Harry Kramer (1925 – 1997)

“A deeply modern, because often refracted and reflected artist role” – this is how Stefan Lüddemann describes the Lingen-born artist Harry Kramer. His work is characterised by several individual phases in which the sculptor, who never completed an artistic education, devoted himself entirely to one thing.

Anyone who has kept Harry Kramer in mind knows above all his wire sculptures. Created between 1961 and 1967, he caused a sensation at documenta 3 with these “kinetic sculptures”[1]: the body made of wire mesh, in the form of a sphere, a cube, and later also a hand or foot, a small-scale cosmos of black, grid-like struts. Inside, a “system of moving elements”, connected by rubber bands that transmit the power of a small electric motor and, when switched on, keep the whole structure constantly in motion. Jerkily, as if out of step, small balls sway, wheels turn, tiny hammers strike little bells, a restless scurrying in the wire frame. But within his work, these sculptures seem like the logical next step: From his mechanical theater – an “uncanny phantasmagoria”[2], a journalist from the ZEIT wrote in 1955 about the “13 Scenes” shown in Berlin’s Springer Galerie – to the automotive figures, already disembodied, bare heads on edges, which move like robots on their large cogwheels, and the short films with the same figures and their “bizarre comedy”[3], for which Kramer receives the Federal Film Prize and a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Biennale. From there it’s not far to the wire sculptures of the 1960s.

He also quotes them in the furniture sculptures of the later decade: everyday objects are combined with simple pieces of furniture, painted in garish colors and illuminated with isolated light bulbs. These objects, as well as the “sliding sculptures”, organic forms with precisely fitting partial elements that can be moved against each other, met with conflicting opinions in the art world. Kramer transforms “the bulky work of art into an object that is as flattering to the hand as it is pleasing to the eye”[4] and is dismissed by many as an attempt to finally be successful on the art market. In 1970, there was a turning point in his work: he took over the professorship for sculpture at the Gesamthochschule Kassel: “Not to show art, but to live it authentically”[5] is his maxim. In the flat hierarchy of his class, he subordinates his own production almost entirely to the collective; only a few works are created during this phase. Instead, he himself becomes a work of art: in the series “Artificial People” from 1972/73, two automatons are exhibited that are modelled on his face and body. When a coin is inserted, one of them moves its checkered limbs, the other opens a small gullwing door in its chest and plays a recording of Kramer’s voice. Almost 10 years after his arrival in Kassel, he began his own project again, the scriptural panels on the Apocalypse: 24 panels contain the texts of the Revelation of John, translated into a code of four different coloured dots in acrylic. At the start of the 1995 Harry Kramer retrospective in Lingen, these panels were integrated into a spectacular performance in which the artist was also present. On the gallery running the length of Hall IV, they were displayed on easels and illuminated by 20 spotlights, the only light sources in the room. The headlights of a truck illuminated the way for visitors entering the hall to the avant-garde jazz rock of the band “Ugly Culture” from Cologne.

His last project was the Necropolis in Kassel, an artists’ cemetery for renowned artists, which he financed to a large extent from his own capital and the sale of the Mechanical Theatre. Harry Kramer himself was buried anonymously on the grounds of the Habichtswald.


Harry Kramer was born on January 25th, 1925 in Lingen, in a poor environment where his parents prophesied him a life as a street sweeper because he could not master German orthography. When he was 7 years old, his mother died of tuberculosis. After that, the frail boy Harry withdraws into his innermost being, and, looking back on this time, later calls himself an impostor. After training as a hairdresser and completing his military service, he worked for four years as a dancer and actor before starting work at the “Mechanical Theatre” in 1952. In 1956 he moved to Paris, followed by stays in the USA, exhibitions and a guest lectureship at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts. From 1970 to 1992 he taught sculpture at the Gesamthochschule Kassel, in his last year there the Kassel Necropolis opened. Harry Kramer died in Kassel on 20 February 1997.

Lüddemann, Stefan: Harry Kramer. Contemporary art from Lower Saxony, Vol. 64, Bonn, 2007, p. 25.

2] Die Zeit, 22/1955, 2 June, royal online at: http://www.zeit.de/1955/22/mechanisches-theater.

3] Lüddemann 2007, p. 18.

[4] Lüddemann, 2007, p. 41.

[5] Lüddemann 2007, p. 51.