Klee's wit and humor make friends for modern art. Works usually rely on some imagination on viewer's part

NO one proved more conclusively that significant art can come in small, or even in tiny, packages than Paul Klee. His many lovingly rendered watercolors, drawings, oils, and prints - some small enough to be held in the palm of one's hand - brought a touch of wit and humor to modernism at a time when it appeared headed down a purely formalist or expressionist path. They also reminded many that art is a matter of sensitivity and openness as well as of passion and power.

Best of all, since his work is accessible to a broad spectrum of humanity, what he produced and held dear can be shared by many who otherwise have no interest in 20th-century art.

One can't help being struck by that fact while walking around the Metropolitan Museum's current exhibition of his work. ``Paul Klee: The Berggruen Collection,'' has already drawn a large number of viewers, many of them obviously tourists or casual visitors. Most seemed charmed and intrigued by what they saw and were more than willing to express their delight to each other in front of Klee's miniature masterpieces.

Their pleasure was understandable, for among the eight paintings, 71 watercolors, and eight black-and-white drawings on view, are many of Klee's finest and most famous works.

They constitute the entire Klee collection given to the museum in 1984 by Heinz Berggruen, a leading art dealer and collector of modern art, and represent all aspects of Klee's production, both as painter and draftsman.

The earliest piece is a tiny, exquisitely detailed pencil study of Bern made in 1893 when Klee was only 13. The latest is a gouache painted in 1940, the year of his death. More than half, however, were executed during his most active period, 1921-31, when he taught at the Bauhaus, first in Weimar and then in Dessau.

One collector's personal taste

This is, in some ways, an even more satisfying exhibition than the huge Klee show mounted by the Museum of Modern Art early last year. Not only is it smaller and representative of one knowledgeable collector's personal taste, it also projects an aura of focus and compactness more in keeping with the art itself.

Small or large, however, any exhibition of Klee's paintings and drawings is certain to draw large crowds.

The reason is simple: Klee created a delightful and enchanting universe of creatures, places, activities, and events which parallels our own but only minimally resembles it.

And he did so with a totally invented abstract pictorial ``vocabulary'' that presents us with wondrously provocative and delightful images that titillate our senses and challenge our imaginations in ways no one ever succeeded in doing before.

He was both clever and wise. No other modernist trusted his creative intuitions more than Klee, and none knew how to ``harvest'' them better as art than he. He had no need, therefore, for oversize canvases or an aggressive or opulent style. A few scratchy lines and a few washes or blocks of color did very nicely for him, thank you, especially since they were orchestrated with elegance and wit, and were so ``packaged'' that viewers were intrigued and challenged enough to want to complete in their own minds what Klee had merely suggested.

Klee was foremost among those artists who perceive their viewers as collaborators in the creative process and who respect the latter's less developed talents and sensibilities. As such, he preferred nuance and subtlety to elaboration, and developed a real knack for suggestion and innuendo. What he began, others completed, not, certainly, on canvas or paper, but in their imaginations.

Thus, a few nervous, meandering lines, three or four smudges of pale color, and a textural accent or two resolve themselves into a schematic rendering of a fanciful chicken and pig in ``Where the Eggs and the Good Roast Come From.'' And a few dozen earth-colored geometric shapes are transformed into ``Suspended Fruit'' in the watercolor of the same name.

Coloristic and tonal variations

With his miniature circles, triangles, squares, dots, dashes, arrows, wiggly or zigzagging lines, and hundreds of coloristic and tonal variations, he created a world that is at once brilliantly inventive and full of extravagant wit and humor. In it, everything is possible because everything, ultimately, is left to the imagination. We'll never know, for instance, just what is going on in ``Ventriloquist and Crier in the Moor.'' Or in ``The Barbed Noose With the Mice,'' for that matter. But most of us don't really care. With the hints and clues provided, we are perfectly happy to create our own imaginative resolutions.

That, of course, is only one side of this remarkable artist's inventive genius. No aspect of painting or drawing was left unexamined by his mind or brush. Whether it was in the areas of the psychological effects of color or the expressive potentials of line, he produced both carefully thought-through theories about these matters and delightfully entertaining or moving demonstrations of those theories.

Some of the finest of these demonstrations are included in this exhibition - together with dozens of other more casual, poetic, or wittily biting images. Together, they make about as beautiful and stimulating a show of modernist art as one can imagine.

At the Metropolitan Museum through July 31.

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