Paul Klee with his cat, Fripouille, Possenhofen, (1921) (photograph by Felix Klee, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, gift of the Klee family, © Klee-Nachlassverwaltung, Bern)

GENEVA — While teaching at the newly-established Bauhaus school in Weimar, the painter Georg Muche frequently heard thumping sounds coming from the studio next to his own. When he asked his neighbor, Paul Klee, about the noise, Klee confessed. “So, you heard it?” Klee asked. ”I’m terribly sorry. I was painting away, and it was going very well, suddenly I couldn’t help dancing.”

Despite the many depredations that Klee would face in later life — in a matter of years, he would be labelled a “degenerate” artist by the Nazi government, be expelled from Germany, and contract scleroderma, the disease that would kill him — it is this sense of irrepressible exuberance that makes Klee’s work so singular in the history of modern art, and which infuses two current exhibitions in Switzerland: Paul Klee: The Abstract Dimension at the Fondation Beyeler and 10 Americans. After Paul Klee at the Zentrum Paul Klee.

Paul Klee, “Before the Lightning” (1923) watercolor and pencil on paper, 28 × 31.5 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection,(photo by Peter Schibli, courtesy Fondation Beyeler)

Born in 1879 in Bern, into a family of musicians, Klee was a natural and accomplished violinist and draughtsman. His earliest influences were the graphic illustrations of Franz Stuck and the musical tradition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn. He was not, by his own accounts, a natural painter. It was not until a trip to Tunisia, in 1914, that Klee could make his famous declaration, “Color and I are one. I am a painter,” and produce his first abstract works.

Given Klee’s arduous path toward non-figurative painting, abstraction may seem like a counterintuitive theme for a retrospective of his work. Klee has been less well-known as a painter of “pure,” liberated color, than as a playful miniaturist, prone to irony, humor, and caricature.

Paul Klee, “Signs in Yellow” (1937) pastel on cotton on colored paste on burlap on stretcher; original frame strips, 83.5 × 50.3 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection, (photo by Robert Bayer)

The Fondation Beyeler’s exhibition quickly dispels this misconception. Bringing together over 100 paintings, the exhibition establishes Klee as one of the preeminent abstract painters of his generation. Absent from the show are Klee’s more recognizable figures: his fish, angels, and biomorphic, cartoonlike portraits. In their place is the wide range of Klee’s eclectic abstract imagination, from his “chessboard” pieces and gestural lines to his many works inspired by musical composition.

Beginning with Klee’s work after his return from Tunisia, the exhibition is organized roughly chronologically, according to the main sources of Klee’s abstract techniques: his years as part of the Blue Rider group and as a teacher at the Bauhaus, his interest in signs and calligraphy, and his musical background.

Paul Klee “Flowering” (1934) oil on priming on canvas on stretcher, 81.5 × 80 cm, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, bequest of Dr. Emil and Clara Friedrich-Jezler, 1973 (photo: © Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft, Zürich, Philipp Hitz)

Klee’s major breakthrough in abstraction came when he discovered that he could “compose” a painting much like a piece of music. By assigning emotive value to individual colors and arranging them into fields of rectangles, Klee would produce a series of what he often termed “harmonies.” The immediate impression when viewing these color-rectangle compositions is not a sense of geometric rigidity, as in the works of Piet Mondrian and the De Stijl movement, but of an expressive and personal vision of abstraction. Klee’s wavering lines lend fragility and dynamism to the compositions, visible in a painting like “Flowering” (1934), with its palette of shimmering color.

The most remarkable works in the exhibition are Klee’s polyphonic creations, many from the Beyeler’s permanent collection. Often misleadingly termed “pointillist,” these later works were modelled on the musical technique of contrapuntal inversion: the harmony of independent themes often found in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. For Klee, polyphony had a cosmic, mystical quality. By overlapping transparent color fields, Klee produced works with several fully independent themes. In “Rising Star” (1931), for example, a screen of dots rests on top of a color-rectangle composition, their internal logic combining to produce an overarching sense of totality and harmony.

