"Franz Kline's white and black pictures performed that miracle which is a constant in all major art: he changed the look of the environment and history. His style has that quality which rips the filters of Style from our eye. After 1950, we started to see city buildings, bridge spans, car tracks, asphalt spilling in cement, Velasquez, painted-out wall slogans, Rembrandt, Punch illustrators, the signature of John Hancock, Romney's drawings, Goya, Delacroix lions, a landscape by Courbet, or a landscape in Easthampton or Provincetown with fresh immediacy. It was as if a whole slice of our culture, overnight, had come to life - with Franz Kline at our shoulder to point where to look"-Thomas B. Hess (Thomas B Hess, ArtNews Vol 61, New York, Summer 1962, reproduced in Franz Kline 1910-62 exh., cat. Turin, 2004, pp. 333-336)
"Who could not be moved by his sense of push and thrust? Kline's great black bars have the tension of a taut bow, or a ready catapult. And his sense of scale, that sine qua non of good painting, is marvelously precise. His big paintings can be as good as his small ones, a rare mastery in this period concerned with the power of magnitude" (Robert Motherwell, 'Homage to Franz Kline' August 17, 1962, quoted in Franz Kline: The Color Abstractions exh. cat. Washington D.C. 1979, p. 43)
There are perhaps no finer pictorial expressions of the unique, exhilarating and dramatic period of liberation and triumph that took place in American painting in New York in the 1950s than the large, dynamic, freeform black-and-white paintings that Franz Kline produced between 1950 and 1961. Seeming to encapsulate all the energy, drama, freedom and dynamism embodied by this seminal decade in the history of American 20th Century Art and to condense it into one extraordinary flat planar space, Kline's black-and white paintings are the quintessential 'Abstract Expressionist' pictures. Stark, raw, blunt and direct, these works, often heroically scaled, are pure, elemental abstractions that dynamically express the artist's complete physical and emotional involvement in his work using only the most fundamental of painterly means. More than any other pictures from this extraordinarily vital and creative period in history, it is these works that best express the New York School painters' distinctly urban and romantic sense of themselves as lone individuals caught in an existential struggle with modern life; of their being the heroic pioneers in a modern cultural wasteland operating on behalf of an endangered humanity with the hope of forging a new art from the cultural void left by World War II, the Holocaust and the Atom Bomb. As the painter Paul Brach declared of Kline's paintings at this time, they are "statements of an acute crisis. There is no moderation, no middle ground, no compromise" (P. Brach, quoted in Franz Kline; Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1994, p. 37).
It was for this reason, their compete and daring lack of moderation, compromise or restraint, and also because they appear to be as expressive of the vigorous and existential act of painting or making art -- of the human energy and drama that went into the picture's making -- that Kline's black-and-white paintings were also championed as the ultimate examples of 'Action Painting.' They are works, like Pollock's drip-pictures or de Kooning's abstractions, in which the heroic lone painterly struggle of the artist to arrive at a successfully resolved formal conclusion was deemed as important, if not more so, than the resultant object itself. A gestural abstraction such as that developed by Kline at this time, with its seemingly spontaneously created formal expression of physical energy fixed into the material of paint, was regarded, like Nietzsche's exemplar of the tightrope walker in Also Sprach Zarathustra, as a metaphor for man's life and death balancing act over an abyss. Kline's balletic 'push and thrust' of contrasting black and white paint was seen to be expressive of a fundamentally human act of self-assertion made in the face of the void. 'Action Painting,' its leading champion and originator of the term, Harold Rosenberg exclaimed, is nothing less than "the abstraction of the moral element in art: its mark is moral tension in detachment from moral or esthetic certainties: and it judges itself morally in declaring that picture to be worthless which is not the incorporation of a genuine struggle, one which could at any point have been lost" (H. Rosenberg, ibid., p. 17).
Painted in 1957, this nearly ten-foot wide untitled work is one of the finest of the great series of predominantly black-and-white abstractions that Kline produced between 1950 and his premature death in 1962. A large, powerful and almost visually explosive work with its vast, sweeping, brushstroke forms colliding into one another to create a taut and febrile tension of surface, it is a classic example of the tradition established by these works. With its titanic, almost girder-scaled black forms seeming to scream their vitality and autonomous identity out from the canvas surface in such a way as to actively invade the space of the room, it is a painting whose stunning articulation of scale and non-objective form powerfully conjures a profound sense of the very act of painting as one of epic human struggle.
At the same time, the apparent, though often deceptive, spontaneity and immediacy of these extraordinary painted forms, their seemingly rapid gestural application in a series of broad sweeps clashing into one another like waves on the shore, combines to convey a persuasive sense of the work as a material expression of elemental forces in conflict. Generated solely by the gestural transfer of energy through the brush that Kline, a small but strong man, made using his entire body, these are forces that have been raised to such a refined balance between form, material and trapped energy that, though still rooted in the human, their cumulative power and drama is such that it dwarfs the viewer and bestows upon them a mixed sensation of fragility and awe.
