I saw Paul Klee’s Fire in the Evening last week, newly hung on the fifth floor of the renovated MoMA. I was reminded how very small it is. I was reminded that most reproductions pump up its saturation, giving it electric blues, royal purples, and competing slashes of brilliant red. The painting is mainly an arrangement of chromatic grays. Near the top is a band of relatively pure blue. Of pure red, there is one rectangle only: the nested, hovering patch that’s not quite central and not quite square. In the world of that painting, no red could be redder.
I came relatively late to geometric abstraction. As a young artist, I found much of it programmatic and dry, especially, but not only, minimalism. Even after I understood Mondrian to be visual poetry, Agnes Martin’s grids seemed drab. Alfred Jensen’s, I thought, lacked subtlety. But I never questioned the luminous grids of Paul Klee.
Klee presented the grid as a flexible container for ecstatic color. To me, as a young painter, the minimalist grid, didactic and unyielding, loomed forbiddingly from above. Klee’s small grids, like Fire in the Evening, glowed from within.
Twenty years ago, I began working with geometry. Seeking unexpected visual relationships, I began diagramming words into grids of color. Suddenly, Alfred Jensen’s paintings shocked me with their majesty, Agnes Martin’s with their tender strength. A larger world of geometric painting finally revealed itself. But Klee’s grids had allowed me to enter that world and, for Klee, I had needed no key.
Fire in the Evening is perhaps the work of Klee’s I love most. In considering why, I keep wanting to say what it is not. I believe Klee might consider that a fine way to describe it. He writes in his notebooks:
A concept is not thinkable without its opposite . . . What does ‘above’ mean if there is no ‘below’?
Admittedly, in Klee’s writings, lists of principles alternate with ardent defenses of intuition, and one can likely find a quote supporting pretty much any position. But his statement about opposites is beautiful, and I’ll proceed in that spirit.
Fire in the Evening isn’t rigid, theoretical, austere, or conceptual. It isn’t oversized, bombastic, sensational, or dramatic. It isn’t expressionist, Cubist, constructivist, neo-Plasticist, hard-edged, color-field, or minimalist; it exemplifies no “ism” or movement.
It lacks elements important in some other works by Klee; it has no writing, glyph-like shapes, or networks of drawn or transferred line. Klee’s inventive play with line and process affected the work of generations of later artists. My own work involves rule-based systems for organizing color, on panels inscribed with letters, numbers, and other linear structures. But Fire in the Evening is all color and no line. Its process is simply oil painting, organized in rectangles, on a thirteen-inch square of cardboard.
Despite the allusive title, it’s not, to my eye at least, an image. It’s an arrangement of blocks of paint that glow. It’s a small miracle of color abstraction.
In the bright, hectic atmosphere of the new MoMA, the painting looked unexpectedly modest. I wondered briefly if it had been installed with enough prominence. But then it pulled me closer, and I felt its gravity and steady inner light.
Leslie Roberts lives in Brooklyn. Her most recent solo exhibition, “HOW THINGS ARE,” was installed at Minus Space Gallery in fall 2019. She teaches Foundation Light Color and Design at Pratt Institute.