Klingspor in Context

by Peter Trippi

Intriguing, alluring, enigmatic, uncanny, unnerving, anxious, even nightmarish. These were the words uttered by several American colleagues when I showed them photographs of recent paintings by Alexander Klingspor. They used these terms not in disdain, but rather to describe their personal responses to the images, which they all admired. After close looking, few could identify a discernible narrative or moral, though they could see that the motifs were neither haphazard nor willfully cryptic—that they must surely point to meanings significant to the artist.

Reassured that I was not alone in harboring these feelings, I proceeded to read to my friends Klingspor’s assertion that his scenes are “very much based on visions that come to me, either in dreams or in my waking life. They are reflections of my experiences, led by my intuition and my subconscious. It is only years later that I myself fully realize their meanings. Sometimes it’s best not to ask too many questions or try to intellectualize visions when they come. It’s better to just paint them.”

“Not surprisingly, the eerily empty streets of Klingspor’s cities evoke our memories of de Chirico, and his dapperly dressed gents those of Magritte.”

His words elicited prompt agreement among my colleagues, and so my mind turned to the broader contexts of historical and contemporary art, including why Klingspor’s images feel “right” today, why they touch a nerve now. We live in increasingly uncanny, anxiety-inducing times, so surely it is no accident that the classical phase of surrealism (1920s and 30s) is “hot” again among artists, scholars, and the arts-minded public. As I write this, an exhibition comparing Dalí with Duchamp is drawing crowds at London’s Royal Academy, and the music world is buzzing over Thomas Adès’s new opera The Exterminating Angel, based on Buñuel’s discomfiting film of 1962. The latter centers on a haut-bourgeois dinner party from which the guests inexplicably cannot depart; all seems well on the surface, but something is seriously amiss beneath. One can easily imagine Klingspor turning his brush to this incident, but he does not illustrate other people’s narratives. Adès was born in 1971, six years before Klingspor, so their generation’s surrealist preoccupations are not a holdover from that movement’s heyday. Rather, there is something still pertinent in its legacy that moves these young men to reactivate and customize it for their own era. All of the words used by my colleagues (above) also pertain to surrealism—uncanny, unnerving, etc. Not surprisingly, the eerily empty streets of Klingspor’s cities evoke our memories of de Chirico, and his dapperly dressed gents those of Magritte.

Yet there is something else lurking in Klingspor’s imagery. Our conversation in his studio this autumn touched upon the legacy of late 19th-century symbolism, in which masters like Gauguin and Khnopff repurposed contemporary figures to address more profound themes of love, life, hope, and death. Such profundity flies in the face of much “cutting-edge” representational art today (think John Currin), which usually offers only a clever, vacuous irony. Without pomposity, Klingspor seeks to convey ideas grander in scope.

Like his historical forerunners named here, Klingspor presents us with people who appear disconnected, as if they don’t actually see each other standing there. In the “real” world today, we see a similar disjuncture between people’s physical and emotional connectivity. Whatever our gender, race, class, or occupation, no matter how often we brush against one another on the subway or airplane, we busy, smartphone-addicted moderns do not fully “get” each other. We have seen thisdisconnection before in the art of Edward Hopper, whose deft management of composition and light in furtherance of mood clearly inspires Klingspor. Like Hopper, he shows us people who move through life in a state of melancholy, if not solitude. All pine for something they may not know or understand. Hopper died fifty years ago, and though Americans are now richer and more “connected” than ever, their unsatisfied longings have not dissipated. Indeed, they have probably grown.

“The night and the twilight have mostly been my hours of operation”

Already painting more large canvases, Klingspor predicts they will become more so now that he has moved into a roomier New York studio. This is cause for celebration because his scenes are effective partly because they immerse us, luring us into the puzzling scenarios he has envisioned. The legacy of Hopper—but also of Sweden’s Eugène Jansson—comes to mind when we see Klingspor’s deserted cityscapes, what he calls “the city of my soul.” His taste for nocturnal scenes makes extra sense when we remember that he shuttles between Stockholm, with its long, dark winters, and New York City, which comes alive when the sun goes down. “The night and the twilight have mostly been my hours of operation,” Klingspor says. “During that time, the world vibrates.” Needless to say, it is also when life becomes less visually clear: do I see an alligator under that lady’s chair, or just her alligator-skin handbag?

