Monday, 17 March 2014

From Klee to 'An Exhibit'

Was Paul Klee the godfather of installation art? David Sylvester seemed to imply as much. He had been writing about Klee since seeing an exhibition of his work in Paris  at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in February 1948, publishing an article in response to the exhibition in New York ‘abstract-expressionist periodical’ Tiger’s Eye later that year after it was rejected by several London journals. ‘Absorbed into a symposium on the Sublime, sandwiched between contributions from Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman’, Sylvester’s ‘Auguries of Experience’ (it’s a William Blake reference) described a Klee painting as something you don’t just look at, but journey through:

‘A Renaissance picture is a scene set before your eyes. A Klee is a landscape through which you journey. Of the first you are a spectator, in the second you are a participant. One moves you to exaltation, the other to communion.’

This was not, in fact, a question of physical movement so much as a visual journey:

‘With a Klee, the relationship between the picture and yourself is reciprocal; you touch a loose rock with your foot, it falls from under you and you are left dangling in space.’

The essential point was that Klee employed what Sylvester termed ‘afocalism’, the absence of a focal point which gave Klee’s late pictures a maze-like quality. Sylvester's objection to Calder's mobiles was in fact that in moving themselves, they removed the exploratory incentive from the viewer:

'the full solution does not lie in making the work of art move, but in compelling the spectator to believe that he is moving about in the work of art- be it a sculpture by Giacometti or a picture by Klee'. (1951)

Sylvester began his selected essays, About Modern Art with two texts about Klee (‘Auguries of Experience’ and ‘Paul Klee. La Période de Berne’ published in Les Temps Modernes in 1951’) which itself demonstrates his continued regard for them as his most important early writings. And in the decade following the 1948 Klee exhibition, he kept finding ways in which Klee’s legacy manifested itself. Firstly in young British sculptors like Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull of whom he wrote in 1950 that they were:

‘perhaps the most notable exponents, among the youngest generation of European artists, of the new method of composition informing the later paintings of Klee and Masson among others (including Victor Pasmore), and the group sculptures of Alberto Giacometti.’

Then, finally coming around to the significance of Pollock and his fellow abstract-Expressionists after the landmark show of American art at the Tate in 1956 (when Sylvester recycled a passage about Klee as equally useful with regards to Pollock). But most unexpectedly he wrote in a review of 1957’s Hamilton/Pasmore/Alloway collaboration An Exhibit at the ICA that:

‘modern art tends increasingly to make the spectator not so much a distant observer as a participant in the work, a necessary agent in the completion of the work […] it is partly in order to achieve this that painters since Klee have tended towards the deliberate elimination of the focal point, and ‘an Exhibit’ is organised as freely and meanderingly as a Klee, and to the same purpose’.

The review from which this comes was written in response was written at the time of An Exhibit’s first showing but not published until 1998 when it appeared in Modern Painters in homage to Pasmore, who had recently died. Sylvester applauds An Exhibit, and at the same time sees it as a natural continuation in three dimensions of what Klee was doing in two. Fortunately for a short time this year both Tate Modern's Klee exhibition and the ICA's reconstruction of An Exhibit were on simultaneously, so it was possible to check, and I could see the resemblance!

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