(Impossible) Geometrical Gnosis (Paul Klee)


From 1932, Paul Klee’s Two Ways (Zwei Gänge) was bought by the museum and is now on view at Visionaries: Making a Modern Guggenheim. Klee is most famous for his quirky figurative paintings, less so for more abstract works such as this. What they share is an interest in the spiritual effect, the combination of space and time, the form creation of line and movement. On one hand, there’s nothing tricky here. What makes Klee’s painting relatively easy to read is its emphasis on line. The graphic form of the two arrows on either side of the picture point you towards the center. You eye can follow along the line. The arrows plot two possible ways across two horizontal lines from outside in the modulated dark in the direction of the bright center. Only around that bright center, the ways of the lines trace and circumvent but never enter directly the white figure there. On the other hand, here’s the trick. There are “two ways.” One after the other, you can follow one line of thought and then the other. But the logic of painting, some might say, is a logic of simultaneity. From what perspective would it be possible to follow both ways at the one and very same time? Unmöglich!


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Abstract World (Paul Klee) (Horizon, Zenith, and Atmosphere)


This image by Paul Klee, Horizon, Zenith, and Atmosphere (DATE) is now on view at Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim. Klee’s extraterrestrial figures tend to be drawn from more down to earth perspectives that shadow our own. This picture takes a long view. It lifts the gaze of the viewer over the horizon represented by the thick bar at the bottom of the picture plane up to the orange dot that is the picture’s zenith behind which looms the white oval figure. Lines shoot out from the zenith point, which forms the one single tip of what is, no doubt, an infinity of triangular forms. The entire composition is envolped in a hazy atmospheric.

Sarah Lynn Henry’s essay Klee’s “Neo-Romanticism: the wages of scientific curiosity” in a volume of essays, Biocentrism and Modernism reflects briefly on the painting. The discussion appears in a section on “the phenomenon of weather,” which follows ones on “geological life,” and “movement of waters.” In her essay, Henry tags romantic Carl Gustav Carus who called the reflection of sky on water “truly heaven on earth,” whether darkly or cheerfully invoking a spirit of longing. What she calls Klee’s modern approach to this kind of atmospheric landscape is a “strange interjacent world.” In her words, Klee’s “apparitions are shimmery and quixotic, ambiguous as to presence and absence, near and far. One can read in them animated shapes and flights, gesture and pursuits, giving us an aqueous universe with its own reflected sun” (p.193).

(If you look closely, you might make out the vague shape of a bald hominid in the back of the picture, which turns out to be me reflected in the protective glass of the picture)

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What To Do About American Nazis On Campus?

American Nazi

There has been a lively debate about free speech on campus of late. It began with Zionism and BDS and has since morphed into racism and fascism. There is every reason to think that, with the increasing popularity of the alt-right among campus Republicans, there is going to be a lot more of “this.” These lovelies, for instance, appeared on campus at Texas A&M. It’s rather hard not to stare. But then, what is one actually supposed to do when one runs up against Nazi propaganda on campus? How is one supposed to react when speakers who represent this world view are invited to speak on campus? What is, in fact, the appropriate response to something that masquerades as free speech, promoting racial supremacy and racial-religious animus? Are there no rules governing “this” on campus discourse? The question is basic, even fundamental. What is this “x”? I am going to suggest that this is not “speech.” This is a “thing,” a physically odious object printed on paper. Barely belonging to the order of “discourse,” it represents no “thesis” about which reasonable people could enter into an argument in order to either agree or disagree. I do not believe it should have a place on campus or enjoy free speech protection.

I can only imagine tearing something like this off the wall after first documenting its actual appearance, and then bringing it directly to the chancellor of the university where I teach. This has everything to do with law and politics. Universities are going to have to figure out how to deal with hate speech on campus, which is very like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The real harm done by this kind of expression, more like defecation than expression, is done to racial, religious, and sexual minority students whose very identities, not their arguments, are being targeted and put under attack by this kind of excrement. I’m still going to stick with the basic idea that “protected speech” does not extend to speech intended to expel persons and populations out of the public sphere in their capacity as sovereign citizens.Or do Nazis get a free pass on the American campus?

american Nazi2


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Paul Klee and “the Spiritual in Art” (Dance You Monster to My Soft Song!)


Dance You Monster to My Soft Song! enjoys an exclamation point at the end of the title, at once stern and genial. Less famous than his cousin Angelus Novus, this funny little monster from 1922 by Paul Klee has none of the bathos that typically attends “the spiritual in art” or, for that matter, the “messianic thinking” that the new angel has inspired in critical theory after Walter Benjamin.  Brought from Germany to New York by the German Jewish art dealer Karl Nierendorf, it’s there now at Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim. From the image, one goes to the title. It’s there on the wall next to the group by Klee brought together for the exhibition. It’s also there at the bottom of the picture where Klee inscribed its words as if by way of an incantation. One’s first response is to laugh, of course. More given to humor and irony, Klee’s work is so very different than his friend Kandinsky’s.

