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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

All Issues
FEB 2014 Issue


On View
Tate Modern
October 16, 2013 – March 9, 2014

The fretful, glaucous coils resolve themselves into form against an otherworldly charcoal-colored background, a gouache mist. The unearthly quality of the scene finds a formal counterpart in the composition, as the indeterminacy of streaming lines suggests figures; one defies the viewer with its vulpine gaze. At the opposite side of the canvas, another form beams with the careless sincerity only insanity can confer. Others emerge, at turns glowering and hesitant. With “Walpurgis Night” (1935), Klee conjures the uncanny as hauntingly as Goya did in those last years of madness, the difference being that Klee exiles figuration from the scene, relying solely upon a density of teeming, gestural lines to forge the unearthly setting.

Paul Klee, “Walpurgis Night,” 1935. Gouache on cloth laid on wood, 508 × 470 mm. Tate, London.

Klee’s “Headdress” (1935) contains none of those endlessly unfurling lines, possesses none of the atmospheric qualities of “Night.” Instead, it is a study of longing tainted with regret, the subject’s melancholy quietude a witness to the power of geometric and chromatic restraint, to the sorcery of translucent, overlapping squares. Though the compositional principles that govern the paintings are antithetical, these pieces were not just executed in the same year: “Headdress” was painted immediately after “Walpurgis Night.” Klee, it seems, is not an artist that time can reckon.

“Night” and “Headdress” are relatively minor works in the oeuvre of this major modernist, but their sequential making adumbrates how the Tate Modern’s ambitious, much-vaunted Paul Klee: Making Visible (through March 9, 2014)—which scatters over 130 of Klee’s works across 17 galleries—manages to accomplish what would seem an impossible task. The experience of viewing Klee’s work should be joyful. Unfortunately, Making Visible makes it drudgery, like observing funereal offices for a relative you never met. The exhibition design doggedly insists on presenting Klee’s work chronologically: a focus on the Bauhaus years of the 1920s is prefaced by works from Klee’s juvenilia of the 1910s; paintings made between 1930 and 1940, in the wake of Nazism and the throes of the illness that would ultimately kill the artist, provide a moving coda. For all its well-intentioned pedantry, Making Visible, this Polonius of an exhibition,reveals very little.

But the question of how curator Matthew Gale’s design went awry is less significant than why it failed, for the failure is surprising. Chronology is generally a helpmate; the compression of decades of artistic insights, caprices, and convictions merged into a succession of canvases generally makes for a successful exhibition. The reason why chronology falters here lies with the artist himself. A linear narrative of Klee’s massive body of work (nearly 9,000 pieces) is self-reflexive, lending as much insight as a mirror might.

Though he deftly moved between media and courtships, from the schools of Cubism to pointillism, Klee did not progress through styles like an obedient pilgrim; he meandered, explored, challenged, and doubled back. Lines conceived as if in a daydream, in earlier works like “Group of Houses” (1912), might attenuate to willful acts of precision, as in “Aerial Combat” (1920), or become the indispensible words forming the limited vocabulary of abstraction, as does “Burdened Children” (1930). Those lines might even relapse into chromatic pools of reverie with works like “Catharsis” (1937).

Though the charm of Klee’s work might occasionally surface, the didacticism that informs Making Visible brings us further away from rather than closer to a series of works that delight in polysemy. This is not to say that intellectualizing art inevitably strangles artistic innovation; Klee himself was a prolific writer and expounded at length, particularly on color theory. But Klee-the-theoretician’s meticulous chromatic calculations did not foreclose on the hetero-cosmic possibilities Klee-the-artist beguiled out of pigment and line. Making Visible is not so skilled at balancing pleasure and pedantry.

