In the shadow of Picasso and Matisse, Paul Klee offered Americans …

Paul Klee’s “Tropical Blossom,” 1920, oil and pencil on primed paper on cardboard, 10¼ x 11¼ inches. (Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland)

Paul Klee never visited the United States, but he played an important role in American art in the 1930s and ’40s. Exhibitions and reproductions of his work, and later translations of his writings, gave American artists permission to do things that weren’t in the shadow of Picasso or Matisse. He seemed a genial figure, and his work was, too, and American artists admired his particular mix of spontaneity and discipline. Klee, it seemed, offered a wealth of visual inspiration, and a way forward, without demanding that anyone wear the straitjacket of a particular style.

“Ten Americans: After Paul Klee” at the Phillips Collection examines the U.S. legacy of the Swiss-born German artist through

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