In a chapter on “Word and Image in Twentieth-Century Art” in Topics of Our Time: Twentieth-century Issues in Learning and in Art, the great Ernst Gombrich has introduced our theme with far more expertise than is possible in my amateurish speculations. Gombirch makes mention of this image in relation to Klee’s own understanding of the creative process. Gombrich quotes Klee about those occasions when “one is very glad to see a familiar face surfacing spontaneously from the configuration, and find that the images look at one cheerfully or sternly, more or less tense, consolingly or threateningly, suffering or smiling” (p.178)

The sense-idea of the image looking back at the viewer will be a theme that readers of “Eye and Mind,” a magnificent essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, should surely recognize and appreciate. Gombrich notes Klee’s attribution of  “a kind of reality” to the “presences” called up in the creative process. About Klee Gombrich himself writes, now in his own words, that this artist “takes the measure of his ghostly visitors and remained in charge.” The “fierce monster of the tribe of Medusa [is] overcome by the artist’s gentle magic; it must dance rather than threaten, wit has triumphed over suffering” On the relation between image and word, Gombrich says that it always helps to know the spirit’s name, which is what give us the power over them (ibid.).

One last mention: note how the monster hovers over the diminutive little painter who stands before the piano with a seven branched candelabrum on top of it. To the right, a little exclamation point hangs over the title scrawled along the bottom of the painting. The painting is itself small, like most paintings by Klee. The elevation evoked by this picture is small scale and down to earth.

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Kandinsky Lines & Angel (Improvisation 28)


Representing more of the “spiritual in art” is Kandinsky’s Improvisation 28 (Second Version) (1912) now on view at Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim. Its apocalypse is in a “storm from paradise” kind of mode. In the artist’s composition theory, it is the sound of the part that stamps the whole, not vice-versa. The diagonal lines in the center of the picture give the painting its dynamical force. I’m pretty sure that, slightly bird-like, that’s an angel’s wing caught up in and contributing to the movement of the whole.


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Kandinsky Circles (At the Guggenheim)


These things have names. They were among the first paintings in the Kandinsky blast that open the new show at the Guggenheim, introducing the public to the founding vision of what was once called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Kandinsky’s vision of the spiritual in art commits itself, first to a furious multiverse of color-forms, and then to more analytical perspectives in the later work. Perhaps out of laziness, I’m reading the paintings in relation to the titles, which focus your eye on a starting point inside the painting, usually with THE circle. What remains ambiguous in the big black Several Circles is whether you read the big circle and the little circles in isolation and in what kind  of relation if you care to see it that way. Are the little circles caught in a state of being thrown out from the big circles to make their way out into the world? Or are they on their way back home, back into the embracing confine of the mother ship?  Then consider the chaos on view in the earlier works from the 1910s, like the furious activity of the blue St. George with white lance contained in the roiling white band along the edges of Painting with White Border, or the circular forms given to view in the more detached and intersellar viewing position.Form, composition, abstraction, pathos, time and space –these were the kinds of things that guided my thinking in Shape of Revelation, a study of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig in which I attempted to bring a pictorial dimension drawn from German modernism into modern Jewish philosophy and the philosophy of religion.

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Jews, Germans, Women and the Spiritual in Art in America (Creating a Modern Guggenheim)


They won’t do the ethnic tagging at the Guggenheim, but I will. Why now, Visionaries: Creating A  Modern Guggenheim, this big exhibition of the museum’s holdings organized to show the history of its founding visionaries and mission. Originally created as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the Guggenheim was the original brainchild of Solomon Guggenheim and the Baroness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenwiesen (i.e. Hilla Rebay). Other original movers were Justin K. Thannhauser, Karl Nierendorf, Peggy Guggenheim, Katherine S. Dreier. The group was made up of German American Jews, German Jews, and German women, who committed themselves to what Kandinsky called “the spiritual in art” as a form of modern art.

The exhibition organizes the art by collector, not artists. This  gives you a sense of who originally owned what before giving it to the museum as a public forum. What stands out is art in relation to money, the concept behind a collection, taste, and wild and wooly ideas. The opening blast of Kandinskys in the first large gallery up the ramp off the lobby sets the tone for the entire exhibition. There are so many interesting things, about which I am going to post separately.

For now with this post I want to stay with the faces behind the art and artists, the ones who created the design and exhibition place, putting the art in motion in the world. Let’s agree, if one insists, not to call it “religion.” Religion would be too material a frame. In contrast, the spiritual in art is invested in groups of dematerialized colors and forms floating off of the picture frame and out into the secular city, out there into new mental dimensions. In the 1950s, the spiritual in art, dependent on visionary German Jews and women, found a home, a point of refuge in New York City.

So why show exactly this precisely now? For the sake of historical perspective, nostalgia, artistic-spiritual renewal?

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