Paul Klee, “Portrait of an Equilibrist,” 1927. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The reason the works in Klee’s oeuvre can neither fully inhabit a fixed past nor prove a reliable augur of developments to come, resides in the fact that they rebel against the fixity of a single meaning and instead embrace incertitude. That incertitude, a forever-suspended possibility, is the soul of Klee’s individual works. Critics are fond of citing a particularly winsome Klee-ism, comparing drawing to “taking a line for a walk.” Less quoted is what Klee had declared five years earlier in the brief treatise Creative Confessions (1920). There, Klee insisted that art must capture “the essential quality of the accidental.” He elaborated on the statement by arguing that art should be nothing less than potentiality, raw and vital, an earthly approximation of cosmic creation. The second phrase lacks the whimsy of the first, but it begins to suggest why arranging Klee’s works with the determinism of chronology is misguided.

Not only do Klee’s works refuse any form of immutability, flitting between possibilities, but he creates that restless potentiality with tools as basic as line and color. This flight from certainty and fact is more than caprice: it is the definiens of why Klee is an emissary of Modernity, tremulous in its doubts and uncertainties.

Though Klee’s work resists bloodless chronological exposition, that does not place him beyond history. His works reveal an artist profoundly concerned with the past. Klee was not merely content with invention; he exposed the problems of tradition, travestying past ideals by rendering them preposterous. He questioned the naïve idealization of illusionistic works and exposed the hypocrisy of perspective.

Canvas after canvas is a manifesto of Klee’s revolt against the past, his commitment to create something beyond the hypocrisy of mimesis. Pin him to a timeline and the unanswerable possibility that is embedded so deeply in the core of his work, the possibility that confers upon him the Greatness that artists working now, working a century from now should strive to inherit, is lost.

One of the great ironies of Klee’s work lies in his ability to approximate the most life-like qualities by replacing the sentimentalities of figuration with pure abstraction. A clear example of this can be seen in “Portrait of an Equilibrist” (1927). The painting, in oil and collage, depicts a tightrope walker. The geometrical sparseness of the piece is the artist’s own challenge, not unlike the one his subject confronts. As an equilibrist spurns gravity, so too the painter must resist figuration, tickling form out of straight lines, a pair of circles, and a few squares. The work succeeds in capturing not one equilibrist, but two; the network of lines and squares offers the possibility that the subject might not occupy the space where the viewer first believed him to reside. And so Klee coaxes the viewer into the painting, approximates not just a subject, but even replicates the struggle for balance.

Klee’s interest in another convention, perspectival illusion, is captured with idiosyncratic wit in “Room Perspective with Inhabitants” (1921). The obvious perspective lines that shoot across the composition, defining a room, suggesting furniture within it and chambers lying beyond it, are like an exercise in High Renaissance precepts. Still, the fantasy that perspective can, in fact, conjure realism is diminished by the titular “inhabitants”—figures are sprawled, scrawled on the floor and walls, and rendered unapologetically two-dimensional. Klee manages a similar farce in other works, such as his parodic recreation of Dürer’s famous perspective machine, “Analysis of Diverse Perversities” (1922). By setting the notional ideal of perspective in dialogue with a refusal to execute it, Klee encourages a healthy suspicion about the boons of historically defined exempla, emptying perspective of its virtues.

One of Klee’s greatest innovations involves his use of an obvious convention—his pointillistic works—to not just express but even represent the sensation of an impulse as evasive as recollection. The carefully ordered screen of tiny squares that covers the phantom-like suggestion of body and beak in “Memory of a Bird” (1932) becomes a means of representing the mental grasping, uncertain and imperfect, that always attends recollection. In short, Klee transforms a formal element of painting into an expression of an experience that is as powerful as it is insubstantial.

To speak of the “bilateral inverted symmetry” in Klee’s chromatic grids, or opine on his use of geometric abstractions as some art historians do, is an academic service. But for an exhibition, that form of meaning-making is tantamount to clutching at the ankles of a colossus. Klee’s works can best be understood as a suspension of readability, a visual proclamation of modernity’s hermeneutic impasse, a stripping of all fact that leaves only the naked perhaps. If bloodless academic evaluations and classifications overrun Klee’s works, they will not merely squander the possibility of enjoyment; they will deprive Modernity of one of its most crucial, most complex chapters.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

All Issues