Comments on: The Social Art of Paul Klee Abstract Critical is a not-for profit company aiming to establish a new critical context for all generations of artists involved with ambitious abstract art. Sun, 09 Nov 2014 17:23:33 +0000 hourly 1 By: John K Sun, 24 Aug 2014 01:44:28 +0000 I never knew Klee’s art or thought was so profoundly simple or illuminating No wonder the Bahaus was initially so quick to snatch him up. Nice mix shown of his work.

By: Matthew Collings Sun, 20 Apr 2014 23:41:08 +0000 Sorry I meant to type 1919, and one of the group of works I had in mind was With the Violet Pentagon, from that year.

By: Matthew Collings Sun, 20 Apr 2014 22:59:21 +0000 The works in the show seemed profoundly abstract, maybe addressing or interpreting some kind of notion of reality, but as art does, whether it’s abstract or not, or as in Klee’s case, abstract, semi-abstract, cartoonish, graphic, typographical, etc etc — in any case it does the interpreting or metaphor-creating via very narrow abstract means. Calling this a formalist idea is just to express hostility about that narrowness. It’s fair enough, after all, not everyone has a feel for how art is made,they want to think about things that come more naturally to them to think about — come more naturally to everyone: history, society, etc. Musical making, rhythm, placement, colour unity, transparency etc, these are pretty boring issues, or disappointing ones, unless you’re into them. But they’re what one saw in the show. Benjamin’s essay is great of course but it doesn’t say anything about either the picture it addresses (or takes as a platform for addressing something else), or Klee generally, really — surely? The Greenberg essay is very accurate and careful about many things in Klee, making the reader feel something is actually revealed about things that were already felt to be worth thinking about, regardless of what anyone said about them (that is, they didn’t need explaining.) The differences of intensity between groups of works throughout the show didn’t matter, I felt, so much as the marvel of there being so much intensity at all. Groups of little yellow and black watercolours from the c1913 period, with wonky chequerboard layouts and arrow forms, seemed the like the great heights of anything in art. In any case it was great to look over at one of the wall notices from looking at these rhythmic yellow and black arrangements, and see the quote from Klee from a 1918 letter about socialism being the right climate for such things.

By: Robin Greenwood Fri, 28 Mar 2014 10:37:40 +0000 …only to repeat that the “formal” and the “human” are indivisible in great art; and at such moments of revelation parochial contexts of any sort are dashed. However, I would agree that those moments are fleeting, and we have to fill in the rest of time with interesting stuff that perhaps better prepares us for such.

Just so long as all that interesting stuff doesn’t occlude those big moments…

I would perhaps make this further observation about the debate on the role of context. If context, both cultural and physical, relating respectively to art history and to curation, does indeed play a major role in how we all derive understanding and meaning from art, is that not in fact a strong reason for attempting to uncouple it from the art, as far as is possible?

Imagine a situation where you see a painting, then go home and read about the artist and why he painted it. You go back for another look, and your view is modified. So goes your argument, that understanding art history will modify and enrich your reading of the work. Then you return home with another book which contradicts the first one. You go back for a third look, but by this time the painting has been moved to a poorly-lit part of the gallery, where you cannot actually see whether what the second book tells you is true or not.

Far-fetched? Well, something very similar to that has happened to me. And all that time, the painting has absolutely not changed. Whatever the artist did, it has remained so. All the contingencies of how we read the work are down to factors of either interpretation or curation, but those are not embodied in the work, which remains itself. I would have thought that it is our job, if we are serious, to attempt as objective a view of the work as we are able, given those contingencies. It may well be true that one or other of the books, and one or other of the viewing conditions, may be optimum, but we have to make a judgement about that too, if possible, based upon what we have seen for ourselves.

By: Patrick Jones Thu, 27 Mar 2014 20:44:20 +0000 Not sure of the date sequence of comments,but I will clarify my comments for Ben,who writes incredibly well and deserves more feedback.My epiphany and reverie at the Paul Klee exhibition was non-formalist in essence.I found myself transported to my 1st year in art school,at 17,in wonder.Only painting and sculpture could encapsulate the complexity of experience offered by moon,woman ,sea ,dream ,night.Day jobs on building sites,claustrophobic family penned me in ,while Art released.I was struck how looking at a painting in the late afternoon,while capitalism roared on outside,was so particular and perfect.I even enjoyed the occasional Tate script,which I usually ignore.I turned from the painting and Klee described modern mans predicament of being able to fly in the imagination but being trapped in the body.The other viewers that afternoon ,at the Tate show ,were not professional artists but amateur evening class watercolourists and they were loving it,enthusing loudly .My private experience was humble also,being made aware of good arts universality.

By: Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann Thu, 27 Mar 2014 17:15:27 +0000 Thanks for clarifying. I will look up Hett Steen again – nice description. Yes, I thought there were a lot of very strong works in the show, a number of which I mentioned (perhaps briefly) above. Amongst my real highlights were Translucencies Orange Blue (near impossible to get a colour image online), Green x bottom left and When God Considered the Creation of the Plants – I will try to rethink why for you at some point.

Your talk of modesty is interesting and chimes with Greenberg’s observation in the above cited essay – “Klee’s real audacity was his unconscious modesty, which accepted and accomplished the task of making an easel-picture out of nothing”. It really is a very lucid essay in general.

What you say in the last, perhaps slightly throwaway(?) line seems like it might be interesting. Could you expand?

By: Robin Greenwood Wed, 26 Mar 2014 21:26:17 +0000 Ben,
My tone was intended as only very mildly sardonic, in response to the foreseen perils of ignoring art-historical context. I agree it is an interesting area to discuss. And I intended as little slight on art-historians as you did on artists (none, I’m sure).

