David Zwirner is pleased to present Paul Klee: 1939, the gallery’s inaugural exhibition of Paul Klee’s (1879–1940) work since announcing its exclusive collaboration with the Klee Family. On view at 537 West 20th Street, New York, the exhibition focuses on Klee’s art from 1939, the year before he passed away, which marked one of the artist’s most prolific periods.
Toward the end of 1933, in response to the suppression of avant-garde art practices by the newly empowered Nazi party, Klee left Germany, where he had primarily lived since 1906, and returned to his native city of Bern, Switzerland, residing there for the remainder of his life. From 1935 until he passed away, in 1940, Klee continually struggled with illness, which at times impacted his ability to work. Yet, in 1939, against the backdrop of immense sociopolitical turmoil and the outbreak of war, Klee worked with a vigor and inventiveness that rivaled even the most productive periods from his youth. The works on view illustrate how Klee responded to his personal difficulties and the broader social realities of the time through imagery that is at turns political, solemn, playful, humorous, and poetic. Ranging in subject matter, the works all testify to Klee’s restless drive to experiment with his forms and materials, which include adhesive, grease, oil, chalk, and watercolor, among others, resulting in surfaces that are not only visually striking, but also highly tactile and original. The novelty and ingenuity of Klee’s late works informed the art of the generation of artists that emerged after World War II, and they continue to hold relevance and allure for artists and viewers alike today.
Image: Paul Klee, Ohne Titel (Gitter und Schlangenlinien um "T") (Untitled [Grids and Wavy Lines Around "T"), c. 1939 (detail)
Watch a clip from a walkthrough of Paul Klee: 1939 by the artist Richard Tuttle. “In these late works,” Tuttle explains, “what I find remarkable is, you have this drop from a light to a dark. But then, after years and years, where that dark coalesces and forms hardnesses—hard lines—in this very very late period he figured out in some remarkable way how to turn around and not let that harden, but to turn it back to the light.”
The works Paul Klee produced in 1939, the year before he died, after a long illness, demonstrate an energy and ingenuity that belie the great difficulties he was facing. His tireless experimentation with forms and materials has proved influential for generations of artists, from Anni Albers to Etel Adnan, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Tuttle, who will introduce this exhibition at David Zwirner. As the critic Clement Greenberg wrote in 1957, “Almost everybody, whether aware or not, was learning from Klee.”
Born in Münchenbuchsee, near Bern, Switzerland, in 1879, Klee was unrivaled in his creative output, and is considered one of the truly defining artists of the twentieth century. An artist, teacher, writer, and thinker, Klee explored and expanded the terrain of avant-garde art through work that ranges from stunning colorist grids to evocative graphic works. From 1921 to 1931, he taught at the Bauhaus (including in the weaving workshop, where Anni Albers was among his students); there, Klee’s ideas established him as one of the institution’s foremost instructors.
During the 1930s, important museum exhibitions brought Klee’s work to wider audiences. An exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1930, marked the museum’s first solo show by a living European artist, and in 1935, Klee had retrospectives at the Kunsthalle Bern and the Kunsthalle Basel.
Politically and personally, however, the 1930s signaled the beginning of difficult times in Klee’s life. In 1933, the year the Bauhaus closed due to pressure from the Nazi party. Amid extreme sociopolitical unrest, Klee left Germany to join his wife in Bern, residing there for the remainder of his life. From 1935 until his death, in 1940, despite worsening illness, Klee worked with renewed energy.
“All of a sudden,” his son, Felix Klee, recalls in an interview, “he created an amazingly large number of works in a completely new style. More than 1,200 in the single year of 1939!… This late work … in my opinion … is his most important.”
Image below: Paul Klee, im liegen (Lying down), 1939
“Klee managed the seemingly impossible. Out of the physical and emotional suffering of his exile he took his art through a final metamorphosis, achieved one last pinnacle. Like only Matisse and Picasso among modern artists, Klee created a late work of singular rank.” —Matthias Bärmann, Erfüllung im Spätwerk
Klee’s late works speak of a harrowing personal situation, in which terminal illness signaled the imminent end of his life and caused him great physical pain, as well as the social and political tumult that had exiled him from Germany to Switzerland. With often heavy or constraining lines he conjured troubled figures and fraught visualizations, giving them titles such as die Schlange kommt (The snake comes) and Maske "nach dem Verlust" (Mask "after the loss").
Through these works and their titles, Bärmann writes, “Klee carried on a solitary dialogue with himself, questioning, commenting, grieving and deriding.”
In his late period, Klee’s unique aesthetic world—one in which, as he famously said, “art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible”—evolved and developed, tracing the artist’s outlook and sensations not unlike a diary. The moods conveyed, Bärmann notes, include “irony, comedy, caricature, and self-encouragement, but also skepticism, sarcasm, melancholy, and grief.”
Like Klee’s earlier work, these intimate compositions on paper “always tell a story within a small space, like a poem,” as his grandson Alexander Klee has observed. Klee used pencil, colored paste, tempera, chalk, adhesive, grease, oil, and watercolor, among other means, to create both graphic arrangements and more dreamlike or metaphorical figures and forms that often reflect the strain of working in his final years. Color—which Klee had previously used sparingly—became stronger and was used to invest figurative shapes with greater force, as seen here in a rare painting from 1939.
In his final years, though illness had changed his appearance, and despite the fervent pace at which he worked, Felix Klee recalls that his father “remained gentle and serene in manner.”
“I have never seen a man who had such creative quiet. It radiated from him as from the sun,” the painter Jankel Adler said of watching Klee work. “His face was that of a man who knows about day and night, sky and sea and air…. Our language is too little to say these things.… Klee, when beginning a picture, had the excitement of a Columbus moving to the discovery of a new continent.… Klee set out to discover a new land.”
As his own epitaph, Klee wrote:
I cannot be grasped in the here and now
For I live just as well with the dead
As with the unborn
Somewhat closer to the heart
Of creation than usual
But far from close enough.
Image below: Paul Klee, Schleusen (Locks), 1938
Taking in some one hundred works from throughout Klee’s career, Paul Klee: The Abstract Dimension examines a previously little-explored aspect of his oeuvre. Among the nearly ten thousand works Klee created in the course of his career are some of the most pioneering and influential examples of modernist abstraction—works that continue to resonate today. The works are grouped in this study under four themes: nature, architecture, painting, and graphic characters.
Sheet: 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches (26.8 x 20.9 cm) Cardboard: 19 5/8 x 13 7/8 inches (50 x 35.2 cm) Framed: 21 3/4 x 16 x 1 1/2 inches (55.2 x 40.6 cm) Signed, titled, dated, and numbered recto Paul Klee Work No. 1938, 212 (N 12)