Hannes Beckmann, a little-known German-born painter who trained at the Bauhaus under Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee, has quite a story and a rigorous and lively oeuvre. He is getting some well-deserved attention with a show at David Hall Fine Art.
The brief survey raises more questions than it answers, since it skips quickly through several decades of work. All his life, building on what he learned at the legendary Modernist art school, Beckmann studied art as a science — specifically, optics, and the effect on the eye (and consequently, the brain and the psyche) of color, pattern, and form.
Beckmann graduated in 1932, shortly before the Nazis dissolved the Bauhaus. The Catholic artist and his Jewish fiancee defected to Prague, where he was later interrogated as a possible spy. He was ultimately sent to a penal camp, and his wife to the Jewish ghetto in Terezín. His son was killed in a bombing raid, and many of his artworks were destroyed. After the war, Beckmann and his wife immigrated to New York, where they had a daughter.
Ultimately, Beckmann, with his astute sense of design and its effects on the eye, became known for his Op Art paintings (his former teacher, Albers, was a granddaddy of Op Art). He was included in “The Responsive Eye,” the landmark show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. Many Op Artists tended to dazzle with contrasts. Beckmann’s paintings here are softer.
He devised quietly mesmerizing patterns in “Grey Triangle” and “Luminosity II.” Every form in these works is a triangle, all straight lines and hard angles, but Beckmann turned them as he layered them, making pinwheel shimmers and soft, swallowing crevasses, all in gradations of one color.
The great finds in the show survive from Beckmann’s early years. His daughter had them in storage until dealer Hall made inquiries. The young Beckmann studied stage design at the Bauhaus, and his work here deftly utilizes abstraction to evoke the otherworldliness of theater. “Stage Design for August Strindberg’s ‘Dream Play’ ” is achingly spare and evocative: a window, a table, a chair, and a door conveyed by white lines, one form conjoined to the next.
His photos and paintings from Prague show surrealist influences. The biomorphic dreaminess of Miro sometimes mixes here, sometimes alternates, with the flashy graphics of Kandinsky.
Beckmann’s works often pivot around delicately hinged shapes. In “Utopia,” an ember-red painting from Prague, purple chevrons touch their sharp-angled yellow tips together in a scene that is part industry, part fantasy, part dance. Painted in 1937, it is supposed to portray the hopefulness of nuclear fission. He didn’t know what was down the road. Still, it’s a strong, rhythmic piece, one that conveys Beckmann’s sharp intellect, and his desire to solve not one problem in a painting, but many.
Experiments with color in ‘Venice’
Encaustic paintings — those made with hot wax dosed with pigment — can be luminous as stained glass. Martin Kline’s encaustic paintings at Gallery NAGA are luminous not because they’re translucent, but because they’re intricately three-dimensional. The sly things catch light and block it, toss it off, and reveal glowing gullies as you pass.
The paintings in “Dreams of Venice” detail Kline’s memories of Venetian lagoons. He captures the capriciousness of light on water with still, sculptural works on panel that as easily recall geological layers and botany. He builds his wax up with shrewd precision; a single gesture, allowed to dry and retraced several times, blossoms into a lolling petal shape. The base of a petal may be a different color than its tip. Countless petals in a single work make a playground for shadow and light.
Kline’s pieces flow in one of two ways: horizontal or spiral. Both are springboards for his experiments with color. I prefer his vortices, which have a hypnotic effect until you move a step or two, and they snap you awake.
You can’t tell from a reproduction of “Death in Venice” that it’s actually a dramatic mix of violet, blue, and white. The petals spin in from the outside, cresting toward the center, casting deeper shadows. Kline’s base layer of crusty white fans upward in purple touched with blue. Stand to one side, and the piece appears to oscillate into blue quadrants and whiter ones. Stand in front of it, and you’re about to be engulfed by a monster chrysanthemum.
The artist houses many of his paintings in a simple wooden frame; his colors splash onto it. That’s a little painterly derring-do, but it also suggests a pool with water sloshing over the edges.
Despite his sculptural technique, Kline’s most keen about what matters to a painter — color, light, gesture. The magnetic tones in “Seiche” sparkle across the gallery. It’s turquoise at the base, built up in pebbly horizontal strokes into ridges that stand out over the surface of the painting, tipped in powder blue.
If his spiral pieces are like eddies, his horizontal pieces are like ripples. In Kline’s work, those ripples are literal. He doesn’t have to paint light, because light bounces and glints off of his petals and ridges. He catalyzes water’s evanescence with dizzy color and hardened wax.
Hannes Beckmann :
From Bauhaus to Op
At: David Hall Fine Art,
555 Washington St., Wellesley, through May 29.
Martin Kline : Dreams of Venice
At: Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through May 30. 617-267-9060, www.gallerynaga.com