Witty works by the 20th-century's 'poet' of painting

Depending on one's point of view, the Guggenheim Museum is either a good place to exhibit art -- or architect Frank Lloyd Wright so disliked modern painting he deliberately set out to put it in a bad light by forcing the museum's exhibitions to compete with the design of the building itself.

Many find the museum's ramp, with its narrow, controlled space, generally effective for displaying painting and sculpture. But even these people occasionally feel a bit trapped and welcome the opportunity to leave the ramp for a while to view the art permanently on display in the more traditionally designed Thannhauser Wing.

By opening another such area, this time off the seventh ramp, the museum has increased the number of works from its permanent collection it can exhibit at any one time. Much smaller than the Thannhauser Wing and thus ideally suited for more intimately scaled paintings, drawings, and prints, this new space will house special exhibitions for indefinite periods.

For its opening show in this new area, the Guggenheim has chosen to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Paul Klee by mounting a small but extremely handsome selection of this Swiss artist's works. Drawn entirely from the museum's holdings, these delicate, witty, and often tiny paintings are completely at home in this miniature gallery.

No one in this century has done more than Klee to bring respect to art measured in inches rather than in feet, and nobody has done more to civilize art than he. Highly original -- probaly no more than a half-dozen 20th-century painters were his equal -- he is generally conceded to be one of the pivotal modern masters. Klee's reputation, nevertheless, remains something of an enigma to many who see his excursions into wit, irony, and visual metaphol as little more than childish scrawls or lucky accidents.

To begin with, Klee dumped the Grand, the Noble, and the Ideal overboard -- together with the notion that painting was valid only if it captured the illusion of physical reality. He scrapped traditional techniques, skills, and formal devices, and focused instead upon such things as the sparkle of certain reds and greens upon pure white paper, the way a few dots and washes of delicate colors can combine to represent nature. He did this not out of arrogance or from lack of talent, but because he wanted to give painting back its original purity and flexibility.

As much as anyone in this century, Klee saw painting as a sensuous activity, as an act of love. He played his sensibilities the way a fine violinist will play his Stradivarius, bringing out the richest tonalities, the most subtle gradations from within the various tools of his craft. He loved the feel of paper, the infinite number of ways its texture and color could be modified by one more dab of blue or by a nervous brown line. He loved color and was continually looking for new combinations to create simpler spatial progressions or to open new ways of suggesting interior human realities.

Everthing was grist for his mill, but everything he painted or drew came into being first as a fragile line, a shivering color, or a delicate wash of neutral gray. Paper and canvas were the universes he entered with his pen and brush, and every one of his works is evidence of his creative journey.

If such comparisons have any meaning at all, Klee was the poet of 20 th-century painting, for he was its great seeker for the perfect fusion of the point and purpose of human existence and painting's genius to embody and to symbolize. Neither an illustrator nor a decorator, and certainly never an abstract artist, Klee created a small universe of his own inwhich the entire gamut of human reality was re-created as art through one of the most exquisitely sophisticated sensibilities of modern times. In countless paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints Klee transmuted human experience into small, jewellike, and infinitely varied proofs of man's ability to perceive life and truth and to give them form.

Although the Guggenheim's exhibition includes a variety of his works, it can only serve as the most general introduction to his art. Nevertheless, in such pieces as "Dance You Monster to My Soft Song" and "Barbarian Sacrifice," his subtle and sly genius makes itself felt. At least a dozen other works would hold up very well in any full-scale exhibition of Klee's art.

It is a small show, but it includes several old favorities. And to those not yet familiar with the world of Paul Klee, this exhibition should serve as the gateway to endless delights.

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