The Many masks of modern art

The next in this series appears on November 4.m There is something about the art of Paul Klee that makes us want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Perhaps it is its combination of joviality and vulnerability, its perfect fusion of the outrageous and the tender, its affectionate regard for the silliness of mankind which makes us feel this way.

Or it could be the simple delight it takes in the way certain colors leap into life on certain kinds of paper, the way a scratchy ink line can meander like a stream through fields of blue-green, the way a little black arrow can indicate tragedy for a place or person in a lovely watercolor no more than five inches high.

Whatever it is, it is present in every one of Klee's works. Even his most exquisite and colorful paintings pulsate with subtle reminders of the infinitely fragile preciousness of life.

No other 20th-century artist has been as alert as Klee to life's most fugitive and delicate nuances and vibrations. The scope of his creative sensibility is staggering. And what makes it all the more remarkable is that his capacity for formal invention matches it.

He was one of those rare artists who could experience life in terms of color, shape, line, or texture. No twig could snap but that he saw it as a jagged, lacerated line -- or as two browns ripped apart by black. No bird could fly but that he saw it as a cascade of varying blues, or as a swooping white line against a red. Ideas were translated into linear and coloristic structures as quickly as they appeared.Or, and this must not be forgotten, lines or smudges of color could alert his memory to something he had seen, and he would transform these lines and colors into images of the sea, or deep, dark woods, or into a fantastic zoological garden.

For Klee, creative impulses derived as readily from his craft and medium as from nature. He was as likely to fashion a picture out of what was triggered in his imagination by the interaction of certain colors as out of what he had seen or felt. He was open to any and all possibilities, and ready to snap up and use everything life offered him as raw material for his art.

A large part of Klee's focus was on beginnings, on the first tentative rustlings and stirrings of life as it made its way toward physical realization. He was particularly adept at catching the quirky hesitancies of young life pushing its way clear of obtacles and deterrents, at tracing the meandering path life took between the earthly brackets of birth and death.

There is an extraordinary regenerative quality to Klee's art. It renews itself much as a spring of clear water does, and probably for the same reason: it remains close to and in direct contact with the deep sources of its being.

I've always had the odd feeling about Klee's work that he planted the seeds of each drawing or painting when he first touched ink or paint to paper, and that, having done so, he let the spirit of the picture and his own intuitions take over. His images grew as naturally as bean sprouts and little furry creatures. Having come to life, they then sat back and waited to be named.

The titles of his works, often as not, did pop into his head some time after the pictures themselves were finished. And what titles they were! "Senile Phoenix," "War Destroying the Country," "Death for the Idea," "Laughing Gothic," "Temple of the Sect of the Green Horn," "Nightflutterer's Dance," "The Mount of the Sacred Cat," "Message of the Air Spirit," "The Limits of Reason," "Portrait of a Complicated Person," "Child Consecrated to suffering," "Lady Demon," "Sailboats Rocking," etc, etc.

And, of course, "Dance You Monster to my Soft Song."

In this fantastic evocation of a friendly monster, Klee presents us with an image we sense is still in the process of being made. There is a tentative quality to it that begs the question of what is really going on. Is the monster already dancing -- or is he about to? What kind of music is it: piano or record? -- and does it matter?

I personally think it doesn't, that the point of this picture lies in the way a few lines, color washes, and dots somehow magically end up as a fantastic image representing a totally mad and wonderful creature which Klee labeled a monster. And that this "coming into being," this "is it this or is it that?" quality is precisely what keeps this picture provocative, witty, and forever "dancing."

Purists, I suspect, object to this random sort of creativity. They will insist that art be preordained, that the artist should know what precisely he is going to do, and do it without any improvisations or deviations along the way.

Now, although great works of art have resulted from that approach, art is flexible and open to other creative methods as well.

One of the most fascinating and rewarding of these is a kind of pictorial "musing," a kind of visual "thinking" with color, texture, shape, or line.

With this approach, the artist permits his imagination and sensibilities free reign to wander where and how they will. Colors call to and respond to other colors, lines interact upon shapes, textures erupt out of smooth surfaces -- all without conscious control. Only when sensibility and intuition are blocked will the artist allow experience and skill to see what they can do to resolve matters.

Klee was a consummate master of this method of working. He understood that trust in one's intuitions and sensibilities could result in as consistent a creative method as tight and rigid control over every step of the creative process. All it required was an alertness to whatever happened on the paper -- and the ability and willingness to follow through.

But to do that an artist has to be in step with the rhythms and patterns of growth, has to be able to gentle and prod the pictorial image along much as the sun and rain incite the growth of delicate living things.

Compared to the glories of Michelangelo's "Sistine Ceiling" or Rembrandt's studies of humanity, this may not seem like much. But the truth of the matter is that very few artists have this gift. Paul Klee was one of the few who did, and one of the very few able to bring it to life in others, both by example and through teaching.

Because he ventured into formal territory previously held to be the domain of children and thus not to be taken seriously, because he insisted that art could exist in the simplest color patches and the scratchiest line drawings, and because he devoted many years of this life to teaching generations of bright young talent at the Bauhaus, Klee opened up the world of art to countless painters of fine sensibilities but limited traditional skills.

There is hardly a nonrepresentational painter alive today who hasn't been influenced in one way or another by Paul Klee -- if in no other respect, then in purity of intentions.

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