Monday, July 05, 2021


 I love this tiny (221 × 152 mm) etching by Paul Klee, Suicide from the Bridge.

Smart, funny, compact, dense with meaning-- this little doodle from 1916 is everything that conceptual art today should be but rarely is.

There's sparse room for detail, so Klee chose to define our hero by his hat and moustache-- excellent choices!

Here Klee shows us the weight of time as the moment of destiny approaches:

The path from the bridge down to the water below is filled not just with wind currents and birds... 

... but also with gods and demons.


X marks the spot

100 pounds of content in a one ounce package.


kev ferrara said...

While not exactly at the level of a Lyonel Feininger, Klee is a very interesting designer and graphic thinker. With a better understanding of color effects than LF and a better understanding of line than Kandinsky. Given Klee's "importance" it is something of coup for you to have an original by him.

Not sure why you think this sketch would be any more 'dense with meaning' than the average Hagar the Horrible or Beetle Bailey strip. Not sure what you mean by that.

Hope everybody had a happy fourth! (My brother nearly blew up the family, but boy did we have a good time!)

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Happy fourth to you too. I'm glad you survived your brother's pyrotechnics.

I'm glad you asked. Klee's sketch is more careless than Hagar or Beetle Bailey-- Klee's panel borders are sloppy, the lines of the drawings don't connect and are often repetitive and scratchy. The proportions are wrong. So in that sense, Hagar and Beetle look cleaner and more professional.

But unlike Hagar and Beetle, Klee shows us the intersection of different planes of existence. We start with surface appearances (the bridge, the guy, the water) which is a light little sketch. But he also adds a physical representation of time, as a huge part of the landscape, to show us that time weighs heavily on the little man as he tries to pick the exact moment to jump. The clock is running out. Time will soon end forever. This additional plane reflects both the physics and psychology of the situation. On a different plane-- let's call it the mythological plane-- we see that symbolic creature with arms spread down at the water level. Is that a river god waiting to embrace him? Is that death? I don't know, but I never saw anything like that in Beetle Bailey. Then there's also that crazy face in the sky... what is that, voices in his head cheering him to jump? A Greek chorus? Perhaps it's just Klee's musing on the mood of the little man whose face was too small to draw in initial sketch. We also have a plane showing the future-- mapping the spot in the water where the death will occur. Or is that just a bullseye that the man is targeting? It seems to be drawn as a combination of a physical splash and a symbolic "X marks the spot."

I don't think the King Features rulebook permits such ambiguity.

If you've read Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook (about a line going for a walk), you might detect the roots of this drawing. I think Klee's section on "three conjugations" or his section on "earth, water and air" provide context for this drawing. And check out the section on "the arrow." Klee proposes the arrow of movement as a manifestation of the duality of human existence ("half winged-- half imprisoned, this is man!") I think of this when I see the downward pointed minute hand on Klee's clock, which looks like a micro version of the descent of the man.

I don't want to get too analytical about this petite concoction because analysis can only deaden the lightness which is central to the drawing. Klee did not intend this drawing to be a philosophical treatise. The lines of the bridge don't connect, the perspective doesn't work, the proportions are wrong. Klee was a theorist with Swiss-German intellectual rigor, but this airy little drawing is not organized in a logical form; it's more like one of one of those briny tidal pools where the very first life is supposed to have originated because water facilitated random chemical groupings.

kev ferrara said...

It's been a very long time since I read Pedagogical Sketchbook. I'll refresh my memory and return.

kev ferrara said...

Back, brushed up, calmed down...

This etch-a-sketch has charm in its whimsical naiveté. I understood the sequential nature of it, and the symbolic point of the clock immediately. I’m glad Poseidon joined the party. He’s always fun to have around.

To the extent it works, it works on its own merits as the work of a whimsical child. Not by virtue of Klee’s mostly banal, flighty, useless, and often erroneous claims about lines and planes in his book. (Dear, dear sir, he is hardly a ‘theorist with Swiss-German Intellectual Rigor.’ His claims are imminently shreddable and the book imminently tossable.)

Luckily he’s a far better designer-cartoonist than a scholar or teacher.


David Apatoff said...

I agree that much of what I like about this is the "charm in its whimsical naivete." It's the same reason I like Dubuffet so much-- I'm a sucker for artists who understand the big, profound issues but are able to treat them in a light hearted, flippant way (rather than the ponderous, lugubrious, overly analytical style of the pre-Raphaelites, the symbolists, etc.) Its profundities are revealed in fleeting glimpses, and you have to be willing to pay enough attention to find them in unassuming scribbles. I like Cuneo for some of the same reasons. The mix of tragedy and light hearted laughter is at the core of Nietzsche's Zarathustra.

There's no question that Klee was one smart dude, although I would agree he didn't have the disposition of "a scholar." I believe his ability to wade through millennia of sorrowful civilization and still find childlike innocence was an artistic accomplishment.