When he moved into his first apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Klingspor discovered that he lived in the heart of the city’s booming burlesque scene. Although that world has subsequently lost some of its fizz, Klingspor has sustained his fascination with performance, as seen in his extraordinary new design for the operatic version of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. His perplexing scenes of nightclub revelry tap into a long tradition, from Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and early Picasso to Grosz and Reginald Marsh. We know from this legacy, and generally from personal experience, that alcohol blurs one’s perception: so are these apparitions real or imagined? Here again, is there really an alligator under that café table? Perhaps, Klingspor seems to answer.

In his busy views of nightclubs and other venues, Klingspor’s deft arrangement of multiple figures—and of positive and negative shapes—confirms he paid close attention while working in the Stockholm studio of Magnus Bratt on superb copies of Old Master paintings. He says he is especially enthusiastic about the whirling energy of Rubens’s large compositions, and indeed we see in his leaping, lunging figures a contemporary reboot of that master’s dynamism. Within many paintings Klingspor also employs still life passages that are magnificently rendered—that could stand on their own as models of the genre—yet are potentially discomfiting in their symbolism.

As it happens, Klingspor’s absorption of worthy historical influences into his own approach is not unique in America today. Rather, he is part of a groundswell—I hesitate to call it a movement in our multivalent times—that adapts aspects of the past to its devices. A senior figure in this terrain is Joseph Sheppard (b. 1930), who has taught several generations at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art. Equally prominent in certain circles are Bo Bartlett (b. 1955) and his exact contemporary F. Scott Hess. Pursuing a similar blend of impeccably rendered figures in unworldly settings are the painters Steven J. Levin (b. 1964), Terry Strickland (b. 19__), and Adam Miller (b. 1979). These artists do not constitute a school, having entered the arena from different directions, some trained in ateliers of classical realism, others self-taught. But in their own ways, all use groupings of figures—be they historicized, timeless, or modern—to convey truths more profound than mere storytelling. Even more visible is the painter John Currin (b. 1962), who borrows from 16th-century Dutch mannerism to construct his own puzzling scenes of mild eroticism with just a few figures. Klingspor’s pictures are sometimes charged with erotic possibilities, too, yet they never titillate or repulse to the same degree as Currin’s.

“Klingspor has inherited Hopper’s taste for film noir, which so often encompasses moody nightclubs and desolate streets, as well as shifty characters with unclear motivations.”

Klingspor also fits comfortably within the growing community of American artists who activate animals’ symbolist potentials. Leading this charge is Walton Ford (b. 1960), who makes enormous watercolors that immerse viewers in weird, often terrifying, episodes of animal-human encounter both documented and imagined. His visions have been taken in a more symbolist direction by Martin Wittfooth (b. 1981), who often juxtaposes animals with landscapes of modern ruination.

Returning to my friends’ inability to assign specific narratives to Klingspor’s scenes, this ambiguity is both intentional and welcome: should he actually wish to depict a specific incident, he would surely draw upon his experience in the Kansas Citystudio of the illustrator-painter Mark English, or upon his commissioned illustrations for Playboy Scandinavia. Before he found fame as a fine artist, Hopper was a successful illustrator (1905–25) who conveyed specific narratives quickly and compellingly because that’s what the commissioning publisher wanted. Cinema came of age at the same moment, and thus much has been written about the interconnection of Hopper’s imagery with Hollywood design and direction strategies. Klingspor has inherited Hopper’s taste for film noir, which so often encompasses moody nightclubs and desolate streets, as well as shifty characters with unclear motivations. As the visual inheritors of both Hopper and Hollywood, we modern viewers respond instinctively to such evocative mises-en-scène, and now we can see Klingspor as a chronicler of our era, deploying comparable techniques to visualize his unique imaginings.

Viewers respond to these scenes in human terms, and intuitively seek to relate them to their own experiences. Many people are searching for meaning and value in their lives outside a religious or spiritual context. Without always being able to articulate it, they sense and resent our era’s dehumanization, and thus hunger to find purpose—and passion—in pictures that awaken their imaginations and memories. Klingspor’s visions satiate this hunger, and I look forward to seeing which worlds he takes us to next.