NEW YORK — `FAREWELL, elves, moon fairy, stardust.... Enough of magic!" wrote the Swiss-German painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) in his diary when he decided to become a serious painter. Fortunately, it wasn't easy for this artist, whose name rhymes with "play," to give up childlike fantasy. An exhibition of Klee's work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's SoHo branch, extended through Oct. 31, contains more than enough of Klee's magic to delight the beholder.
This exhibit presents most of the Guggenheim's collection of 77 works by Klee, with representative examples from all periods of his career. The show makes abundantly clear a central paradox about this much-loved artist. Although his pictures are instantly recognizable, Klee lacked a single signature style. From the early, wiry drawings to the geometric grid paintings like barred petroglyphs, Klee's oeuvre is identifiable more by whimsical inventiveness than by consistent formal elements.
Certain subjects like opera (Klee was an ardent musician) and the circus recur, as do symbols like arrows, the moon, and bristly fir trees. What most characterizes Klee's art, however, is its polyphonic ability to embrace contradictions. Klee straddles opposing realms like representational and abstract, organic and geometric, spontaneous and purposeful. "Truth demands that all elements be present at once," Klee wrote.
This exhibit traces Klee's development chronologically, from precocious line drawings executed when he was 16 to masterworks done the year of his death.
The geometric structures of his Bauhaus period are represented by works such as "Red Balloon," where he used colored shapes to convey meaning. The few colors and simple shapes - squares, triangles, a circle - become expressive forces in themselves. The painting reminds us that Klee and his friend Wassily Kandinsky pioneered the Modernist idea of color, shape, and line as independent visual language. Klee wrote, "Art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible." His aim was never to mimic appearances
but to evoke the ineffable.
Klee strove mightily to overcome an innate facility for caricature and his tendency toward the grotesque. His whole career was a struggle to become as skillful with color as with line.
In his late work, Klee finally reconciled the opposing dualities of line and color. In "Rolling Landscape" his line is thicker, with the monumentality of painting replacing the delicacy of drawing. The rune-like markings serve not just as boundaries between color patches but as elemental symbols of his subject. The painting still has the simple economy of a "psychic improvisation," as Klee called his work, but its heavy lines compose and express his landscape.
In a quintessential painting in this show, Klee portrays a "Runner at the Goal," flinging her arms high in joy as she finishes the race. One can imagine Klee similarly ecstatic at achieving his stated goal of finding a "style which connects drawing and the realm of color."
Yet, for Klee, reaching a goal never halted the ceaseless process of experimentation. On his grave marker is chiseled this excerpt from the artist's diary:
"I cannot be grasped in this world, for I am as much at home with the dead as with those yet unborn - a little nearer to the heart of creation than is normal but still too far away."