Despite Prefab Proficiency, Klee’s Enigmas Still Charm

Egon Schiele and Paul Klee are both crowd pleasers, but how radically different are the pleasures they offer. Last fall, the Neue Galerie exhibited drawings, paintings and prints by the angst-ridden Austrian Expressionist. This spring, Klee’s affectionately cultivated whimsies adorn the museum’s pristine walls. The swing from masturbatory psychodramas to teetering, childlike enigmas is dramatic.

The mystery and wonder of Klee’s work is easier to stomach than Schiele’s unapologetic narcissism—no surprise there, really—but the work isn’t without limitations. If anything, Klee and America confirms the Swiss artist’s minor standing even as it highlights his almost unerring acuity.

The exhibition traces the reception of Klee’s art in the United States, a country he never visited and, apparently, never had any interest in visiting. Though an enthusiastic audience eventually coalesced here, it was slow in coming. His influence on the burgeoning movement that came to be known as Abstract Expressionism was pivotal, but his work was too modern and, perhaps, too idiosyncratic to make early headway in the States.

A “strange meteor from Switzerland” is how Henry McBride, writing in 1924 for the New York Herald, described Klee. It’s a phrase that nicely underscores the artist’s startling otherness. As his fortunes fell in Europe, due largely to Hitler’s campaign against “degenerate art,” Americans would come to embrace him as “one of the greatest child/poets in the world” (as Diego Rivera put it).

The full story is told in the sizable catalog. A small side gallery dutifully displays photographs of Klee’s American admirers, along with explanatory texts. (The photos feature, among others, Rivera and a stunningly beautiful Frida Kahlo, playwright Clifford Odets, MoMA spearhead Alfred Barr, and important collectors like Katharine Drier and Louise and Walter Arensberg.) The real impetus for the exhibition, though, is to gather choice works by one of the most beloved painters of the 20th century.

Given the diverse charms of Klee’s art, that’s not such a bad deal. His precisely rendered miniaturist tableaus are an elusive mix of parable, reverie and fairy tale. The lessons of Modernism, particularly those of Picasso and Robert Delaunay, are easy to discern. After that, the work goes global. The cross-cultural references are broad, but they’re incorporated seamlessly and uncannily. Every time you catch yourself snagging on this or that influence—Byzantine designs, Native American totems or Egyptian hieroglyphs—Klee’s witty and elusive fictions whisk it away.

Titles count for a lot: Fool in Christ, Agricultural Research Station for Late Autumn, Sacred Islands, Owl Comedy, The Whole Is Dimming—these aren’t explanatory captions, but specific poetic renderings of the quizzical, often absurd events pictured. This verbal precision matches Klee’s approach to pictorial form. Whether orchestrating a field of staccato brushstrokes or scrubbing oils into a coarsely woven jute support, he instinctively took the pithiest route to embodying a given motif. His visionary intent was inseparable from his confidence with means and materials.

For a while, anyway. Ultimately, Klee’s sophistication as a painter is less a boon than an obstacle. His fantasies are diminished by an almost machine-like proficiency. The handling of materials, while always fetching, is surprisingly prefab. The grainy, pinkish ground of Gifts for J (1928) and the ghostly smudges of oil transfer in Abstract Trio (1923) aren’t consequences of painterly exploration but effects expertly put into place. Contrivance hampers the vitality of Klee’s intricate, toy-like symbolism. The pictures begin to feel rickety, their poetry thin, their emotions false.

The resulting loss of tone—of magic, really—is disheartening. Nonetheless, Klee’s allure as a painter remains intact. There are beautiful pictures full of oddball lyricism included at the Neue Galerie. Sacred Islands (1926), Red Balloon (1922), Cold City (1921) and Fear (1934), with its cosmic, all-seeing eye, are glories of concision, touch and allusion. Klee and America may prompt a niggling disenchantment, but it’s a modestly winning exhibition all the same. Small pleasures are better than no pleasure at all.

Klee and America is at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, until May 22.

Taking Action

There are few greater satisfactions a critic can experience than being wrong—that is, if being wrong affirms the greater cultural good. Six years ago, I complained that the paintings of veteran West Coast artist Ed Moses were “flimsy,” “overbearing and slick.” Walking through the Jacobson Howard Gallery, which is exhibiting some of Mr. Moses’ canvases from the late 1980’s (and one from the early 90’s), a question came to mind: What was I thinking?

The paintings, particularly those in the gallery’s second-floor space, are visceral but elegant, harsh but lyrical. Mr. Moses works in a familiar mode—action painting, with its play-it-where-it-lays, go-with-the-flow ethos. But it’s thrilling to see how he deepens tradition with an eye trained on history and a foot putting the pedal to the metal.

Mr. Moses may take umbrage at the “action painting” tag. Harold Rosenberg invented that conceit for his buddy Willem de Kooning; from Day 1, it was a wrongheaded bit of P.R. privileging self-expression over aesthetic resolution. “Zen boogy woogy”—Mr. Moses’ description of his method—is better; it reveals a self-deprecating sense of humor. Existentialist BS isn’t on the agenda.

Yet Mr. Moses does surrender himself to process. The pictures are literally painted with a broad brush (or sometimes a squeegee). Great swaths of black, white and ocher, along with teasing slurs of red and pink, cascade from the top of each canvas, creating supple elisions of space and atmosphere. The canvases are as tangled and dense as swamps and as immediate and raw as graffiti-covered walls.

Miró is in the mix, particularly in Mr. Moses’ use of black, as are the exquisite spontaneity and keen attention to tone characteristic of Asian art. How you regard the pictures will depend on how much you value innovation or, more accurately, novelty. The paintings are inconceivable without the examples of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman. For my money, you can keep them all: Mr. Moses’ art expresses greater breadth, nuance and accomplishment. To hell with who was there first—Mr. Moses deserves a place in the firmament. Perhaps this exhibition will help get him there.

Ed Moses: The Dune Series is at the Jacobson Howard Gallery, 22 East 72nd Street, until March 31.