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by Dena Shottenkirk
"Klee and America," Mar. 9-May 22, 2006, at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028

New Yorkers who haven’t yet seen the exhibition at the Neue Galerie New York of more than 60 works by the pioneering Swiss modernist Paul Klee (1879-1940) are running out of time -- the show closes on May 22 (it subsequently appears at the Menil Collection in Houston). Though Klee is not hard to find in New York museums, this concentrated survey provides a great opportunity for viewers to immerse themselves in his rich and intensely imaginative artistic practice.

Why "Klee and America?" As is readily admitted by exhibition curator Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection, Klee had little to say about the U.S. in his extensive writings, and never came to this country. But he did have a U.S. market, of course, one with several fascinating elements, and an exploration of this history provides the academic underpinning of the show. 

One of Klee’s early patrons was Galka Scheyer (1889-1945), a young German artist who proved to be an energetic proponent of the German avant-garde. In 1924 in Weimar, Scheyer founded "The Blue Four" to promote the work of Lyonel Feininger, Vasily Kandinsky, Alexi Jawlensky and Klee, organizing exhibitions at the Daniel Gallery in New York in 1925 and at museums throughout California in the following years.

In an impressive example of early seat-of-the-pants marketing, Scheyer worked as a combination agent and dealer, organizing exhibitions as well as arranging sales, which included offering Klee’s Schauspieler (Actor) (1923), for instance, for $750. Scheyer settled in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, eventually leaving her collection at her death to the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum of Art), which has lent several works to the exhibition. 

Klee’s other early U.S. patron was Katherine S. Dreier, founder with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray of the Société Anonyme, which briefly operated a gallery in New York that in 1924 presented Klee’s first U.S. show. Dreier acquired 28 works by Klee for her own collection.

Another back-story of the show is the rise of the Nazis in Germany, which sent Klee to Bern in 1933 and resulted, in 1937, in the removal of modern art from German museums -- including over 100 works by Klee. Many of these works were sold by the Nazi regime, including Klee’s emblematic Die Zwitscher-Maschine (Twittering Machine) (1922), which was purchased by Berlin art dealer Karl Buchholz for $120 in 1939 and is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Fervently imaged yet effortlessly painted, Klee’s works provide the inner point of view -- the first-person analysis. While artists had traditionally looked out on the world and painted what they saw, Klee reversed that process and painted what he thought and felt. In other words, what it was like on the inside.

For example, in Actor’s Mask (Schauspieler=Maske) (1924), Klee uses an apparently simple pictorial technique to suggest something rather more complicated -- what it feels like to act, to be false, to divide a true self from an external representation. Swerving between searingly delicate lines -- fragile like the breaking thread of a spider’s web -- and the harsh, scratched surface of one color placed roughly on top of another, seemingly without the consent of the first layer, Klee packs into a small canvas a world of both discontent and splendor.

Klee’s work continually celebrates both the possibility and the debasing pain of life. It is as though he embraced a Nietzschean acceptance of the yin/yang in everything: He affirms his "will to live" and loves the pleasure of it all, and solemnly looks the pain straight in the eye -- and goes on. 

And painful works there are.

Take Printed Sheet with Picture (Bilderbogen), painted in 1937 during the early Nazi period. An emaciated female figure, with discarded glasses at her feet and one eye floating freely in front of her impassive face, shares the gloomy empyrean with a nightmare figure with chicken feet and macabre eyes, a fish-like creature, and other objects including a discarded comb (again, a sign of the dislocation associated with refugees and victims) and the star of David.

What seems easy, almost child-like, on first glance isn’t on the second. That’s the essence of Klee.

DENA SHOTTENKIRK is an artist and writer. She was recently named director of the graduate school at the Glasgow School of Art.