How Paul Klee Influenced a Generation of American Artists, from Pollock to Motherwell

Alexxa Gotthardt
Feb 21, 2018 6:49PM

Portrait of Paul Klee, via Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Klee, Figure of the Oriental Theater, 1934. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.  Courtesy of the Phillips Collection.

Paul Klee, widely considered to be the father of abstract painting, never once set foot in America. When a gallerist entreated him to visit New York in 1937, he famously brushed off the invite: “I would love to, but as you can see, there is so much work to do that I am afraid I shall never find the time.”

But Klee’s disinterest didn’t prevent his art, or the irreverent ideas that informed it, from traveling across the pond in the mid-20th century—and indelibly shifting the course of American art in the process. Klee’s inventive canvases and his original approach to painting (illuminated in his extensive writings) inspired a host of famed American abstractionists, from Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb to Norman Lewis and Robert Motherwell.

Even the era’s toughest critics hailed Klee as an crucial influence in the States. “Almost everybody, whether aware or not, was learning from Klee,” Clement Greenberg proclaimed in 1957. Harold Rosenberg chimed in with a similar view in 1969: “Klee spun off enough pictorial clues to keep New York studios on the trail for the next twenty years.”

Yet Klee’s impact in the U.S. has been under-explored—until now. “Ten Americans: After Paul Klee,” a new exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., presents Klee’s canvases alongside those of 10 mid-20th century American artists whose work clearly resonates with their Swiss predecessor’s.

“Compared to other European figures whose influence on American art has been investigated extensively, like [Pablo] Picasso and [Henri] Matisse, Klee has not had the same in-depth study,” said Elsa Smithgall, co-curator of the exhibition. “This show is overdue. It was time to show Klee’s work in direct dialogue with American art.”

Paul Klee, Tropical Blossom, 1920. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern Switzerland. Courtesy of the Phillips Collection.


Klee was born in 1879 in Switzerland, and by the turn of the century, he had begun to radically break from traditional painting. At the time, most artists still clung to representation. But Klee, along with fellow members of the German Expressionist Der Blaue Reiter group, felt that art should convey the metaphysical realm rather than the material world.

To achieve this, Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Franz Marc began to pioneer an approach to art-making that would become known as abstraction. Their paintings eschewed recognizable content in favor of strokes and symbols that expressed emotion and the unconscious. When Klee did incorporate discernable objects into his compositions, they were fantastical. The flowers rendered in his 1920 drawing Tropical Blossom, for instance, are giant, whimsical adaptations of real-world foliage.

Klee enumerated this new approach to painting in a revolutionary essay called “Creative Confession” (1920). Its thesis rang loud and clear in one now-famous sentence: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” The essay caught the eye of Walter Gropius, an artist who’d recently opened a radical art school in Weimar, Germany. Dubbed Bauhaus, its teaching philosophy brought together art and craft, and emphasized the importance of both form and function.  

Gene Davis, Black Flowers, 1952. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Phillips Collection.

William Baziotes, Pierrot, 1947. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. © Estate of William Baziotes. Courtesy of the Phillips Collection.

Klee began teaching at the Bauhaus in 1921 and stayed until 1931, when the Nazi regime took power in Germany and denounced his work as degenerate. While the painter took refuge in his native Switzerland, most of Klee’s colleagues and students headed to the United States. Lyonel Feininger and Josef Albers, artists who had taught alongside Klee at the Bauhaus, both landed at a budding art school in North Carolina called Black Mountain College. There, they discussed Klee’s work and his process-based approach to art with their students—some who would eventually become America’s foremost abstractionists.

One of those hungry young artists was Kenneth Noland. He first learned of Klee at Black Mountain through reproductions of Klee’s work and writings. There, Noland developed a style of geometric abstraction he dubbed “Mondrian-Bauhaus,” informed in part by Klee’s “intuitive feeling for color,” as Fabienne Eggelhöfer points out in the exhibition catalogue.

Noland’s interest in Klee blossomed when he was finally able to see his artist-hero’s work in person. In the Garden (1952), one of the American artist’s paintings in the current Phillips show, “was done under the influence of Paul Klee, a modern master,” Noland said of the piece. “I was impressed and learned a great deal from the study of his work. The problem most important to me at this time was the integrated design of symbols and color.” Similarities between the staccato runes in Klee’s 1938 Young Moe, which Noland would have seen, and the squiggles that populate In a Garden are obvious.

Adolph Gottlieb, Labyrinth #1, 1950. Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York. © Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the Phillips Collection.

Klee’s influence on American artists, however, was much more than simply stylistic. American Surrealists, for instance, were attracted to Klee’s process of “psychic improvisation,” where he plumbed the subconscious to spark artistic inspiration. This inspired the Surrealist concept of “automatic writing,” which would also go on to inspire a cohort of Abstract Expressionists.

Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta, who immigrated to New York in the late 1930s, shared his passion for Klee’s approach with a host of young American artists—namely his dear friend Motherwell, who was taken by what he called Klee’s mastery of doodling. “One might say that Paul Klee was the supreme doodler,” he once wrote.

Motherwell accessed many of his ideas through this process, as did his contemporaries like Pollock and William Baziotes. The three all took lessons at Stanley William Hayter’s New York-based Surrealist printmaking workshop, Atelier 17, where Hayter propagated Klee’s theories and artistic process. “[Klee] made suggestions in slight things which you could follow and go farther with, which would challenge you and propose things to you—perhaps more so than people like Matisse and Picasso,” Hayter later explained.

By the 1930s, Klee’s paintings had also begun to make inroads with U.S. museums. Along with Klee’s artist friends, his European dealers had also fled to America during the war—and brought the Swiss artist’s paintings with them. Jsrael Ber Neumann, in particular, is credited for introducing Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, to Klee’s work.

Between 1929 and 1931, the first two years of MoMA’s existence, Barr mounted both a solo show of Klee’s work and a group exhibition including his paintings. After the solo show was met with disgust by critics, but enthusiasm by American artists, Barr observed that “it was the artists, rather than the critics, that were disposed to adopt the new and foreign.”

Private collectors began snapping up and displaying Klee’s work, too. One was the D.C.-based Duncan Phillips, who bought his first Klee canvas in 1930. By 1948, he was displaying 12 paintings by the artist in a public gallery that housed his acquisitions (which later became the Phillips Collection). It was there, in a space affectionately anointed the “Klee Room,” that Noland spent many hours drinking in Klee’s unregimented, organic approach to color and line. In the 1940s and ’50s, Gene Davis and Mark Tobey, two abstractionists also included in “Ten Americans,” visited the Klee Room regularly.

Norman Lewis
Untitled, 1977
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

By the 1940s, Klee’s writings—including “Creative Confession” and “Pedagogical Sketchbook”—also became more available to American artists, thanks to their translation into English for the first time. These were passed around schools such as Black Mountain and Columbia University, where the art historian Meyer Schapiro taught young painters like Motherwell using Klee’s model.

Motherwell had a copy of “Pedagogical Sketchbook”; Lewis, another Abstract Expressionist included in “Ten Americans,” had two different editions. “Through information like this, we realize that the show is as much about what these artists were learning from his art as from his ideas,” co-curator Smithgall explained.

“So what is Klee’s ultimate influence on artists as important as Pollock and Lewis?” she continued. “There are some formal similarities, sure. But it’s really about the ideas and methods that they’re assimilating—and then ultimately creating their own form of artistic expression based on that.”

Alexxa Gotthardt