It is often said that Abstract Expressionism was the first purely American art movement. It allegedly represented the first time American artists, exemplified by members of the New York School, broke free of European influence to establish their own unique aesthetic voice. But a long look at Paul Klee paintings painted over the course of the three decades leading up to the dawn of the New York School reveals that perhaps the Abstract Expressionists were not as free from Old World influence as art history books suggest. Now for the first time, the Center Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, is attempting to begin a serious scholarly examination of the myriad ways American Post War artists were influenced by the work of Paul Klee. To kick off this investigation, the centerrecently openedthe exhibition 10 Americans After Paul Klee. On view alongside paintings by Klee are excellent examples of the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, Kenneth Noland, William Baziotes, Adolph Gottlieb, Norman Lewis, Robert Motherwell, Gene Davis, Theodoros Stamos, and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Not only is this an unparalleled chance to see work by some of the most influential American painters of the 20th Century, but in the words of Center Paul Klee curators, this groundbreaking exhibition also bears “eloquent and impressive testimony to the extent to which these artists were inspired by Klee′s artistic concepts and practices.”
Born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1879, Paul Klee was anything but a natural artist. Writings from his diary, which he rigorously maintained from 1897 through 1918, reveal that he considered himself a terrible failure at understanding color, and was certain early on that he was doomed as an artist. But by 1911, after years of schooling and multiple false starts, his attitude and fortunes had completely changed. That was the year he met Wassily Kandinsky and was accepted as a member of the avant garde Blue Rider Group. Klee was inspired by the mental agility and aesthetic ideas of Kandinsky. And although he retained somewhat of a unique aesthetic approach, Klee quickly became an influential contributor to the philosophical development of the group.
But then came World War I. Like many of his fellow artists, Klee was forcefully conscripted into the Prussian army. Though Klee did not ever have to fight on the front lines, the war took the lives of many of his friends, and dramatically altered the way he saw art. Klee is quoted as saying, “The more horrible this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.” After the war, he became more dedicated than ever to abstraction as a way of revealing what is universal and pure. “Art does not reproduce the visible,” he said. “It makes visible.” With this pioneering attitude at the heart of his experiments, he quickly gained a wide reputation as a leader of the Post World Wart I European avant-garde.
Paul Klee - Fire at Full Moon, 1933, © Paul Klee / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
The obvious passion and genius Klee displayed made him revered among his peers, and by the 1930s he had established himself as an influential teacher of the younger generation as well. He served as an esteemed professor at the Düsseldorf Academy from 1931 through 1933, and was of course one of the leading instructors at the famous Bauhaus as well. But when the Weimar Republic came to an end in 1933, and Europe again seemed on the brink of war, Klee was included on the list of artists targeted by the emergent Nazi party. He fled Germany and returned to Switzerland. Meanwhile, many of his art dealers fled to the United States. Though Klee sold almost no work in Europe from 1933 until his death in 1940, his dealers continued to sell a lot of his paintings in the US. And throughout the 1930s and 40s, there were numerous Klee exhibitions throughout the States.
Many members of the New York School openly spoke about the inspiration they received from Paul Klee paintings. Like Klee, these artists had also recently emerged from a horrifying world war, and were also seeking new ways to express the inexpressible. Though they may not have directly copied his visual style, the methods Klee used to make his paintings encouraged them in their search for a more timeless, ancient, and pure way of making art. Among the many innovations for which Paul Klee is credited, and which directly influenced the American Post World War II avant garde, are automatism (drawing unconsciously, a technique later adopted by the Surrealists), primitivism (regressing back to the earliest, most primal methods of making art, later adopted by proponents of Art Brut), and reductivism (paring universal symbols down to their simplest nature, something Klee had learned from early Abstract artists such as Kandinsky and Malevich).
