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How One Paul Klee Inspired 10 Greats of American Art

  • Young Moe, 1938
January 24, 2018
Andreja Velimirović is a passionate content writer with a knack for art and old movies. Majoring in art history, he is an expert on avant-garde modern movements and medieval church fresco decorations. Feel free to contact him via this email: andreja.velimirovic@widewalls.ch

Featuring more than 60 artworks from collections held in the United States and Switzerland, Ten Americans: After Paul Klee will be the first-ever show to investigate the seminal role Swiss‐born artist Paul Klee played in the development of mid‐20th‐century American art. Ten Americans: After Paul Klee will be held at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.

A highly-admired painter and an inspirational teacher, the Swiss‐born Paul Klee first started to emerge as an artist during his time with the Bauhaus school. After being labeled as one of the “degenerate” artists by the Nazis, Klee and his wife, Lily, left Germany for his hometown of Bern, Switzerland. There, Paul Klee created a prolific body of mature work that’s still admired worldwide for its avant-garde qualities.

Tropical Blossom, 1920
Paul Klee – Tropical Blossom, 1920, Oil and pencil on primed paper on cardboard, 10 1/4 x 11 1/4 in., Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland

Ten Americans: After Paul Klee

Ten Americans: After Paul Klee will have a primary goal of revealing the broader context of global cultural exchanges that occurred between the United States and Europe in the decades following the conclusion of the Second World War. By doing so whilst emphasizing Paul Klee‘s role during this part of art history, the upcoming exhibition will shed new light on important figures of American Abstract Expressionists and Color Field movements.

Phillips Director Dorothy Kosinski explained the show’s intent with the following statement:

This groundbreaking exhibition, co‐organized with the Zentrum Paul Klee, offers visitors fresh insight into Klee’s profound significance on a young generation of postwar abstract artists in America.

The upcoming exhibition will be the first to feature artworks by Klee in dialogue with William Baziotes, Gene Davis, Adolph Gottlieb, Norman Lewis, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Jackson Pollock, Theodoros Stamos, Mark Tobey and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Ten Americans: After Paul Klee will make a point how these ten artists acknowledged the importance Klee’s oeuvre had on their own creative development.

Paul Klee - Kettledrummer, 1940
Paul Klee – Kettledrummer, 1940, Colored paste on paper on cardboard, 13 1/2 x 8 1/4 in., Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland

The Artist’s Connection With America and Duncan Phillips

Although he never set foot on the soil of the United States, the art Klee created on the Old Continent crossed the Atlantic in great numbers and was enthusiastically embraced by some emerging American abstract painters. They were fascinated with the freedom of Klee’s non‐didactic, stylistically open‐ended paintings that, whether abstract or figurative, were able to provide young artists with inspiring examples that helped stimulate exciting new directions in postwar American art.

Duncan Phillips, art collector and critic who founded The Phillips Collection, had a rich history with the paintings of Paul Klee as he was a stalwart champion of the Swiss’ work in the United States. Between 1930 and 1953, the museum founder assembled 13 of Klee’s finest works in oil and watercolor, a group of artworks that remains a praised cornerstone of The Phillips Collection. These works ended up in the Klee room at the Phillips, a space that became an enduring source of inspiration for generations of American abstract painters.

The aforementioned Dorothy Kosinski did not forget to pay tribute to Duncan’s indirect role in the upcoming show:

In assembling a fine collection of 13 works by Klee between 1930 and 1953, Duncan Phillips played a pivotal role in bringing Klee to the attention of American artists and audiences.

Fig of the Oriental Theater, 1934
Paul Klee – Figure of the Oriental Theater, 1934, Oil on fabric mounted on cardboard, 20 1/2 x 50 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1942

Paul Klee Art Exhibition at The Phillips Collection

The Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art, possesses one of the world’s most distinguished collections of modern American and European art. Constantly stressing the continuity between art of the past and present, the institution will now use its breath-taking collection to offer a new point of view that will highlight the impact of Klee’s works on the American artists.

