Inspiration and Influence in the Age of Paul Klee

Adriana Sensenbrenner

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


The following paper will explore the Phillips Collection exhibition on Paul Klee, titled “Ten Americans: After Paul Klee.” Klee was a Swiss-born artist whose paintings have inspired artists and painters in Europe and America. He aided in the cultural exchange or migration of European art ideas in America, where at the time American wartime and post-war generations were seeking new inspiration and new meaning after World War II. My analysis will seek to approach Paul Klee’s influence in terms of layers of reception within an invisible dialogic network to piece together the artist’s inspirations, influences, mentors and followers. What emerges is a fusion of styles, ideas and concepts that are all derived from a single source. Klee becomes one node within a network of nodes where such a network becomes visible within the walls of the Phillips.


Paul Klee’s exhibit in the Phillips collection can be used as a case to apply discovery methods to extrapolate how meaning and understanding emerges. Through layers of reception and the invisible functions of the museum itself, artist and artistic conversations converge becoming nodes within a larger dialogical framework. My paper will uncover each one of these layers; the institutional/ physical layer of the museum, Paul Klee’s network in Europe and America and the subconversations happening around primitivism and “child-like” art. Such affinities coupled with the personal life of Paul Klee and the importance of the museum as a mediating institution brings to life Paul Klee’s artistic career and work. The meaning behind Klee’s collection emerge through such nodes within a larger dialogic network of contexts and communities, piecing together an irreplaceable image of the 20st century “painter-poet”.


Georgian Revival House, the original look of the Phillips Museum


The Phillips Collection was founded by Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), the son of Major Duncan Phillips. He was close to his old brother Jim, whom he graduated from Yale in 1908. Duncan and Jim were both avid art collectors and writing extensively on art. Duncan published his first book “The Enchantment of Art” in 1914. A few years later in 1917, Duncan’s father and brother Jim died from influenza that left a lasting mark on Duncan (Phillips Collection). As a response, Duncan and his mother founded the museum, originally named the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery. Duncan married Majorie Acker in 1921 a few months before the museum opened. Both of them worked close together until Duncan’s death in 1966. The building itself has been renovated from the original Georgian Revival house to accommodate more galleries and office space. The large renovation and expansion project in 2006 opened more than 30,000 square feet of space to include not only galleries but also an auditorium, library, outdoor courtyard, art conservation studio and an expanded visitor entrance, shop and café (Phillips Collection).

Duncan Phillips and his wife Majorie Acker

Duncan first acquired Paul Klee back in 1930 with Klee’s masterpiece Tree Nursery (1929). Phillips became an avid collector of Klee shortly thereafter, assembling 13 of Klee’s finest works in oil and watercolor that spanned the artist’s career. The following two decades saw an ever- growing presence of Klee specifically at the Phillips, where Klee’s masterpieces became grouped into a central place in the collection creating the “Klee Room”.[1] After two solo exhibitions in ’38 and ’42, the Klee Room became a permanent residence to the painter’s masterpieces and persona. Serving as an abiding source of inspiration for American abstractionism, the Klee Room attracted American visitors and painters alike who sought to better understand the painter’s whose personal life was as eclectic as his paintings.

As tribute to the “painter-poet”, the Phillips Collection created an exhibition titled “Ten Americans: After Paul Klee” to explore the seminal role of the Swiss-born artist on the development of 20th-century American art. The exhibit explores how influential Paul Klee was on artistic figures in the American Abstract Expressionist and Color Field movements. Each of them adapted Klee’s art- either visually or ideologically- into their works of art. The ten Americans are as follows; William Baziotes, Gene Davis, Adolph Gottlieb, Norman Lewis, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Jackson Pollock, Theodoros Stamos, Mark Tobey and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Each of them drew on Klee in their own way, without seeking to emulate or copy his style yet used him to create visible and invisible synergies. The exhibition highlights how influential one painter can be, creating waves not only in the United States but also in Europe. Such a transatlantic exchange illustrates the larger dialogic network in which Paul Klee was working in as an artist.