I suspect you and I may be looking for different things in Pedagogical Sketchbook. It is extremely sparse and ascetic, especially at the beginning. It is not a recipe book for students such as Harvey Dunn might write. He offers no formula for how to draw a hand, or how to put yourself emotionally into a painting. It's more a playful dalliance with the ontology of line by a graphic artist. You have to fill in a lot of blanks.

kev ferrara said...

I suspect you and I may be looking for different things in Pedagogical Sketchbook.

I expect teachers to be mature, and to proffer well-tested and useful wisdom in an organized way. I approach all touted pedagogy with hope and expect no hand-holding. (As with reading and readers, a lazy student is of no use to anybody.)

It is not a recipe book for students such as Harvey Dunn might write.

'An Evening In the Classroom' is freely available in pdf form. Peruse it and you will see a wide range of pedagogical tactics and strategies, from anecdote, to philosophy, to technical, to tips on staying focused, encouragement, physical experience, and so on. It is not faux-intellectual, grasping for truths beyond one's linear powers, only to find exceptions and ignored complexities pouring through the spread-ignorant fingers.

Pedagogical Sketchbook begins with confusion. Confusing the experience of drawing with the experience of a line as an observer; it's aesthetic effect. Which is he talking about?

A line does not 'go for a walk.' From his own artist's point of view, it would be the point that goes for a walk drag-writing the line. The line, once drawn just sits there, inert, codified on the paper. It is then the eye that goes for a walk along the line in the viewing of it, thereby activating it's sensory illusions as a needle dragged along a record groove does to sound recordings. (Although the record is the treadmill version of this, where the road comes to the runner. With art, the eye-needle runs over the roads. You can find all this in Dunn, by the way, in different terms.)

The confusion never stops; Klee uses the term 'active' to refer to a line that is not part of a linear circuit. Does he mean that the line is active-seeming to the viewer (one experiences a sensation of aesthetic motion), or that it is 'active as a line' (that line-ness is its recognizable identity). Or is he assuming that to be a line is de facto to be active both as a line and active as an aesthetic action-journey?

He may, who knows? But if he does mean that, he's wrong because many lines and linear configurations can be inert. In order to read a line as an action (so that it 'walks'), one must have a starting point at one end. But if something in the line causes no particular starting point to suggest itself to the viewer, the eye has no necessary entry point and so does not necessarily walk/activate the line as a visual journey. Rather, it sees it as a gestalt whole (as one might read a readily recognizable word at once, instead of letter by letter.)

-- This is the same kind of linear-brained compositional ignorance present in Denman W. Ross's A Theory of Pure Design - another 'intellectual' but jejune foray into this kind of territory. Which, one is not suprised to find, was wildly influential on so many of the chatty egg-head Modernist designers. --

kev ferrara said...

Then we get to 3 where it is asserted that, when the circuit is closed (but not blacked in), its 'linearity is replaced by planarity'. Yet he's just said it is both a line (a point progression) and a planar effect. Well which is it? Does he know what the word 'replaced' means? Does he know what an 'editor' does?

And no, just because a circuit is completed that doesn't mean the thing has no uni-direction movement, either in part of whole. It wholly depends on how the reading eye is loaded into the figure to be read.

And no, just because he read in a geometry book that such drawn lines make a plane that the same hold true in the aesthetic realm. Each of the figures in 3 can just as easily be window openings or stick structures. The page surrounding those figures can just as easily be the solid form and the figures holes. So he's not seeing the figures for what they actually are; as vague abstractions with a pluripotency of possibly solutions. Rather, he is asserting as the actual effect of the figures he's drawn a prior intellectual belief. All evidence that he doesn't understand just how much he is losing in his reductive diagramming; SOP in unsophisticated academicism.

We get to 4 and we get the assertion that once a shape is blacked in (actually suggesting a plane) its lines disappear or become inactive. And that the nature of the blacked in is comprised, one assumes, with an infinite number of inactive lines. Again, this is the tendentious assertion of an academic geometer obsessed with lines, not a wise artist. Obviously one can say the blacked in area is comprised of an infinite number of points, lines, squares, rectangles, etc.

And where is the all important discussion of edges? How can one talk about lines and planes without discussing edges?

It just goes on and on like this.

If you find profundities in this mishmosh, live long and prosper. In my view, as with most Modernist tomes (and modernists generally), its status is wholly undeserved. Protected and sanctified by posturing culture-vulture intellectuals and their fellow tribesman as talismans of the faith, by investment institutions and auction houses looking to keep that highly valued imprimatur of radical chic, by the gift shop at The Guggenheim and MOMA looking to sell paper, and avoided by anybody who can actually think and draw.

Wes said...

The question is: Is there a valid ruling theory of line that allows us to assess the line?

kev ferrara said...

