I am like a clown. I don’t know if you saw this video I did, which was this “Million Dollar Moment” video which I made. It was all based on The Fountainhead, and the story was—the true story was that I got a phone call from this curator, and he said to me, “Listen, I’ve heard about your work, and I want to put you in this show we’re doing. It’s going to be a really great show. There are a lot of people talking about your work, and we’re real excited, me and this other guy, Robert Storr, we’re huge art critics putting this show together, and we want you to be in it. We’re going to give you a big wall to do your work in.” And I was like, wow, this is totally exciting, it was going to be at an excellent gallery in Manhattan, the Feigen Contemporary, which is no longer open, but it was a great gallery. And I hung up the phone, and five minutes later I got a call from this woman from a gallery in Brooklyn that I sometimes would work with, and she said, “Did you get a call from this guy named Charlie Finch?” and I said yes, I did, and she said, “Forget everything that he told you, because he wanted this guy named David Brody’s phone number, and I gave him yours by accident.” So I was like—What? I hung up the phone with her, and this guy Charlie had called me on my cell phone, and so two or three hours later I called him up, I was like, “Charlie Finch—Charlie, this is David Kramer,” and it was dead silent on the other end of the phone. And I said, “Listen, I know what happened, and I know that you didn’t really mean to call me, but this guy David Brody who you were looking for, he’s a friend of mine, and his studio is literally just down the block from where my studio is”—he was literally on the same block in Brooklyn. And I said, “You don’t owe me anything, but I think it would be really nice, really generous of you, if you were to come, when you go visit his studio, if you would come by my studio and take a look at what I’m doing.” And he said, “I’m going to come, and I’m going to come with an open mind.” And he came, and he included me in the show. And then the show opened, and they sold everything that I had on the wall, and then they offered me a show at the gallery. So I went to a meeting with the guy who ran the gallery, and he goes, “We really want to do a show with you,” and I said, “That is really amazing. I have a really funny story to tell you.” And I told him the story of how I got in the show, and he said, “Never tell anyone that story ever again.” So I made a film about it. [laughing] Don’t tell me what I shouldn’t do, because I’m gonna do it!
So I made a film about it, and I couched the whole film in The Fountainhead, because to me that book was really what it was supposed to be like, there was some major critic who was going to find you. Well, I’m not talking about how Howie Roark was completely beaten down by those major critics, but he was beaten down because he wouldn’t say yes to those critics! But you know, it’s about a singular vision, and winning out, and your art being really important, and that was all the stuff that I based my existence on. And here it was, I got into a show completely by accident! That changed my life for a while. And I thought the idea of making a film about your life being changed by accident seemed really interesting to me, because that really is the crux of everything for me. What you expect and what you get are rarely the same.
Interview by Sean Redmond.
Photography by Pierre Simay (artist images) and Susan Alzner (installation view).