Paul Klee

Paul Klee was born in Switzerland in 1879 to a family of artists. With a father as a musician, Klee was musically inclined as a violinist but ultimately chose painting in 1898 and went to Munich to study. Among the first Klee’s works that formed an integral part of his creative work were his etchings in 1903-06, that combined various artistic movements into one; the technical precision of the German Renaissance with the linearity of Art Nouveau and mad fantasy of the Expressionists (Mansfield, p. 12). He was part of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group that was later dispersed from Germany’s entrance in World War I. However, his artwork and work persisted in the midst of the war. Klee was part of an exhibition 1912 called Galerie Der Strum by Herwarth Walden that survived only a few years. His formidable years were when he was a teacher at the Bauhaus in Dessau. As a teacher, Klee strengthened his “resolve to discover and elaborate rational systems for the creation of pictorial form. He recorded his theories in his copious notes and in publications of great significance for modern art, including his 1925 Bauhaus book, Pedagogical Sketchbook.” (Mansfield, p. 282). He re-examined his own paintings through a different perspective as a teacher. For example, he used arrows to indicate lines of force for his students arrows where such arrows began to creep into his work (Mansfield, p. 282).


Phillip’s Collection Space:  

Observing any of Paul Klee’s masterpieces requires an analysis of the exhibition itself, extrapolating the physical layer of the museum. According to O’Doherty, modern gallery space is “constructed along laws as rigorous as those of building a medieval church where the basic principle is that the outside world must not come in[..] walls are painted white.” (O’Doherty, p. 7). Understanding the inner workings of the gallery space can be found not within a history of art but within the history of religion. He refers to a modern gallery space as a “white cube”, a transitional device that ultimately embodies a Zen space that enables the modern work to have its purity and clarity. As soon as you enter the gallery space on the third floor, the walls are lined with an introductory piece of the exhibit- a piece on Paul Klee and the motivation behind creating the exhibition. Walking past the entrance of the exhibit, the walls are lined with all ten of the artist’s works, each grouped thematically. One such theme that I will further explore in this paper is the concept of primitivism and archaic signs and symbols creating a sort of universal language for all to interpret at their own will.


Architectural layout of the Phillips Collection

Indeed, the exhibitions are grouped with such themes in mind yet the themes are stagnant- one can impose their own ideas as to which piece goes in which thematic room, leaving room for the visitors’ imagination and ideas. Such ideas recall the teachings of Malraux’s musée imaginaire, an abstract, ideal meaning system that “generations implementations of the conceptual and ideological system that actual museums and art history books realize in their selections and structures of the organization and validation” (Irvine, p. 4). Malraux arranged photographic exemplars on the floor much in the same manner as the painting on the walls of the Phillips exhibition are arranged- they are arranged in a certain order to extrapolate a certain meaning, creating a visible “cultural encyclopedia” for all who visits (Irvine, p. 6). Yet anyone can impose their own meaning on Klee’s exhibition, creating a recursive interpretation and re-interpretation. As such, the exhibition highlights the dialogic principle of how meanings are un-finalized and contextually situated in ongoing social conversations or dialogues (Irvine, 5). The gallery space of Paul Klee becomes “the medium through which these ideas are manifested and proffered for discussion” creating an interface to explore their ideas of art, beauty and aesthetics (O’Doherty, p. 14). It becomes a pre-interpreted space where the visible and invisible converge. The visible as the space itself and the invisible as the experience that is already interpreted in this kind of interface.


Paul Klee’s Network:

Paul Klee’s work in conversation with artists from Europe and America adds to the already multiple nodes within a larger dialogic network surrounding the artist. His works pre- Bauhaus and during his Bauhaus years reflects Klee’s osmotic artistic ability; fusing together so many different artistic and musical approaches within his art work that put him in conversation with artists in Europe and America. In 1920 Walter Gropius invited Klee to join the staff of Bauhaus at Weimar, seeking to combine fine art and craft that would provide design models for industrial production. As Aichele aptly states, Klee’s work places the artist within a broad theoretical context that includes references to “one of the systems of color theory taught at the Bauhaus, to the basic principles of twelve-ton music (Kandinsky) and aspects of his teaching curriculum of recapitulation from previous completed exercises” (Aichele, p. 75).

Paul Klee, Kettledrummer (1940)

Wassily Kandinsky, Esquisse pour Autour du cercle, 1940. Oil on panel. 15 ½ x 23 ⅝ in.