Ten Americans: After Paul Klee will be on view between the 3rd of February and the 6th of May, 2018 at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., United States.

We’ll now take a look at the artworks The Phillips Collection decided to include in the Ten Americans: After Paul Klee, ten paintings that were made by artists who were evidently influenced by creative norms Paul Klee put into place on the other side of the Atlantic.

Featured image: Paul Klee – Young Moe (detail), 1938. Colored paste on newspaper on burlap, 20 7/8 x27 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1948. All images courtesy of The Phillips Collection.

  • Kenneth Noland - In the Garden, 1952

Kenneth Noland - In the Garden, 1952

In the Garden perfectly reflects the pervasive influence of Paul Klee’s late style on Kenneth Noland. The painter of this piece had first become aware of Klee in 1948 while he was a student at Black Mountain College. This appreciation was strengthened even more when Noland moved to Washington, D.C., where he began to study Klee’s works in The Phillips Collection’s Klee Room. In the Garden depicts a girl among motifs that evoke a playground, with signs and symbols reminiscent of Klee placed across the surface of the painting.

Featured image: Kenneth Noland – In the Garden, 1952. Oil on hardboard, 19 1/2 x 30 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1952 © Estate of Kenneth Noland/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

  • Theodoros Stamos - Sacrifice of Kronos No. 2, 1948

Theodoros Stamos - The Sacrifice of Kronos No. 2, 1948

The Sacrifice of Kronos, No. 2 reveals a gripping scene of Cronus devouring the rock on a terracotta-colored field placed against a background of unnaturally intense blue highlighted with fluorescent greens. Theodoros Stamos created this piece of art at a time he and his contemporaries were endeavoring the “create the myth of their own time” idea. Although the drama and terror of the story do not reflect it, The Sacrifice of Kronos, No. 2 Stamos’ visual solutions evidently pay homage to Klee’ paintings.

Featured image: Theodoros Stamos – The Sacrifice of Kronos, No. 2, 1948, Oil on hardboard, 48 x 36 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1949 © Estate of Theodoros Stamos, New York

  • Mark Tobey - Night Flight, 1956

Mark Tobey - Night Flight, 1956

The ultimate goal of the abstract painter Mark Tobey was to represent the mystical through art. Inspired by long travels, Eastern religion, Arabic calligraphy, classical music and the emerging modes of Abstract Expressionism, Tobey eventually created a unique visual language of all-over painting and gestural abstraction, one that Night Flight perfectly illustrates. Paul’s influence on this piece is evident in its specific use of abstraction that features marks and symbols atop an abstract field composed of thousands of densely interwoven brushstrokes.

Featured image: Mark Tobey – Night Flight, 1956, Tempera on cardboard, 11 7/8 x 9 in., Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

  • William Baziotes - Pierrot, 1947

William Baziotes - Pierrot, 1947

William Baziotes was a New York-based painter whose lyrical, borderline mysterious works relied heavily on subject matter derived from biomorphism and Symbolist poetry. An integral part of the Abstract Expressionist circle, Baziotes was heavily influenced by Klee’s indirect teachings as the Swiss’ abstracted forms played an evident role in William’s development of a visual vocabulary that allowed him to evoke particular moods and dream-like states. Pierrot, a painting William Baziotes executed in 1947, perfectly demonstrates the similarities between the two artists’ styles.

Featured image: William Baziotes – Pierrot, 1947, Oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 36 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1984 © Estate of William Baziotes

  • Gene Davis - Black Flowers, 1952

Gene Davis - Black Flowers, 1952

Gene Davis was an important part of the first generation of Washington’s color field artists. Like the majority of the Washington Color School‘s members, he as well considered color to be a primary element in painting, which is certainly the biggest impact Klee’s theories had on the way Davis saw visual arts. Gene’s signature vertical stripe compositions started to arise in 1952 with his Black Flowers that saw the artist start to experiment with color relationships.

