Paul Klee: Gallery 321 | Saint Louis Art Museum

These intimately sized works shine with more brilliance than the super-sized trappings which so often pass for contemporary art. It takes some cajones to admit that big and brash is not always better.




MARCH 31-JULY 9, 2006

While warm spring evenings encourage gallery-hopping through the various and venerable neighborhoods around town, with plenty of cheap wine and glad-handing to heighten the entertainment quotient, there is something to be said for roaming the galleries of the art museum on your own. Those hushed rooms and the not-quite-bright-enough lighting (irritatingly designed to protect the artworks rather than cater exclusively to the preference of viewers) grant just enough distance from the hubris of being there to allow one to experience the artwork itself.

There are Institutions, and then there are institutions. The first type is the sort that inspires loyalty, benefactors, allegiance, even fear, whose impregnable image as “pillar of society” smothers any murmur or even the merest hint that a new direction for the megalith would be accepted, much less welcomed. The second type gives less heed to maintaining a preponderance of stability and public recognition, and more toward furthering the foundation’s principles in an evolutionary process. Or, rather, embracing the theory that a body in motion tends to stay in motion.

Sometimes it seems that the St. Louis Art Museum can’t quite decide what kind of an institution it wants to be. While it is never dressed without the requisite “big show,” and accessorizes with well-tailored contemporary and ethnic exhibits, SLAM has recently adorned itself with a small treasure—a collection of Paul Klee’s works—that could justifiably be examined with a jeweler’s loupe. These intimately sized works shine with more brilliance than the super-sized trappings which so often pass for contemporary art. It takes some cajones to admit that big and brash is not always better.

If Klee’s intent, as he professed, was to express transcendentalism through visual art, these deceptively simple representatives do not fail to convince. According to his own writings in The Thinking Eye, he saw the physical world as a working model for spiritual truth. The result of this belief system was the freedom to let fly wit and daydreams within the “science of design,” which he elaborately detailed in his book. In spite of, or perhaps in reprieve of, his weighty intellect, Klee greatly admired the art work of children. Respect for their innocent ability to create symbols beyond the boundaries of photographic illusion is reflected in his elastic landscapes and spiderweb fantasies of line and color.

Here is an artist who did not arbitrarily assign layers of meaning out of thin air (think of the name of any current popular band), but developed the planar motif that not only became his signature—it also threw a light on the hitherto unexplored relationship between art, geometry, and music. Early in his career, Klee (an accomplished violinist) admitted that his path might have gone in either direction; thus, music’s counterpoint and symmetry exerted a beguiling influence over his paintings, as in Polyphonic Architecture (1930). This watercolor’s structure of overlapping planes truly find counterpoint in the delicate linear symbols based in the center of the painting—just as the oranges and golds highlight the town square, as more somber colors, interspersed with squares of black, guard the perimeter.

Miniature Framed Black (1917) is an iridescent opal framed in onyx. A formative trip to Tunisia in 1914 gifted Klee with a lifelong passion for color and light; it was from this experience that he declared, “Color has taken possession of me…it has hold of me forever.” Likewise, the modernism of his style reflected a Surrealist’s acceptance of fortuitous accidents, so that blots and squiggles remain as integral elements of the image. The hieroglyphic grid pattern of palm trees and irrigation ditches becomes a shorthand for his memories of place, rather than a formal description of objects and space. This work, probably no larger than 10” x 7”, dazzles with the rhythmic, overlapping forms of a sundrenched landscape.

In both Tightrope Walker (1937) and Movement Around a Child (1928), Klee’s units of construction continue to reflect the pervasive influence of music. In the colored lithograph, dots and dashes swing from the air like dancing notes, while below, in the improbably poised character of Tightrope Walker, diagonal lines are pulled tautly together like those of a stringed instrument. Klee repeatedly introduced this character to his Bauhaus students as a symbol of balance and stability within an artwork. Proving that art can traffic in both directions, musicians have been equally influenced by the rhythms of Klee’s works; composer/bassist Bill Noertker has a very jazzy interpretation of Tightrope Walker on his Blue Rider Suite CD.

While transparencies and overlapping planes of color form the baseline, Klee’s linear improvisations become the melody of his work; in Movement Around a Child, the delicate rotation of lines revolve like a song that you can’t get out of your skull. Ellipses orbit a child with an oversized head, swirling around him as a world of possibilities, entrancing his interest, if not actually crossing his eyes. As futures go, too much choice can be dizzying. As artwork goes, it’s hard to get more metaphysical than the ideas Klee expresses with such seemingly slim elements.

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