When I received an email from San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) at the end of July, I didn’t think there was anything in particular for which I was eager to make the trip to the city. Then I noticed that the last weekend was coming up for a small exhibit on Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) and German-born American textile artist and printmaker Anni Albers (1899-1994). I got myself there the day before it closed.
At the beginning of the year, I envied a friend who’d gone to London and visited the Tate Modern for Albers’ first major exhibition in the UK. Had the timing been different, I might have made my way across the Atlantic, but I couldn’t. Because I’ve long been a fan of Paul Klee and, only by chance while en route to India, viewed his show at the Tate in 2013, I didn’t want to miss this opportunity much closer to home. SF MOMA has a small gallery specifically dedicated to Klee, one in which his work is regularly paired with another’s on changing themes.
What struck me about the latest exhibit is the influence a teacher/artist can have without the student/artist becoming a slavish copyist. How do we transform what we learn and admire into our own expression? Albers seems to have accomplished that feat.
Albers studied under Klee when she was at the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany, beginning in 1922. Although she aspired to be a painter, enrollment was available only in woodworking, metalworking, wall painting, or weaving. As threads gradually caught her imagination, she chose weaving. Through Klee, she “absorbed the artist’s principles of structure, tonality, and line into the fabric of her artistic sensibility.” She earned her Bauhaus diploma in 1929.
In the works on view, I saw how both artists highlighted the significance of line and its vertical and horizontal application. Along with the rhythm of multiplication, it appears in various ways, including typography. Below are examples only from the SF MOMA exhibit rather than Klee’s and Albers’ large oeuvres.
[apologies for reflections in the glass and other distortions because of how the work was displayed]
Née Annelise Elsa Frieda Fleischmann, Albers married Josef Albers (1888-1976), an artist and educator who also was born in Germany. Together they fled Nazi Germany for the U.S., while Klee left for Switzerland when the Nazis condemned his work as “degenerate art.” In 1933, the Albers arrived at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. She served as assistant professor of art until 1949, advocating for weaving to be considered art rather than craft. Like Klee in painting, she saw polyphony in weaving: “The subtle play between [two threads] in supporting, impeding, and modifying each other’s characteristics, is the essence of weaving.” She intended her “pictorial weavings” to be looked at rather than “worn, walked on, or sat upon.” In City [above], block patterns of different tones and widths are the architectural elements of a floating city. Below is Klee’s version of doors.
Klee is known for his memorable thoughts about what line is:
A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.
A line is a dot that went for a walk.
A simple flourished line is an active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal. A walk for walk’s sake. The mobility agent is a point, shifting its position forward.
Albers was determined to subvert a categorization that still lingers today. She said, “[W]hen the work is made with threads, it’s considered craft; when it’s on paper, it’s considered art.” So she explored how threads and knots behave through a series of gouaches. In Drawing for a knot, she indeed takes a line for a walk.
Klee’s lines went all over the place.
At the age of 64, Albers turned to printmaking. In Triadic I DR I, she recalls Klee’s lessons on multiplication in the repetition of dots and triangles in a grid-like pattern. According to the title card, her notes from that time are a synthesis of Klee’s idea that “any defined unit can be multiplied through repetition, displacement, mirroring, or rotation.”
Klee and Albers were both proud of the fact that their mediums—painting and weaving—are ancient arts that preceded writing, with “primeval picture-writing” as the original form of writing. In Initiale [below], Klee groups hieroglyphic forms next to a large initial “J” and lets the viewer search for meaning. In Alber’s typewriter studies [above], she takes one letter or symbol, repeating it to the point of no longer having any significant meaning. Its function is merely a mark in a larger pattern.
