Closing Soon: Paul Klee’s Psychic Improvisations at David Zwirner Gallery

The show, which presents second-order works on paper, will satisfy some Klee fans but leave others wanting.

Felsengrab (Rock tomb), 1932; Indelible pencil and grease crayon on primed paper on cardboard; Framed: 21 3/8 x 27 5/8 inches (54.3 x 70.2 cm). Courtesy the gallery © Klee Family / Photo by Farah Abdessamad

Paul Klee’s interwar works, in which the subconsciousness is presented as a site of ebullient creativity propelling line work and color to conquer modern heights, are currently on view in David Zwirner’s “Psychic Improvisation.” The show mainly showcases works on paper elevating Klee’s drawing skills, divided between new forms and reconnecting with symbolic expression. The juxtaposition of colored painted next to rawer crayon-drawn works invites the viewer to consider Klee’s artistic practice as an unfinished process.

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The line is an extension of the artist’s free-flowing traits. Klee’s infatuation with characters comes to light. Beat carpet orient (1939) shows a cartoonish, pulpous figure in action. Its body—somewhat feminine—is projecting force toward an invisible object. Limbs and hands are disproportionately large, a hair strand painted a vivid blue. This playful silhouette has the energy of a modern vaudeville’s main cast. Other characters populate the show exuding various degrees of dream-like qualities. This is the case of There is more to come (1939), which depicts a curvilinear three-quarter-profile portrait. The minimalistic rounded lines add texture and dimension to the work, which seems to hold multiple figures at once. Yet it poses like a strange specimen, with a face part animal, part mask-like. Drawn at the dusk of Klee’s life, we’re left to wonder whether we’re gazing at a reimagined dawn of humanity linking humans with other more enigmatic species.

Similarly, in Mischief (1940), a sorrowful, human-demiurge seems to embody a pitiful scale of justice from which two other figures hang. Eyes are cast downward. On the right-hand side, a puppet tries to keep balance, while on the left, a spectral silhouette holds a ladder—leading nowhere. These shapes are reduced to their most simplistic forms—an outline—which conveys a need to say or feel more with less. Glancing sideways I (1928) represents another humanoid form, with an elongated large face, hair arranged in an infinity knot, with strokes suggesting pilosity. Klee aptly captures moods and atmospheres with this latter work suggesting awkwardness. The character’s left hand is retracted behind his back while the side eyes allude to shyness.

Unfug (Mischief), 1940; Grease crayon on paper on cardboard; Framed: 21 5/8 x 15 3/4 inches (54.9 x 40 cm). Courtesy the gallery © Klee Family / Photo by Farah Abdessamad

This knack for sketching human characteristics applied to more abstract qualities confirms Klee’s hybridity and his ability to channel depth in subtle ways: side-glances, saggy necks, rounded shoulders. His study of worm-like shapes and spirals enables Klee to reflect on the expanse of life and creation. Rock tomb (1932) borrows the visual cues that are familiar to this work—a fetal envelope, an omniscient red sun, shadows and fish of abundance. In this symbolism, the rock is soil and womb inhabited by cells and hard-edged chromosomal thread with modulated gradients of reds and yellows. The scene is self-contained, with the rock’s surface warming as it gets deeper. The earth and sun provide vital energy while the presence of a black fish evokes a more unconscious world. In bare pencil and grease crayon, Klee reimagines primordial myths and cosmogonies, letting his “psychic improvisations” run loose to achieve complex insights. This image and others such as New medals (1938) offer new idioms—a fresh grammar to make sense of the invisible and the subjective.

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What these have in common is to let us inside Klee’s mind as his drawings remain suspended in time and place. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Girl at the window (1920) and Cemetery (1920), which, despite their completed appearance, channel a long silence and post-war grief. An androgynous girl looks outside the window of a double structure resembling a church. Klee put down colors as a series of blushes and blots against an architectural grid pattern. This creates a stained-glass appearance which reemerges in Cemetery and compliments the solemnity of the subject matter. Crosses coexist with trees, both erect to bear witness to cubistic hills and mounts where we imagine humans to rest. This landscape reminds one of the sinister trenches of Verdun and the gruesome frontline battles of World War I in which his friends, painters August Macke and Franz Marc, lost their lives.

A form master at the Bauhaus avant-garde school from the early 1920s, Klee taught in two studios during a time of prolific artistic experimentation with design, color theory and modernism. He was then joined by Wassily Kandinsky, his old peer from the pre-World War I early Expressionist Blue Rider group, when color’s raging potency seemed boundless and audacious.

Friedhof (Cemetery), 1920; Oil and pen on linen; Framed: 13 5/8 x 16 3/4 inches (34.6 x 42.5 cm). Courtesy the gallery © Klee Family / Photo by Farah Abdessamad

1933 turned out to be a fateful year for Germany and for Klee. Hitler rose to power and his ascent unbridled Nazi ideology in arts and culture. Klee’s artworks, which did not conform to the Nazis’ artistic vision exalting nationalistic ideas, was stamped as “degenerate” (“Entartete Kunst”). The Gestapo stormed into his house and, upon being fired from the Dusseldorf Academy, he sought refuge in his native Switzerland with his family. That same year, Klee experienced physical ailments later diagnosed as scleroderma, a chronic and fatal illness that includes skin lesions, stiffness, esophageal tightness and pain.

This intimate struggle between internal turmoil and external circumstances likely explains a willingness to reunite with the essence of art: drawing. Klee consigns his musings on these paper vignettes like a visual journal, a mood board or a resistance to despair. His works were included in the infamous 1937 Munich Degenerate Art exhibition along with those of many other modernists deemed “un-German.” The Nazis further confiscated several of his artworks, and, despite his dying wish, Switzerland refused to grant him citizenship during his lifetime despite being born in Switzerland.

bescheidener Ort (Modest village), 1929; Grease crayon on paper on cardboard; Framed: 27 7/8 x 20 3/4 inches (70.8 x 52.7 cm). Courtesy the gallery © Klee Family / Photo by Farah Abdessamad

From a 1908 diary entry, in which he reflects on line work and naturalism, Klee wrote: “I may dare to enter my prime realm of psychic improvisation again. Bound only very indirectly to an impression of nature, I may again dare to give form to what burdens the soul. To note experiences that can turn themselves into linear compositions even in the blackest night.” He added: “Working in this way, my real personality will express itself, will be able to emancipate itself into the greatest freedom.” A practice and ethos, these improvisations ground the artist to experience a form of authentic truth.

While the works included in “Psychic Improvisation” are sensitive and personal, these are hardly Paul Klee’s most iconic pictorial works—in general as well as during the interwar period revisited. One can think of the famed Angelus Novus (1920), Ad Parnassum (1932), Fish Magic (1925), or even Struck from the List (1933) which all demonstrate a mastery of line work, perspective, deep affect, and form. This is not to casually minimize his lesser-known works but to acknowledge that the show presents second-order works on paper for the most part, which will satisfy many Klee fans but leave others wanting. The curatorial selection also lacks cohesiveness as well as an attempt to broaden the frame to wider inquiries. It’s unclear whether it proved too difficult to arrange for prized loans or whether the gallery wanted to deliberately shed light on more mundane process-oriented works whose arrangement feels somewhat haphazard. But one thing is certain: New York City needs an ambitious retrospective of Klee’s works. With past retrospectives at the Guggenheim and MoMA now decades old, it’s about time.

Psychic Improvisation” is on show at David Zwirner’s 20th Street gallery through June 15.

Closing Soon: Paul Klee’s Psychic Improvisations at David Zwirner Gallery