Such an improvisatory approach to art puts into conversation his long-time friend and fellow Bauhaus teacher Wassily Kandinsky. He became Klee’s muse, influencing the artist through his musically inclined artwork. Klee internalized Kandinsky’s musical metaphors, such as the “note/chord”, as seen in his masterpiece Kettledrummer (1940). This painting reflects synergies in the traditions of Russian Suprematism, Constructivism, Dutch de Stijl as well as naturalistic observations. Klee’s improvisatory approach to art stems from his belief that music reached a flowering point in the 18th century, particularly in the polyphonic music of Mozart and Bach. He aspired for art to achieve the effect of polyphonic music, characterized by multiple voices or melodies played simultaneously (Mansfield, p. 284). Klee wanted to bring about the harmonious convergence of the architectonic and the poetic, emphasizing geometric structure and abstract form mainly influenced by Bauhaus’ constructivist mentality. His later works like the one above emphasized bold and free black linear patterns against a colored field, executed with “brutal simplicity, thickly painted on a rough background” (Mansfield, p. 284).

The 1930s and 40s proved an increasingly complex and dangerous political climate in Germany, where both artists were thrown in the crux of such turmoil. Both artists were dismissed from the Bauhaus and labelled “degenerate” artists by the new government. Unlike most German artists, Klee stayed in Germany and moved to Berlin (whereas artists such as Kandinsky fled to Paris). A few people played major roles in the cultural exchange of Paul Klee’s artworks with the American public. Alfred Barr, the Museum of Modern Art’s Director, visited Berlin in the Weimar Period and was particularly interested in purchasing art later labeled “degenerative” by the Nazis (Deschmukh, p. 581).

Adolf Hitler, accompanied by Nazi commission members viewing the “Entartete Kunst” show on July 16, 1937. (Gardner, p. 765)

He was exposed to the works coming from the Bauhaus and more importantly, works of Paul Klee. Barr ended up mounting a major Klee show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930 that played a formidable role in the cultural transmission of Klee’s artworks in America. The exhibition “paved the way to a greater acceptance of modern German art for it had attracted favorable reviews and large number of visitors” who saw how different and new Klee’s works were (Deshmukh, p. 582). The art dealer Emmy “Galka” Scheyer also served as the sole American-based art dealer promoting the works of four painters of which includes Klee. She named the “Blue Four”, reminiscent of the group’s name Blaue Reiter, and espoused these artists works throughout California and organized exhibitions in the 1920s and 30s. Such exhibitions introduced west coast artist like Diego Rivera to Kandinsky and Klee who saw the greatness in Klee’s work and bought several of his works for his friend Frida Kahlo, citing how Klee’s work was “not for the same broad public that Rivera always had in mind” (p. 54).

Paul Klee’s Reception in America:

American audiences embraced Klee’s art due to its spirit of whimsy and childhood wonder- poised between the material world and the transcendence. To American artists, Klee “symbolized fluctuating and even apparently contradictory roles of the artist in the modern world; to be uniquely and only oneself, uncategorized, to be private and inward and to be open and accessible to the public” (Zentrum, p. 53).  Thus it is helpful to think of Klee’s influence in terms of conversations rather than styles. The output from the various conversations happening during this time do not have the same visual styles but rather seek to reveal a similar method, a shared attitude towards the artistic process. Such conversations piece together a dialogic framework that is visualized within the exhibition at the Phillips. Each painting is in some way in conversation with Klee’s artistry and artistic technique.

Norman Lewis, Untitled (1947)

Take for instance Norman Lewis’ Untitled (1947), the only African-American artist among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Lewis was very much concerned with how art shifted social engagement to the meta-political level, creating a canvas that is anti-hierarchical “asserting that the aesthetic of a specific African people has a status equal to that of dominant European modes such as social realism and expressionism.” (Craven, p, 515). He is using the same artistic techniques as Klee such as geometric forms of the point and line as well as color. For Klee, color “was a source of energy that carries an emotional element to it, establishing the mood of the painting” (Mansfield, p. 282). Lewis uses Klee’s notion of color to establish a dark yet powerful mood, with heavy notes of black that surround the edges of the canvas almost as if it is engulfing the lighter-toned colors and geometric forms in the center of the canvas. The overall look of the painting looks like a storm is coming, probably citing the upcoming civil rights movements in the 50s. Lewis is therefore using Klee’s artistic techniques to advance his sociopolitical agenda to reach the public, just as Klee is an embodiment of an accessible and public artist.