Although I hadn’t intended to go through any other exhibits, just before leaving I heard of one that included Canadian-born Agnes Martin (1912-2004) and American-born Mark Bradford (b. 1961), so I went upstairs. The relationship I saw between them was not one of direct tutelage, like that between Albers and Klee. However, Bradford gives a nod to Martin in On a Clear Day, I Can Usually See All the Way to Watts. This large mixed media is entirely different from Martin’s soft, even grids. Two journal clippings of black hairstyles rest on a framework of singed and slightly translucent permanent wave endpapers (he started out as a beauty operator), combined with undulating sky blue and cream lines. His comment about the work: “All you’re seeing is linear grids because that’s where I am, but stay tuned…That’s why I extended it to Watts, to make it social, instantly.”
Except for Bradford’s work, the walls of the large gallery are lined with Martin’s graphite lines/grids on paper: Untitled (Study for “On a Clear Day”). She began the series with a basic square and systematically added lines in each sheet, the preliminary structure for a suite of serigraphs that were printed by Parasol Press, Portland, Oregon, in 1973. These drawings commemorated Martin’s return to making art after a hiatus of almost five years. As I watched a mother and daughter walk past the several dozen framed studies, appearing perplexed by them, I commented that most likely they were preparatory pieces, eventually leading to her large paintings. I compared them to exercises for warming up muscles before taking off to run a marathon.
For Martin, “Our response to line and tone and color is the same as our response to sounds….[Abstract art] holds meaning for us that is beyond expression in words.” Bradford’s work seems to echo this sentiment, though he and Martin are of different generations and worlds and have created their art in disparate environments—rural New Mexico vs. Los Angeles. But inspiration and influence don’t necessarily lead to overt sameness. Something we learn from another artist penetrates and moves us to communicate our experiences in our own way. Across the centuries, the history of art provides us with too many instances to cite here. Sometimes they appear unexpectedly.
When I was home again, I inexplicably pulled a book out of a pile and found myself re-viewing/re-reading a book about Indian artist V.S. Gaitonde (1924-2001) and seeing something I’d forgotten from my first perusal—a link to Klee. How synchronistic after the Klee/Albers exhibit! Gaitonde never met Klee, let alone had a chance to study with him, but he certainly had some exposure to his work, as evidenced by his linear treatments during the 1950s. While they are reminiscent of Klee, they are wholly Gaitonde’s expression. Some argue that farther back, the influence came from Indian miniature painting.
Following this period of Klee-like images, Gaitonde went on to create entirely nonobjective work. An artist who is truly committed to her/his process will inevitably evolve. But, at least for a while, the influence of another artist may be obvious.
It is clear from the example of Bradford vis à vis Martin and Gaitonde vis à vis Klee, that some kind of transfer between artists also happens without a strong mentor, but merely by viewing the work, whether in person or in photos. Of course, that’s not the only kind of influence. There’s the influence that can occur perhaps daily. We see something that someone else has made or that Nature has displayed, and it teaches us without verbal instruction or reading a text. Whether we consciously register the awareness or not in that moment, often it pops up somewhere, sometime, somehow. And do we even remember where the influence first came from?
I’ll let Polish-born American painter Jack Tworkov (1900-1982) have the last word on being influenced.
No artist is an artist all by himself [sic]. He is an artist only by virtue of the fact that he voluntarily permits other artists to act on him and that he has the capacity to react in turn. The artist who acts as if he could have conceived his art by himself, sealed off from other artists and their work and their thoughts, is stupid—he merely tries to conform to the idiotic romantic image of the artist as a primeval energy, as a demiurge; the continual interaction of ideas among artists is the very condition for the existence of an artist….
The artist, instead of trying to obey the ideas of others in order to be more himself, ought perhaps to…accept the others as facts of himself. Thus he becomes free to use whatever he can in whatever way he can. By releasing himself from the struggles of what he considers not himself, he becomes richer at once. More possibilities loom up for him. 
Questions and Comments:
Who has most inspired you in your creativity? How would you describe the influence? Is it obvious or did something permeate your sensibility on a deeper level?
If you had the opportunity to learn from a master, who would you want as your teacher?