Critics’ Picks

(Youth) Actor's Mask, 1924.

Washington, DC

“Klee and America”

The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street NW
June 16–September 10, 2006

Paul Klee never set foot in the United States, but the Swiss-born artist’s childlike, surrealistic pictographs proved very influential on these shores—his devotees included Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, and Philip Johnson. Prescient dealer-collector-advocates Katherine Dreier, William Valentiner, and Galka Scheyer introduced Klee’s work to American audiences in the early 1920s. Dreier, who cofounded the highly influential Société Anonyme in New York (the subject of an exhibition opening here on October 14), gave Klee his first official exhibition, while German-born Scheyer, who settled in Los Angeles, sold works to influential West Coast collectors, including Walter and Louise Arensberg. In 1930, Alfred H. Barr Jr. devoted a retrospective to Klee at MoMA, the first given to a living European artist.

The Phillips is an apt venue, not only because of the sublime marriage of these intimately scaled works with the museum’s intimately scaled galleries but also because the museum’s namesake, Duncan Phillips, starting in 1930, purchased numerous works by Klee (twelve of which entered the Phillips Collection, with three more acquired since). The exhibition has more than ninety works, spanning from 1913 to shortly before Klee’s death in 1940—all drawn from American collections—which demonstrate the depth and versatility of his artistic inquisition. Among the standouts is (Youth) Actor’s Mask, 1924; whether influenced by Japanese woodcuts or Congolese masks (this is much-debated), the unrelenting insistence of this portrait is powerful. In addition, Small Picture of a Regatta, 1922, Conjuring Trick, 1927, and Gifts for “J.”, 1928, are spirited mixes of ethereal space, sophisticated balances of geometric elements, and delightful whimsy. The well-illustrated catalogue offers a compelling, at times heartbreaking look at the forces that shaped the later part of Klee’s career.