Erika Klien was born in Borgo, Austria at the dawn of the twentieth century to Franz Klien, an official of Austria's National Railways and Anna Klien, a kindergarten teacher. As a young girl Erika was intrigued with stage and costume designs and expressed a desire to become an actress, a pursuit that was discouraged by her father. In 1919 the family moved to Vienna and Klien enrolled in the Vienna School for Arts and Crafts where she was exposed to teachings of the prominent modernist artist, Frank Cizek.

Cizek's beliefs were encapsulated in a concept he titled Kinetismus. Similar to the original ideas behind futurism, Cizek believed that movement represented a kind of optimistic hope for a new and improved future. While he endorsed a specific ideology, Cizek was also strident about allowing his students to find their own way. He encouraged them to embrace an expressionist approach to their art making and talked about new ways of structuring pictures without exposing them to specific examples of cubist or futurist paintings. This artistic freedom gave Klien confidence and she quickly established her own style of constructivism. Her works were a unique combination of cubism, futurism and abstraction where figures are geometrically constructed but metamorphosed into abstract organic forms.

As one of Cizek's students, Klien is included in a number of significant exhibitions both in and out of Austria. In 1924 when she graduates from the Vienna School she enrolls in classes to become an art teacher. In 1925 she teaches her first course at the Elisabeth Duncan School in Klessheim, Austria. Like many teachers Klien was impressed with children's free and unhampered creativity. This exposure to children's art encouraged Klien to develop a less rigid form of geometric abstraction. A playful primitivism entered her work and would remain there for the rest of her life.

While teaching Klien continued to participate in group exhibitions and executed a number of commercial design projects. In 1926 Katherine S. Dreier visited Austria to select work for the International Exhibition of Modern Art for the Brooklyn Museum. She chose a number of Klien's pieces for the exhibition and eventually purchased work for her personal collection.

By the late twenties Austria's repressive political climate combined with the fact that the artist had borne a child in 1928 motivated Klien to look for work outside her own country. In 1929 Klien left Austria and accepted a position as an art teacher at Stuyvesant Neighborhood House in New York City. The freedom offered by the United States appealed to Klien who had been deeply influenced by Cizek's belief in the individual spirit. It was her hope that her new country would be more receptive to the innovations and ideas at the root of modernism.

In 1930 Klien was honored with a one person exhibition at the New School for Social Research where she began teaching in 1931. Klien's artistic focus was not limited to works on paper and drawings. During the 1930s she explored stage design, architecture and continued to be active in amateur theater. She exhibited frequently as part of group exhibitions where she taught and was included in galleries in Paris and New York. Unfortunately she missed a deadline and was not included in the Werkbund Exhibition at Chicago's Art Institute. It appears that Klien's career as a teacher was difficult to reconcile with her artistic and personal beliefs and as a result she moved frequently from school to school. She was constantly struggling for money and by the early 1940s Klien was only teaching privately and therefore dependent on her sister financially.

When the United States entered WWII, Klien lost contact with her family, friends and her teacher in Austria. Unable to correspond with those she loved, she retreated inward. Some biographers believed she stopped making any art altogether between 1941 and 1945.

Eventually Klien regained her independence designing commercial products. In 1946 she accepted a teaching position at the Walt Whitman School and once again sent care packages to her son and family in Austria. Unfortunately her mother and teacher both died that winter and it appears she does not make any art again until 1950. In 1951 Klien leaves Walt Whitman and works on her bird flight and subway series, both abstracted rhythmic interpretations of form and light that reveal her knowledge and skill as an artist. In 1956 she falls ill and dies at 57 years old unknown and impoverished.

Today Erika Klien's works are included in major public collections in the United States and Austria including the Museum of Modern Art, The Art Institute of Chicago,Yale University Art Gallery, and the Historisches Museum der Stadt in Vienna.


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Erika Giovanna Klien

ERIKA GIOVANNA KLIEN

Subway Forest

1950, pencil on paper, 7.25” x 9.25”