Paul Klee - Image Tiree du Boudoir, 1922, Copy in oil and watercolour on paper on card, 13 1/10 × 19 3/10 in, 33.2 × 49 cm, © Paul Klee / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
The 10 Americans After Paul Klee exhibition does an excellent job of selecting work by American artists that exemplifies the three concepts most often associated with Klee. In the realm of automatic drawing, works are shown by Jackson Pollock, Bradley Walker Tomlin and Mark Tobey. Composition No. 16 (1948) by Pollock is striking in its vibrant palette. Shocks of gestural white lines intermingle with explosive splotches of yellow and dramatic swirls of black, all atop an all-over sea of deep blue. The painting perfectly represents the automatic drawing method Klee worked with, and that Pollock famously used when innovating his iconic “splatter” paintings. Number 12 (1949) by Tomlin demonstrates the use of automatic drawing through gestural markings, calligraphic, linear forms, and wide, intuitive, black brush marks. After the Imprint (1961) by Mark Tobey is an explosive, all-over composition filled from corner to corner with intuitive markings, revelatory of subconscious anxiety, nervous energy and lyrical expression.
Mark Tobey - After the Imprint, 1961, Gouache auf Zeichenkarton, 99.7 x 69.5 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Erworben 1962, © 2017, ProLitteris
Demonstrating primitivism, or a return to ancient, primal art making, in 10 Americans After Paul Klee, are works by Robert Motherwell, Theodoros Stamos and William Baziotes. Abstraction on Turquoise (1945) by Motherwell will be an absolute revelation for fans of this painter who are not familiar with his earlier works. Motherwell made a reputation for his bold, black, biomorphic, melancholy gestural abstractions. This painting is vividly colorful and almost whimsical, but its primitive forms and textures are clear indicators of the direction he took in his later works. Ohne Titel (1945) by Theodoros Stamos is perhaps the most figurative work in the exhibition. A primitive abstraction reminiscent of an island landscape, the work evokes the imagery of cave paintings. Pierrot (1947) by William Baziotes, as its title suggests, alludes to the classic French pantomime character of the same name. The simplified, primitive forms in the paintings reduce the character to its essential elements and portray him in a highly simplified, and yet also highly expressive way.
Robert Motherwell - Abstraction on Turquoise, 1945, Ol, Emaillefarbe, Sand und Kohle auf Leinwandkarton, 61 x 50 cm, Dedalus Foundation, Inc., © Dedalus Foundation, Inc. / 2017, ProLitteris
Demonstrating reductivism, or the paring down of essential, universal symbols to their simplest forms, in 10 Americans After Paul Klee, are works by Adolph Gottlieb, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis and Norman Lewis. The two paintings Labyrinth #1 (1950) and The Seer (1950) by Adolph Gottlieb are quite close in many aspects to the early reductive abstract work of Paul Klee himself. Working with the backdrop of the grid, they present an assortment of abstracted, pared down symbolic forms mixed with geometric elements and figurative references. Their weathered surfaces and gestural under layers create a complexity and depth that belie the simplicity of many of the more prominent elements of the compositions. In the Garden (1952) by Kenneth Noland speaks in a fascinating conversation with the Gottleib works. It includes a dramatic X almost in the exact center of the canvas, surrounded by diagonal lines, which speak perhaps to a broken grid, or perhaps to primitive instructive markings. Though simplified, the push and pull of the colors in this painting give it a surprising depth and luminosity.
Rain Dance I (1960) by Gene Davis is a supreme example of a reductive composition. It is difficult to say that this particular painting was directly inspired by Paul Klee. Its pure colors and highly distilled, linear, geometric imagery places it far the all of the other works in this exhibition. But it definitely speaks back to the early abstract artists like Malevich who inspired Klee, and artists like Mondrian, who also investigated the reductive aspects of lines, rectangles, and pure fields of color. Finally, promenade (1950) by Norman Lewis fills a vital gap in the exhibition. Incorporating elements of reductivism, primitivism and automatic drawing, it resolves the question of the evolution of the influence of Paul Klee. In its complexity, energy, and excitement, this composition stands out among the others as something purely American and purely forward looking. It is without question influenced by the ideas Klee helped develop, and yet it represents the next step beyond that all of these American painters endeavored to make.
10 Americans After Paul Klee in on view through 7 January 2018 at the Center Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland.
Featured image: Kenneth Noland - In the Garden, 1952, Öl auf Hartfaserplatte, 49.5 x 76.2 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Erworben 1952, © 2017, Prolitteris
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio