Ten Americans: After Paul Klee explores the seminal role of Swiss-born artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) in the development of mid-20th-century American art. The exhibition sheds new light on important figures in American Abstract Expressionist and Color Field painting who adapted aspects of Klee’s art and ideology into their own artistic development. Featuring more than 60 works from collections in the US and Switzerland, the exhibition is the first to feature Klee in dialogue with William Baziotes, Gene Davis, Adolph Gottlieb, Norman Lewis, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Jackson Pollock, Theodoros Stamos, Mark Tobey, and Bradley Walker Tomlin.
Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) was a successful painter and an inspirational teacher at the experimental Bauhaus School and Düsseldorf Academy of Art. By 1933, however, the market for his art collapsed when the Nazis purged his work from Germany’s state-owned museums. Many of Klee’s artistic comrades and dealers fled Europe for New York, but Klee and his wife, Lily, returned to his hometown of Bern, Switzerland.
While Klee himself never joined his peers across the Atlantic, his works traveled there in great numbers, stimulating an enthusiastic reception by a young generation of American artists who, after the horrors of World War II, were searching for an art form removed from the external world. In Klee, they found a liberating example of an artist who drew upon many ideas gaining currency in the international artistic avant-garde, including the art of indigenous cultures, the power of symbolic language, the method of working from the unconscious, and an interest in probing nature’s invisible forces. Klee’s stylistically diverse body of work resonated with American abstract artists searching for a new personal language of expression.
The ten Americans featured in the exhibition did not seek to emulate or copy Klee’s style, nor did they all necessarily cite Klee as a direct influence; each encountered and drew upon Klee’s art and ideology in various ways. By considering the synergies between Klee and the ten Americans, this exhibition highlights the pivotal transatlantic exchange between Europe and the United States that helped shape the course of modern art.
Exhibition curator Elsa Smithgall introduces the exhibition
The “Klee Room”
Klee builds himself a little house of art in a realm somewhere between childhood’s innocence and everyman’s prospect of infinity.—Duncan Phillips, c. 1938
More than 80 years ago, in 1930, The Phillips Collection’s founder, Duncan Phillips, acquired the first work by Klee for the museum, Tree Nursery. With this purchase, the Phillips became the third museum in the United States to own a work by Klee, joining the Detroit Institute of Arts and New York University’s former Gallery of Living Art.
Phillips soon became a stalwart champion of Klee’s work in the United States. Between 1930 and 1953, he assembled 13 of Klee’s finest works in oil and watercolor spanning the artist’s career—a strong unit that remains a cornerstone of the museum’s permanent collection. Phillips organized a Klee solo exhibition in 1938 and a memorial exhibition in 1942. Over the following two decades, as Klee came to occupy a central place in the collection, his art became a prominent feature of numerous group and solo exhibitions and permanent collection installations, attracting increasingly receptive American artists and visitors.
Committed to bringing Klee’s art to a larger audience, Phillips placed his work on nearly continuous view after 1948, in what came to be known as “the Klee room” at the Phillips. “The Klee room” served as an abiding source of inspiration for the generation of American abstract painters working at midcentury, especially for Washington, DC-based artists Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. In the words of writer Barbara Rose: “No one who has ever lived in Washington … can ever forget the impact of the Klee room at the Phillips Gallery.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue, published by The Phillips Collection and Zentrum Paul Klee in association with Prestel, featuring color plates and essays by the curatorial team and outside scholars Katy Siegel, Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Endowed Chair in Modern American Art, Stony Brook University, and Elke Seibert, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the German Center for the History of Art (DFK) in Paris. Catalogue available in the museum shop.
The exhibition is organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, and the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland.
The exhibition and its publication were made possible with support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.
This exhibition is supported by Altria Group.
Support for the presentation at The Phillips Collection was provided by the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, the Ednah Root Foundation, and Eric Richter and Charles Shoener.
Brought to you by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.
In-kind support is provided by