Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Ria Munk III” (1917, unfinished), oil and charcoal on canvas, The Lewis Collection (all images courtesy Neue Galerie, New York)

The Neue Galerie’s intimately scaled, seductively curated exhibition, Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900-1918, opens with an explosion of wild, Fauvist color — pinkish violets, bottomless blue-blacks, and acid greens sparked with tangerine and sunflower — not to mention the glinting gold-and-silver carpet covering 90 percent of the museum’s standard-bearer, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907).

The exhibition brings together 12 paintings and 40 drawings of women by Gustav Klimt, along with assorted works of decorative art, design, and fashion by way of context. It underscores the fascination that women held for the artist — aside from some early works, they constitute the sole subject of Klimt’s output as a portraitist — at a time when social emancipation and sexual freedom were among the driving forces of modernism.

Gustav Klimt, “The Dancer” (ca. 1916-17), oil on canvas, 180 x 90 cm, Neue Galerie New York (click to enlarge)

Klimt’s relationships with women were nothing if not complex. He never married yet maintained a decades-long intimacy with Emilie Louise Flöge, the younger sister of his brother Ernst’s wife, while carrying on innumerable affairs with models — who occupied virtually the same social standing as prostitutes — as well as patrons from the highest echelons of Viennese life. In fact, after the Anschluss, the Hungarian-Jewish mother of Elisabeth Lederer (the subject of one of the more resplendent paintings in the show) put her own reputation on the line and signed an affidavit naming the long-dead Klimt as Elisabeth’s father.

This has been viewed as a ploy to grant Elisabeth a Christian lineage, thereby saving her from the Holocaust. But when Elisabeth was a child, her mother, Szerena, encouraged her to call Klimt “uncle,” and once, in the heat of one of his many arguments with Szerena over the direction of the portrait, the artist shouted, “I shall paint my girl as I like her and that’s the end of it.”

The progress of this particular painting, as described by Elisabeth (quoted in the catalogue by the exhibition’s curator, Klimt scholar Tobias G. Natter), entailed months of “making drawings in various positions,” followed by three years of sittings, over the course of which Klimt “changed his concept over and over again.” But this was his modus operandi, an angst-ridden process that resulted in a surprisingly small number of paintings for such a successful artist (about 250), with many left unfinished at the time of his death in 1918 at the age of 55. Natter writes that after 1900, “when Klimt was at the height of his art, he produced on average just one portrait a year.”

If you fell in love with Maria (Ria) Munk, the subject of Klimt’s “Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk II” (1917), while she spent the summer at the Met Breuer’s Unfinished exhibition, she’s back for another look — but the charcoal whorls, sketchy lines, blotches of color, and swaths of empty canvas that make up most of her figure are merely the most noticeable symptoms of the quasi-existential state of incompleteness running through Klimt’s work. It is possible, with the exception of the golden lockdown encompassing “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” to view most, if not all, of the other paintings in this show as unfinished in one way or another.

Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer” (1914-16), oil on canvas, private collection (click to enlarge)

The uncannily contemporary aspect of Klimt’s painting is that it was always in flux, so much so that Elizabeth Lederer, after putting up with the artist as he “changed his concept over and over again,” notes that he “would have changed it once more were it not for my mother who one day seized the picture, loaded it onto the car, and kidnapped it. When he saw it at home he said: ‘Now it is even less her!’”

If many of the post-1910 portraits in the exhibition, with their flat, frontal designs, feel very much of the moment despite the elaborate fin-de-siècle costuming, it’s an impression that could come in part from their stylistic instability — the conflicting passages of color, pattern, and brushwork that would barely hold together in less gifted hands. The difference between these paintings and the more stylistically consistent earlier work is like night and day. The fluffy 1899 portrait of Szerena Lederer (who, with her husband August, were Klimt’s most important patrons, with a family fortune exceeded in Vienna only by that of the Rothschilds) might as well have been painted by Renoir.

The portraits in the main gallery, which date between 1907 and 1917, brim with shivers of tension that are far more subtle than the collisions between the separate realms of naturalism and decoration that characterize works like “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” and “The Dancer” (1917).

A close look at “The Dancer” (ca. 1916-17) reveals not only patently unfinished passages, such as the shoes and the left hand, which are rendered in loosely sketched lines, and the right hand, whose inadequate foreshortening truncates the fingers into stumps, but also stylistic shifts that are apparent only when you isolate them from the painting’s florid overkill.

The vase in the lower left and its daubed green reflection on an orange tabletop could have come from the brush of Matisse, while the flowers in the vase, with their manic repetition of concentric circles, looks like the work of an agitated outsider artist. This ensemble clashes with the sharply geometric zigzags adorning the rug abutted against it; presumably resting on the floor, the pattern is so forceful that it adheres to the picture plane, throwing spatial relationships into chaos. And that’s just one corner of the painting.

Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II” (1912), oil on canvas, private collection

Turning to another showstopper, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II” (1912), once your eye strays from the imposing oval of Bloch-Bauer’s black hat, the undulating column of fabric draping her body, her sleep-kissed eyes and parted lips, you begin to notice that the legs are too short to be proportionate with the arms, that the tonal contrast between the light and dark shades of green on the floral backdrop is singularly unattractive, and the paint application, with smears of white haphazardly mixed in with the greens, looks greasy and out of place beside the more refined passages defining Bloch-Bauer’s figure, especially the pearlescent whites, greens, blues, and yellows of her stole.

All this is to say that Klimt had the mesmerizing ability to make a painting work and not work at the same time. By all rights, his pictorial illogic should be a source of irritation, but instead of exasperating over the jagged planar disruptions, jarring color, indecipherable cultural appropriations of Japonisme and Chinoiserie, and abrupt transitions between softly molded forms and flat, abstract patterns, we find ourselves surrendering to their stupendously beautiful decadence.

In the catalogue, Natter quotes Klimt’s 1918 obituary, which cites the many sources that influenced his art:

Japan, China, even Byzantium and other parts of the ancient and modern Orient. Italian Pre-Raphaelite art and the modern English version. French painting of jewels and magic in the style of Moreau, modern Dutch mysticism from the realm of Khnopff, with colonial goods and gods in between. Even if he took from everywhere, he was no means an eclectic. He merely fed on it; he transformed it into Gustav Klimt.

True, Klimt shouldn’t be called eclectic, but his digestion of influences was more fibrous than smooth. That he was able to transform these conflicting forces “into Gustav Klimt” implies a fierce creative intelligence that sallied forth from an authoritative core to grapple with the anxiety of what it means to be modern.

That artistic core — a serene proficiency untroubled by the discord that routinely erupted across the surface of his paintings — is on display in the dozens of drawings that Natter has selected to complete our understanding of Klimt the portraitist. Many are studies for the works in the show, and aside from a few that sink into torpid academicism, all are executed with an unerringly fluid line, trembling across the contours of a form — a hand, a pleated gown, an open, inquiring face — setting it aglow in the gallery’s protectively dim light.

If Klimt’s oeuvre of paintings is relatively paltry, his drawings number in the hundreds. Unlike the canvases, they show no sign of ambivalence or stress, flowing directly from eye and brain to the chalk, charcoal, or pencil he held in his fingers, a communion between artist and sitter.

Klimt’s line embodies a painful vulnerability, like an exposed nerve; its transition to the public forum of paint on canvas, in the teeth of overwhelming social change and the industrial barbarity of World War I, was undoubtable fraught and harrowing, but transfigured into excessive, even ecstatic beauty. It’s there that Klimt meets us on our own turf.

Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900-1918continues at the Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 16, 2017.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.