Robert Motherwell, “Abstraction on Turquoise” (1945) oil, enamel, sand, and charcoal on canvas board, 61 x 50 cm, (© Dedalus Foundation, Inc. / 2017, ProLitteris, Zurich)

At the time Klee died in 1940, his reputation had already been well established. In 1930, he became the first living artist to be given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which would go on to host two more retrospectives of Klee soon after his death. Collectors like Emmy Galka Schleyer and German dealers fleeing the Nazis brought many more of Klee’s works to the United States. By 1941, Clement Greenberg could write that “Almost everybody, whether conscious of it or not, was learning from Klee.”

Klee’s influence on American abstraction has been largely understudied, however, making 10 Americans a welcome intervention and an ideal companion to the exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler. Partnering with the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, where the exhibition will travel next, the Zentrum Paul Klee brings works from its permanent collection into conversation with representative samples from abstract expressionists like Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, and Jackson Pollock, to untangle the prominent web of stylistic relationships that makes Klee such an enormous influence.

Adolph Gottlieb “The Seer” (1950) oil on canvas, 151.2 x 181.9 cm, the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Erworben 1952 (© Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation / 2017, ProLitteris, Zurich)

Highlighting four themes in Klee’s painting — nature, signs and symbols, pictorial writing, and polyphony — the exhibition connects individual Abstract Expressionists with different facets of Klee’s work. Mark Tobey, who shared Klee’s interest in calligraphy, is a clear successor to Klee’s pictography; whereas Motherwell’s doodling descends directly from Klee’s own childlike technique. Some artists’ works wear their influence more clearly than others: Adolph Gottlieb’s “The Seer” (1950), though of a larger scale, employs hieroglyphs that would be at home in one of Klee’s cabinet-sized works. In fact, this observation applies to many of the abstract expressionists: as Gene Davis said in 1983, “My last show of symbol paintings are just Klee blown up large.”

Klee’s contested legacy as a Surrealist, Expressionist, Cubist, and Dadaist makes his work an especially fruitful field for teasing out the tensions among individuals of the same movement. The sheer variety of Klee’s output means that abstract expressionists with even seemingly little in common, such as Norman Lewis and William Baziotes, can trace their influences back to different tributaries of the same source.

Norman Lewis, “Promenade” (1950) oil on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm, (collection of George Wein © Estate of Norman W. Lewis; courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY)

No doubt Klee’s many years as a teacher had a large part in making his theories and philosophy so receptive to later artists. Klee authored some of the most influential pedagogical and aesthetic treatises of modernism, and at least one of his colleagues at the Bauhaus, Josef Albers, would go on to teach in the United States. Another primary bridge between Klee and the abstract expressionists is their shared proximity to music — from the classical composers Klee admired to the improvisatory jazz of postwar New York City.

“The act of giving form determines form itself,” Klee wrote in his notebooks, “and the process is more important than the form.” It is this emphasis on process as a creative product, in and of itself, that makes Klee so inescapable for a generation of painters ever in search of the most expressive, gestural ways of creating a painting, even when the artists themselves may claim indifference.

Pollock, whose “Composition No. 16” (1948) is on display here, reportedly disparaged Klee for his miniaturism. Yet when one sees the famous footage of Pollock in the act of making his drip paintings — rhythmic, performative, almost balletic — it’s hard not to think once again of Klee, alone in his room, tapping out the tune of his painting.

Paul Klee: The Abstract Dimension continues at the Fondation Beyeler (Baselstrasse 101, Riehen/Basel Switzerland) through January 21; and 10 Americans. After Paul Klee continues at the Zentrum Paul Klee (Monument im Fruchtland 3, Bern, Switzerland) through July 1.

Dennis Zhou is a writer living in New York City. He holds a master's degree from the University of Oxford, and his work has appeared most recently in the Times Literary Supplement.