Everybody likes Paul Klee. He is the most approachable of the major modernists, I suspect because his paintings are not only modest in scale but contain the kind of verbally paraphrasable content that makes them easily describable, if not explicable. (They are in fact utterly and wonderfully mysterious.) You don’t have to know anything about art to talk about a Klee painting. All you have to know is the title: Magic Garden. Ancient Sound. Twittering Machine. What’s not to get–or to like? Yet for all his accessibility, few have questioned his stature, not even the notoriously picky Clement Greenberg, who at first thought Klee provincial, “an eccentric but respectable bourgeois,” but ended up deciding that he was “major…in his funny way. In a pamphlet I called him a keinmeister [small master]. But he’s major all the same.”
The Neue Galerie, which I last visited five months ago in the company of my favorite blogger, is currently putting on a retrospective called “Klee and America,” mounted in collaboration with the Menil and Phillips Collections. It consists of paintings and works on paper drawn from American museums and private collections. That’s a smart idea. Klee has long been widely collected in this country, with good reason, though there was a time when many dismissed his art as the scribblings of a lunatic. Take a look at what Time wrote about the first American exhibition of Klee’s work to be held after his death in 1940:
Last week Manhattan’s Buchholz and Willard Galleries gathered together the largest Klee exhibition ever placed on view. The 100-odd drawings and canvases in the exhibition ranged from mad, wire-worky diagrams to basket-textured abstractions….All had a look of quiet, pastel-shaded insanity. The show was posthumous: short, sharp-faced Artist Klee had died at his Swiss home four months before. It was also posthumous in another sense. To the red-cheeked, goose-stepping Nazis who after 1933 scrubbed individualism from Germany’s art galleries, Paul Klee had been the most degenerate of degenerate artists. Some day history will have to decide whether Hitler was right–about Artist Klee.
Times have changed, and “Klee and America” is drawing noisy crowds, not of blockbuster magnitude but obtrusive nonetheless, especially seeing as how Klee’s intimate, confidential art all but begs to be viewed in silence. The Phillips Collection, which owns a goodly number of Klees, usually hangs them together, a half-dozen or so at a time, in a small side gallery that is invariably quiet, just as it should be. Perhaps that’s the best way to look at a Klee, short of actually owning one–and it strikes me that it would be frightfully immodest to own more than one or two. I read on a wall panel at the Neue Galerie that Clifford Odets, the left-wing playwright who wrote Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty, owned sixty Klees at one time in his life. Somehow that strikes me as vulgar, not to mention incongruous.
I should also mention that the Neue Galerie is piping music into the galleries where “Klee and America” is hanging, a practice for which vulgar is not even close to the word. Yes, I like Schumann’s Carnaval, but I’m damned if I know why anybody thinks the paintings of Paul Klee profit from being viewed with Carnaval playing in the background.
To be sure, “Klee and America” is marvelous, very well chosen and by no means too big for its britches. Even so, I was distracted by the talkative crowd and the canned music, and so I walked briskly through the show, lingering longingly in front of four or five extra-special paintings. Then I went back downstairs, bought a copy of the excellent catalogue, and hit the road. I crossed Fifth Avenue and plunged into Central Park, where I spent a blissful hour wandering through the Ramble and down the bridle path. It never ceases to amaze me that you can be alone in Central Park, not just at odd hours but pretty much any time you want, simply by departing the main thoroughfares and heading down an unbeaten path.
I thought about Klee all the way home, where I opened my mailbox and found a review copy of Nancy King’s new CD (about which more below). I popped it in my stereo and plopped down on the couch with the “Klee and America” catalogue, all alone and happy to be.
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After closing in New York, “Klee and America” will travel to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (June 16-Sept. 10) and the Menil Collection in Houston (Oct. 6-Jan. 14).
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UPDATE: A reader writes:
I LOVED the Klee, but LOATHE the Neue Galerie. It had such potential. However they have made it such an unpleasant place to experience art. There are too many guards and they are WAY too intrusive. I was once stopped THREE times in one visit and told to display my little badge more clearly by three different guards. Also, they don’t just look in your purse/bag, they root around in it. My handbag and I are rarely as threatening as we seem to be on Fifth and 86th.
The trick, I’ve found is to go a half an hour before closing. The guards are busy with text messaging their afterwork plans and other visitors are unwilling to fork out the admission price for 30 minutes. But the music, well, no way around that. When I was there, they had looped the overture to The Magic Flute. How many times in a row can you listen to that and not succumb to museum-rage?
Apply hammer (A) to head (B) of nail (C).