SFMOMA’s ‘Outward Sight and Inner Vision: Paul Klee and Lee Mullican’ reconstructs natural beauty

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On the entrancing, abstractionist canvasses of Paul Klee and Lee Mullican, reality often breaks into barebone lines, fluid shapes and floating colors. The intriguing intersection between the two artists’ styles begs for some form of dialogue, which the exhibition “Outward Sight and Inner Vision: Paul Klee and Lee Mullican” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art provides. Placing their most representative works alongside each other, the exhibition invites audiences to immerse themselves within the questions of sight and vision and the fascinating interconnections between the two artists.

The exhibition hides itself on the second floor of the museum in a rather quiet, unassertive gallery room. The room’s blue walls remind audiences to calm down and closely observe with patience. Inside, the paintings are quite small, with most of them about the size of a laptop. However, as audiences investigate, their details, intricate patterns and detailed coloring begin to amaze.

Paul Klee’s “Blüten in der Nachts” is the first painting in this exhibition. What at first appears to be a dull, monotone sheet of sweeping blue and dark green emerges as a captivating, mysterious night garden of wild blooming flowers upon more careful observation. Framed by obscure, entangling lines and nightmarish shades, the plants emit a mesmerizing, magical glamor. 

The next painting, “Garden Four O’Clock” by Lee Mullican, echoes this surreal impression with its similar diffusing colors and bizarre configurations. In fact, the petals and leaves of the plants are hardly recognizable. Painting with dark colors and irregular shapes, Mullican encourages his audience to forget the archetypical garden imagery and reimagines it through a symbolic and metaphysical lens.

Unlike other exhibitions in the museum that set bars to keep audiences at a distance, this exhibition allows audiences to get as close as possible to observe the paintings’ most delicate details through a thin glass protection. If one approaches close enough, Mullican’s painting reveals itself to be subtly three-dimensional. He added numerous delicate ridges to his otherwise flat canvas, underlining his attention to geometric lines and shapes in the context of higher dimensional spaces.

When the exhibition places Klee’s works alongside Mullican’s, it becomes more apparent that Mullican is trying to further Klee’s exploration of natural shapes, colors and organic patterns. According to the exhibit, Klee has always been fascinated by “outward sight and inner vision” — how human perception alters the external world into something that it may understand and interpret. Thus, his art has a mission to probe how human sight interacts with cosmic reality. 

Much inspired by Klee’s mission, Mullican furthers his philosophical questions by creating ridges and valleys on his canvas compared to Klee’s flatly painted canvas. This helps him extend the metaphysical discussion from two- to three-dimensional, and, more abstractly, to infinitely many dimensions. Mullican’s interaction with Klee’s ideas only becomes apparent when this exhibit places Klee’s and Mullican’s works together, allowing audiences to gain a more holistic and consistent understanding.

Another representative work by Klee titled “Fragmente” decomposes an urban landscape into twisted, abstract forms with brown lines and stark planes. This decomposition process is again echoed by Klee’s “Glass City.” On a bright, glistening golden surface, Mullican uses quick brushstrokes to represent a city in desert winds. Instead of capturing a still picture, Mullican delineates a fleeting image and shows the passage of time through short, dashing lines.

Bringing together two masters of abstractionist art, this fantastic exhibition is definitely unmissable for modern art maniacs, philosophy lovers and casual gallery-goers alike. Their richly philosophical art poses deep questions about sight and vision, form and abstraction. Observing their artworks becomes not just a treat to the eye but also a test to the mind, allowing audiences to harvest both a memorable visual experience and a spiritual lesson.

Contact William Xu at [email protected].