Featured image: Gene Davis – Black Flowers, 1952, Oil on hardboard, 36 1/8 x 24 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Anonymous gift, 1974 © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

  • Jackson Pollock - Untitled Page from a Lost Sketchbook, 1939-42

Jackson Pollock - Untitled (Page from a Lost Sketchbook), 1939-42

Whilst certainly far from being counted as one of his more significant artworks, this page from a sketchbook is a good indicator of how similar Jackson Pollock‘s view’s on composition were to the ideals of Paul Klee. Before he started conducting his experimentations with color, Klee emphasized his admiration of children’s art by trying to make his own style be similarly unaffected by outside influences. This resulted in a strong simplification of forms and Pollock’s untitled page reveals that the legendary action painter had similar ideas early in his career.

Featured image: Jackson Pollock – Untitled (Page from a Lost Sketchbook), c. 1939–42, Brush and India ink on paper, 17 1/2 x 14 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Lee Krasner Pollock, 1982 © Pollock‐Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

  • Norman Lewis - Untitled, 1947

Norman Lewis - Untitled, 1947

Norman Lewis, a leading African-American painter, was an important member of the Abstract Expressionism movement who focused primarily on representations of black urban life and his community’s struggles. Yet another artist who was not immune to the overwhelming influence of Paul Klee’s works, Lewis’s style is characterized by the duality of abstraction and representation. However, unlike the case was with other Abstract Expressionists, Norman’s technique and content have never wholly given over to the subjective, constantly maintaining a strong note of objectivity.

Featured image: Norman Lewis – Untitled, 1947, Oil and sand on canvas, 33 7/8 × 20 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY © Estate of Norman W. Lewis

  • Robert Motherwell - Figure in Black, Girl with Stripes, 1947

Robert Motherwell - Figure in Black (Girl with Stripes), 1947

Robert Motherwell experimented with abstract figure painting during the 1940s, creating images that resembled primitive cave drawings. Obviously similar to Klee’s child-like pieces, Motherwell looked for the primal act of drawing and Figure in Black (Girl with Stripes) is a good example of this artistic quest. The black stripes at the right can be read as long, painted strokes executed by a figure who looks directly out at the viewer.

Featured image: Robert Motherwell – Figure in Black (Girl with Stripes), 1947, Oil on paper on fiberboard, 24 x 19 7/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, Gift of the Dedalus Foundation and museum purchase © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

  • Bradley Walker Tomlin - Number 12, 1949

Bradley Walker Tomlin - Number 12, 1949

Arguably the least famous painter that was chosen for the Ten Americans: After Paul Klee exhibition, Bradley Walker Tomlin was a refined, subdued presence among the Abstract Expressionists. He created paintings that were both forceful and original in their sensitive color and compositional restraint – both features Bradley partially learned from Klee’s paintings. Initially interested in the ways of Cubism, Bradley Walker Tomlin eventually adopted a more spontaneous and abstract style, one that Number 12 from 1949 illustrates very well.

Featured image: Bradley Walker Tomlin – Number 12–1949, 1949, Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 31 1/4 in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of Abby and B. H. Friedman in honor of John I. H. Baur

  • Adolph Gottlieb - Labyrinth 1, 1950

Adolph Gottlieb - Labyrinth 1, 1950

Growing up in a time that was marked by the Great Depression and the challenging interwar period, American painter Adolph Gottlieb found the meaning of his life in the avant-garde. His takes on Abstract Expressionism helped him deal with the difficulties of war, violence and ignorance. Like the vast majority of his colleagues, Gottlieb as well saw Paul Klee as an indirect mentor whose stylistic solutions provided a how-to manual for abstract coloration and unconventional forms.

Featured image: Adolph Gottlieb – Labyrinth #1, 1950, Oil and sand on canvas, 36 x 48 in., Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York © Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY