Michael Klein “Still” Exhibition:
In Elton John’s 1972 hit Mona Lisa’s and Mad Hatters the singer opens the song with this poetic serenade: “Now I know / Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say/I thought I knew/But now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City.” This was an artist pondering the beauty of the world, and its many limitations.
Painter Michael Klein has been exploring similar themes from his studio in, as luck would have it, Spanish Harlem, an arts- and culture-filled neighborhood on Manhattan’s northeastern shoulder.
“When you paint flowers, and when you step into the area of beauty, it’s so easy to fail. It can look too saccharin or sweet,” says Klein from his New York City studio. “It’s hard to take those subjects and make them beautiful on a deeper level.”
Klein, who has a new solo exhibition opening September 5 at Maxwell Alexander Gallery in Culver City, California, says that early in his career he was taught by artists who were believers in the Boston School of painting, particularly R. H. Ives Gammell, but he quickly discovered limitations to the style within his own work. Klein eventually found Jacob Collins, an artist and teacher who was developing a different style of realism, one that appealed on a broader level to Klein’s interests with figurative and still life subjects.
“They were searching for beauty, and it was a profound beauty that spoke to and resonated with me,” Klein says. “They did two things that won me over right away: first, the color palette. You hear impressionists and other artists talk about never using black, but I wanted to use black because it was important to the tone of my work. Secondly, there was emphasis placed on drawing, which I loved, and Jacob is an extremely good draftsman.”
Klein says he paints from life, using live arrangements he sets up in his studio, but he can easily add to it based entirely on memory. In Studio Peonies, for example, he had originally painted the flowers closed, but after several months he revisited the work—“the peonies were long gone,” he says—to paint the flowers opened up, thus altering the very core of his delicate subjects.
“Painting from life is a huge factor for me. With color, I usually try to keep the colors relatively harmonious. I don’t want too much color, and I don’t want it to be overwhelming,” he says. “I want the painting to be about the poetry of the subject.”
Other works in the floral exhibition include Pot with Dried Rose and Pink English Roses, a painting with a composition and tonal qualities that Klein compares to a musical arrangement.
“There is always a shadow, always a neutral and always something really chromatic. As things get more into the light, they become more chromatic,” he says. “I don’t want the works to be bland or dull; I want there to be good color notes. It’s like bass and treble. Imagine a flute or something fluttering over the bass. But with all bass, it becomes too heavy. There has to be a balance there for everything to work.”