Of course, all work is made in a cultural and physical context, and is then seen in a different one, often bearing no relation to the original. I guess what you are saying is that it is important to understand the original one (?) as we view the work from the point of view of ours. I agree it might be interesting; history usually is. But history is as subjective a discipline as any other, and perhaps more so than most. So I don’t know what that would prove… and whilst I’m wondering, I have the evidence of my eyes. Which no doubt everyone will point out is conditioned by my context, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

I didn’t really get on with the Klee exhibition. I suppose therefore that I was a little disappointed that your essay did not really communicate your insight or enthusiasm in a way that would have made me question the conclusions that I had reached – namely, that his achievements were modest, despite the esteem in which he is held by history. So when you mentioned the “National Gallery foot, or Titian’s rocketship Frari Madonna” (rocketship!), I felt more engaged with your engagement, if you see what I mean. I don’t know what you think of Klee. Was there a few works you thought were fantastic, and if so, why? When I know why somebody else really thinks something is good, and I don’t, that helps. I mean, really helps, as an artist. Actually, practically. Send me your revelations.

I don’t think, in the end, beyond “interest”, and prior to revelation, that it is worth separating what you (but not me!) call the “formal” from anything else. Paintings and sculptures are all about experienced specifics, not theory (and context is only a theory), which is what I blunderingly tried to say in my essay on “Abstract-ness”. One of my favourite paintings, Rubens’ “Het Steen” in the National, has Mrs. Rubens (ah, but how do I know? you’ll say) being driven at haste diagonally out of the bottom left of the painting on an open cart, in which she sits sideways on to travel, presenting her upper body in three-quarters view. Bad formalist idea, having the cart leaving via a corner of the painting. But her face is turned towards the viewer, straight out of the painting, towards you. Ah, situation redeemed! But then you see by the whites of her eyes that she’s not in fact looking out at you. Oh no! She looks sideways across the painting, back into the view. Situation not just redeemed, but the whole world made majestically coherent!

Is that formalist? As for context, well, for such a thing I take the context as the whole history of humanity.

By: Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann Wed, 26 Mar 2014 20:11:57 +0000 Sorry Robin,
I find it quite hard to disentangle your tone from these lines, and as such my response may not hit the mark. My reverie is no doubt of little interest and perhaps an ill-chosen word. An expanded essay on what I find compelling in Masaccio or Titian is unfortunately beyond my will or ability at present. (I did just write one on Klee though.) Similarly, my suggestion that stripping art of context seems dangerous, was not intended as a slight on artists, but rather to imply that perhaps all three disciplines can learn something from each other.

I was interested in trying to push this conversation forward somewhat and touch upon what I felt might be some more fruitful lines of enquiry for wider discussion on this site. One of them I felt might be around the limits of an ahistorical approach. Whilst I can accept that, being a practitioner, you have a differing interest in the painting of the past, (and that your insistence upon rigour in looking and describing has taught me a fair bit over the years), I am uncertain of why this has to be asserted in opposition to any acknowledgement of the context in which a work is made and received. To do so seems to endanger your own awareness as a practitioner: your awareness of the limitations of your historical position – derived as it is from a particular historical lineage – but also your understanding of the art of the past, rooted as it too is in its own particular traditions.

For all Paul Klee’s ‘privateness’ and abstract values, I think that he looked far and wide not just at the world, art or his formal options, but at the particular relations which these areas took to each other within his historical moment. In truth I think you do to, but your writing on this site often seems to polemicise in the other direction – towards an aggressive stripping away – (welcome in its stripping of the frequent thickets of bullshit which emerge – less so in its removal of historical context).

To be more precise about some of the areas in which I think a purely abstract reading of past art falls down – assuming this was what you were asking for? St John’s foot in Masaccio’s Jerome and John in the NG does not merely create a sense of pictorial space which opens up into the gold, but in doing so gives form to a changing conception of the material world and its relation to the divine figures (I find that exciting). Botticelli’s contour is not just pictorially intriguing when it brings distinct spaces and objects into a close tension with each other (though that it is) – its fuller impact is bound up in the evolution of humanism and religion (in ways I am not qualified to expand upon – but nonetheless do not see fit to deny). And to come back to an example Robert Lindsay used on this site, Titian’s Pesaro altarpiece is, as David Sweet’s comment suggested, a painting about prayer (or at least the relation of those praying to the other figures in the painting). Constable’s care in mapping earthly spaces (to which I, like you, share an attachment)- is also itself historically bound. Why, after all, do you not paint like Constable?

If not reverie – which I do have in front of works (present tense), but yes do try to pin down a bit more, both as I look and (for better or worse, not quite sure your implication) in the process of writing – then these factors for me place meaning in the works beyond just abstract form – they impact upon my intrigue, interaction and speculations as I look.

By: Robin Greenwood Wed, 26 Mar 2014 15:38:45 +0000 Ben,
As a mere artist who often goes about wilfully ignoring art historians at every occasion, and especially, now I come to think about it, when confronted with a bit of art, it would be of great interest to me – and others I’m sure – to know more about the reasons and consequences, in their own right, of your occasional levitations to reverie, which I assume occur in the present tense and despite your best efforts.

By: Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann Wed, 26 Mar 2014 15:35:27 +0000 I agree though Patrick (despite my historically directioned comment below) that it would be interesting and constructive to bring attention back to the works also. In the 1940s Greenberg commented that there were hardly any artists working who did not owe something to Klee (or something of the like). I wonder how his practical example stands today? or if you could verbalize something more of your epiphany – is it a ‘spirit of discovery’ you are referring to or perhaps more about something that seems to be coming out of the Fred Pollock film about the excitement of making things that had never been seen before?