From Robert Natkin, A Retrospective: 1952-1996. Exhibition catalogue, The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, 1997

During a trip to Bern, Switzerland, in 1977, Natkin visited the Paul Klee Foundation. Both a museum and research center, the foundation not only displays Klee’s work, but also allows visitors access on demand to thousands of drawings and paintings. Natkin’s Bern series grew out of this inspirational visit.

Natkin considers Paul Klee his greatest inspiration and primary teacher. “Klee’s vision”, asserts Natkin “has been that of a poet or a man of the theatre.” Natkin, like Klee, strives to create powerful yet intimate visual narratives that engage the viewer, drawing him inward, through the outer “crust” of the canvas and into the primal drama lurking beneath the canvas’s surface.

During his visit to the Klee Foundation, Natkin passed from painting to painting as his Swiss guide translated the titles of the various works, titles such as “Young Girl Gazing at Wounded Bird and Consuming Fire of Witches.” An increasingly irritable Natkin found that these highly descriptive titles distracted him from gazing at the works. Klee’s paintings and drawings clearly contain shards of subject matter: fish, human figures, and letters. And yet, what has always drawn Natkin deeply to Klee’s work is the artist’s virtuosity with color, light, and surface, rather than the more traditional representational elements of his canvases. It is the emotional content of Klee’s work–his depiction of “inner” rather than “outré” narrative–that Natkin finds empowering.

Many of the same simple forms–ovals, infinity sign, crosshatches, and snakes–of Natkin’s earlier Field Mouse paintings reappear in the Bern works. These motifs are reminiscent of both the American Indian and Persian decorative art traditions which Natkin has long admired. Forms are sparsely scattered and usually embedded beneath soft, modulated veils of light and texture, an effect Natkin achieved through his continued use of rags and sponges.

- Leda Natkin Nelis