The question is: Is there a valid ruling theory of line that allows us to assess the line?

Why do you want to 'assess a line"?

Aesthetic experience does not require analysis or decoding. The significance of a line is established by your experience of it; what understanding it produces in you, or what feeling it brings you, what sensation it causes for you. Sensual receptivity or openness is all that is required.

In art, a line is not as someone tells you it feels or as someone tells you it represents. The latter case is codification/code, which turns the line into a symbol. Symbols' meanings are established by fiat, custom, and rote drilling, not by direct apprehension through the intuition.

If you can't figure out what a line expresses without somebody telling you, either you aren't in touch with your feelings, you're either insensitive or hypersensitive, or the line expresses nothing or gibberish.

Wes said...

Ok, that's a good answer, but its does seem that artists will "code" a line, right? And that is useful to know, or is that not right? For example, the thick lines used by Doug Wright for Nipper's baldish head or the spiky hair of Nancy -- is it not a "code" of the artist to suggest something? I agree that my aesthetic reaction is more important, e.g., I don't particularly like either of those artistic "lines", but isn't the artist's intention useful to know, so we can analyze whether it suceeds or fails in some way? Or e.g., Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man -- aren't the lines he emphasizes important to understand what he is trying to do in the drawing?

If a line is so distinct that it brings the faraway mountains too close, does it not fail to convey the intended distance? How do we "assess" a failed line?

kev ferrara said...

isn't the artist's intention useful to know, so we can analyze whether it succeeds or fails in some way?

I'm assuming you 'knew' immediately without anyone telling you that Nancy is a cartoon of a young female with black hair, and that the knobs or spikes coming out of her hair represent some quality of her hair?

If the intent wasn't to portray hair of some type, then why does it look like hair of some type to you?

Just as you can feel somebody trying to gently guide you through a door, you can feel intent in art sensually as well. There is a direction to every representation - toward what is represented. You are being guided toward a particular door and you can feel it without thinking about it.

If you find those spiky hair knobs confusing, as I do, and that annoys you, as it does me, and that results in us not wanting to look at the cartoon, why wouldn't we consider that a failure of both artistic and commercial intent?

Because those knobby spikes are undefined, they still aren't really symbols of anything. They fall in the 'vague representation' category. (Crummy 'iconicity') But they're also dogmatic in their insistence; an attempt to make a bad bluff look solid and real; which goes back to the vagaries of mannerist rendering, a prior discussion.

If a line is so distinct that it brings the faraway mountains too close, does it not fail to convey the intended distance? How do we "assess" a failed line?

The sensation you experienced that a mountain has been represented inconsistently -- it is small in size as it should be (conveying distance) it is being overlapped by other objects (so it reads as 'behind' them) yet the force of the line used to delineate it brings it forward to the eye -- self-falsified its own attempts at creating a believable aesthetic reality for the object. All without you having to 'assess' anything consciously.

That you then converted that intuited feeling into words was only trivial bookeeping. Aesthetic experience is instantaneous auto-assessment; intent and accomplishment comes as a unit.

Wes said...

OK, thanks. Good insights.

"Because those knobby spikes are undefined, they still aren't really symbols of anything. They fall in the 'vague representation' category."

I like that. What about Nipper's "bald" head? Its clearly supposed to be a buzz cut (common in olden days -- the 1950's), but its indistinguishable from a rendered bald head, making the viewer want to put hair on it.

So is it a vague representation" or is it an odd "failure" of an otherwise good artist?

kev ferrara said...

So is it a vague representation" or is it an odd "failure" of an otherwise good artist?

If you can't identify for sure what you're looking at but you know kind of what it's supposed to be, it must be vague, yes?

I forgot to point out last time that children (or childlike people) are able to tolerate much larger unjustified imaginative gaps than more rigorous sensibilities. An 'unjustified imaginative gap' is another way to say bluffing or elision. Or meaningless juxtapositions or abruptions. (A justified imaginative gap is True Poetry; the good stuff.)

Some people (me) cannot tolerate noticeable bluffing in anything that clearly attempts to convince.

But if the audience is children or the childlike, or those who long for innocent respite from something in their lives or minds... simple, dogmatically vague work is at least functioning in some capacity. It may 'fail' for us. But, on the other hand, we shouldn't expect cartoons to be great works of poetic art. It isn't their purpose.

There is also different tolerances for the dogmatic finishing of mannerism. Because of their simplicity or innocence, the bluffed-but-graphic conventions of Nancy or Nipper are much less bothersome to me than the same mannerist finishing mentality seen in highly rendered pieces, as with medieval drapery... because with complex drapery there is so much poetic opportunity, the plodding rendering of bluffed structural form feels dumbly authoritarian, like the declarations of a bossy kid.

Wes said...

Alright, good stuff. thanks