Balancing . . .. . . act

Paul Klee was an unabashedly playful artist in times when many of his peers looked upon art as a very serious business, a battleground of conflicting ideas and values. Klee made no secret of his irreverence. He even made a parlor game of titling his paintings: When he had finished a group of pictures, he would invite a few friends to look them over and join him in toying with possible titles. By such tactics, he saw to it that his conscious intentions did not completely rule the outcome of his work. Many of his images are so ambiguous that the merger of work and title is crucial to what we see in them.

Klee balanced the frivolous, eccentric qualities of his art with an intense concern for theory. During his years of teaching at the Bauhaus in Germany, he kept detailed notebooks out of which he developed elaborate theories of the formal and psychological forces put into play by line, color, and figure in a work of art. Anyone who comes upon Klee's writings after seeing only lighthearted works such as ''Tightrope Walker'' may find it hard to believe they are products of the same sensibility.

This 1923 lithograph is almost like a cartoon. We cannot tell where the drawing began or ended, or whether Klee even had in mind the idea of a figure walking a wire when he started laying down wiry lines. The space of the image is purely fanciful, with no measure of real scale and no definite inklings (other than the title) as to what is or is not to be seen as a figure.

At a different scale from that of the wire-walker, for example, we can see here a very schematic profile head. It is defined by the line to the right of center which starts with a spiral curl, descends until it makes a right angle marking the nose, then dips farther to shape the curve of chin and jaw before straightening again to trace the figure's neck. Perhaps we are to see this hidden profile as symbolic of the audience to the tightrope walker's act.

The tightrope walker himself may be a figure for the artist, gingerly transporting a line from one area of the picture to another, while signaling wryly to us that making art is always in some sense a balancing act. This wire-walker seems unthreatened by gravity - for nothing in the picture looks weighty - and looks as if he could proceed with equal poise along any line in the composition.

Although Klee's picture flickers with ambiguities, nothing in it appears tensile enough to support ponderous meanings. The charm of the work is not in what it might mean but in the way it shows us that Klee was an artist unafraid of nonsense.

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