Making the Invisible, Visible: Automatism, Primitivism and Child-like Art

Such relations among artists like Klee and Lewis form a dialogical network of correspondences and relationships. Another such relationship, or “node” if you will, is that between Gottlieb and Klee that highlight the third layer of subconversations happening around primitivism and “child-like” art. Gottlieb first was in contact with Klee when he purchased the monograph Paul Klee that Hermann von Wedderkop published in 1920, where such works like Erection into the Air(1938). served Gottlieb as source of inspiration. Together with Rothko, Soloman, Bolotowsky and Graham (“The Ten” group), Gottlieb strove to create a certain “dogma” that combined differing avant-garde styles into a unique pictorial language where such merging is reminiscent in Paul Klee’s paintings (Zentrum, p. 23). Gottlieb’s other source of inspiration rests on various abstract forms developed from acquiring tribal art in the mid-1930s on. He sought to synthesize these trends that he saw in the tribal art with the art that was being discussed during this time. Above all was Klee’s late works like The Man of Confusion (1939) that Gottlieb drew off of to create masterpieces such as Seer (1950)(p. 24).


Paul Klee, The Man of Confusion (1939)

Adolf Gottlieb, The Seer (1950)

Gottlieb was able to learn from Klee how “mythological subject matter and characters could serve artists in describing contemporary phenomena as well as illustrating unconscious feelings, the “inner world” of one’s psyche” (p. 24).  There thus became a common thread between the artists, both seeking to consciously create something from the unconscious. Gottlieb sought primal images as a way to understand ancestral images that embody nature’s primal forms. He ultimately began to draw a biomorphic pictorial language inspired by these images that include fossils and other natural formations. As previously mentioned, the The Seer (1950) is one example of Gottlieb’s pictograph. A further analysis of this pictograph will extrapolate how both artists reference mythology together with signs and symbols. His masterpiece is an exemplar of how Gottlieb emphasized the primitive content of his pictograph by using colors derived from cave paintings and Native American art- gray, tan, black and clay-colored. The boldly drawn signs look almost totemic in nature, thickly applied on the canvas in broad strokes. They resemble hieroglyphs floating freely on the picture plane (Phillips Collection).

Such tribal art also looked childish, in the sense that they looked improvised. Klee was a firm believer in making the invisible, visible- coining the term “automatic drawing: as a way to draw without conscious control of the will to achieve free and direct expression (p. 27). Liberating the line is a creative process that would begin to draw like a child. Children, according to Klee, are like “the insane and ‘primitive’ peoples, had the “power to see”. He let the “pencil or brush lead him until the image began to emerge and of course, his conscious experience and skills came back into play in order to carry the first intuitive image to a satisfactory conclusion” (Mansfield, p. 282). Such a relationship between Klee and Gottlieb reinforces the dialogic process that characterizes Klee’s network.


Paul Klee’s work were sources of inspiration and awe for a whole range of American artists and painters alike, each contributing to the every growing network that has formed around the artist. Above all, Klee’s openness and versatility offered the artists a different way to express themselves on canvas, away from the classic artistic language of cubism and surrealism offered by their contemporaries. Klee became the ultimate anti-dogmatic artist that created a new kind of pictorial language based on the primal, unconscious, childlike mentality. He captured the zeitgeist of American artists, inspiring them to look beyond the conventional towards the genesis of art.



Aichele, K. Porter. “Paul Klee’s ‘Rhythmisches’: A Recapitulation of the Bauhaus Years.” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 57, no. 1, 1994, pp. 75–89. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery SpaceBerkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: focus on Chapter 1, pp. 13-34.

Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Volume II. 14th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2016. [Excerpts on the development of modernist traditions.]

Mansfield, Elizabeth. and H. H. Arnason. History of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. [Excerpts]

Irvine, Martin. “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art“.

Deshmukh, Marion F. “The Visual Arts and Cultural Migration in the 1930s and 1940s: A Literature Review.” Central European History, vol. 41, no. 4, 2008, pp. 569–604. JSTOR, JSTOR,

CRAVEN, DAVID. “ʺIntroduction,ʺ ʺAbstract Expressionism and Afro-American Marginalisation,ʺ and ʺDissent During the McCarthy Periodʺ.” Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, edited by Ellen G. Landau, Yale University Press, 2005, pp. 510–526. JSTOR,