In the shadow of Picasso and Matisse, Paul Klee offered Americans something new

TropicalBlossom

Paul Klee’s “Tropical Blossom,” 1920, oil and pencil on primed paper on cardboard, 10¼ x 11¼ inches. (Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland)

 

 

Paul Klee never visited the United States, but he played an important role in American art in the 1930s and ’40s. Exhibitions and reproductions of his work, and later translations of his writings, gave American artists permission to do things that weren’t in the shadow of Picasso or Matisse. He seemed a genial figure, and his work was, too, and American artists admired his particular mix of spontaneity and discipline. Klee, it seemed, offered a wealth of visual inspiration, and a way forward, without demanding that anyone wear the straitjacket of a particular style.

“Ten Americans: After Paul Klee” at the Phillips Collection examines the U.S. legacy of the Swiss-born German artist through the work of painters including Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis and Norman Lewis. In some cases, the influence is strikingly obvious, even to the point of outright theft. In other cases, it is more the spirit of Klee than the particulars that has been transmitted. But most of the work on view takes up a small set of visual and creative ideas that were central to Klee’s art: his interest in archaic or “primitive” visual archetypes, the power of the unconscious and his enigmatic, hieroglyphic sensibility.

“Klee was a genius,” the critic Clement Greenberg wrote, before adding, “but he was not a big genius, remarkable as he was, and his influence has been viable precisely because it could not occupy for its exclusive use all of the new territory it opened up.” Greenberg is in bad odor these days for his overbearing influence and dogmatism. But this sums up the show nicely. Klee is a powerful presence, but he leaves room for others, and while it’s easy to admire and even love Klee’s work, it always seems a bit small, not just because he tended to work on a small scale, but because most his paintings are tidy vignettes, putting forth an idea with clarity and charm and occasionally just a hint of something darker. The exhibition curators even quote the museum’s founder, Duncan Phillips, who collected more than a dozen works by Klee, affirming part of this judgment: “Klee builds himself a little house of art in a realm somewhere between childhood’s innocence and everyman’s prospect of infinity.”

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