As Elaine de Kooning eloquently wrote of this aspect of his work, "it was Kline's unique gift to be able to translate the character and the speed of a one-inch flick of the wrist to a brush-stroke magnified a hundred times. (Who else but Tintoretto has been able to manage this gesture?) All nuances of tone, sensitivity of contour, allusions to other art are engulfed in his black and white insignia -- as final as a jump from the top floor of a skyscraper" (E. de Kooning, "Franz Kline," quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev, (ed.), Franz Kline 1910-62, exh, cat. Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Turin, 2004, p. 345).
Although often thought to be almost miraculous products of Kline's inspired, spontaneous and impulsive action, the majority of his black and white abstractions, especially larger works such as this untitled painting from 1957, were in fact the result of a considered process of preparation and planning. Kline would usually prepare carefully the broad nature of his conglomeration of disparate brushstroke forms in an assortment of oil sketches made on paper sheets torn from the telephone book. The powerful and often swiftly executed brushstrokes that bestow such energy and dynamism to the surface of Kline's large canvases, though the product of a moment's sweeping gestural action, were, more often than not, also thought out and even practiced before being enacted, so to speak, on the canvas. "When I work from preliminary sketches," Kline once explained, "I don't just enlarge these drawings, but plan my areas in a large painting by using small drawings for separate areas. I combine them in a final painting, often adding to or subtracting from the original sketches. When I work directly, I work fast. I suppose I work fast most of the time, but what goes into a painting, isn't just done while you're painting" (F. Kline, quoted in Franz Kline: Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1994, pp. 164-65).
Like many Abstract Expressionists, Kline had arrived at this unique way of working through a gradual process of refining an earlier figurative style of painting into a form that in the late 1940s gradually became completely abstract. The crucial catalyst for his signature black-and-white style famously took place in the studio of his close friend Willem de Kooning one night when de Kooning, who practiced a similar collaging technique with sketches and fragments to that employed by Kline, showed off his new technique of building elements of his painting using fragments blown up in scale with a Bell-Opticon projector. By way of demonstration de Kooning also used the projector to magnify some of Kline's oil sketches. Kline, mesmerized by what he saw, seems almost instantaneously to have been set on his future path.
What Kline saw in these illuminated enlargements of his drawings was both a simplification, into dark and light, and a magnifying of form and its gestural energy. Here, his own brushstrokes were expanded "as entities in themselves, unrelated to any reality but that of their own existence" Elaine de Kooning recalled (E. de Kooning, op. cit., p. 345). De Kooning's projector captured, in stark two-tone contrast that same quality that was to distinguish so much of Kline's subsequent work; all the constrained power of the impulsive and intuitive marks and the autonomous intensity and energy of their material form. Here the elemental power and force of natural energy coursing through the mercurial plastic fluidity of Kline's unique mixture of oil and house enamel seemed both fixed and boldly writ large for all to see. And it was energy, on this grandiose, even heroic scale that Kline instinctively knew he wanted to capture and contain within his abstractions. As someone who had grown up amidst the railroads, the steelworks and the coalmining districts of Pennsylvania, Kline was imbued from an early age with an innate feeling for and understanding of the unique, epic scale and power of American industry. "I am concerned," he once said of his work, "with that area of excitement belonging to natural phenomena such as a gigantic wave poised before it makes its fall, or man-made phenomena such as the high bridge spanning two distant points" (F. Kline, quoted in D. Anfam, "Franz Kline: Janus of Abstract Expressionism," in Franz Kline 1910-62, op. cit., p. 49).
Crucial to the realizing of this ambition in his work was not just the arrangement or formal organization of abstract marks on the surface of his paintings but also the manner of their application. Kline's careful build up of abstract forms executed on the smaller scale of his preparatory drawings often came to prove irrelevant to the finished work once he began working on the canvas itself. Working energetically in a pattern of dynamic contrasts where black forms were applied over the base white before white forms were then forged back into and over the black and subsequently black built once again over the white in a kind of formal struggle of opposites, the spontaneity, immediacy and fierce interaction of his marks was central to how a painting such as Untitled ultimately resolved itself. Kline's painting was not at all calligraphic in this respect therefore, unlike so many of the second generation of gestural abstractionists who were to follow his lead. Rather, it was an intuitive constructive process in which, through the very act of making the painting, a dialogue between two opposing and materialized forces combined to forge a dynamic and often surprising solution. "When I paint a picture, I don't know every line in advance, but I know in general what I'm about," he said. "I put something here and here, and here and here, and then I pull it all together" (F. Kline, quoted in H.F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, exh.cat., Cincinnati Art Museum, 1985, pp. 16 and 77). Often, in this way therefore, Kline's paintings would, during the process of their making, develop into something 'not at all related' to the original drawings. (F. Kline Interview with D. Sylvester, 1960, quoted in D.Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2001, p. 69).
What was central to his painting's progress and key to its success was the vigorous spontaneity and immediacy of his mark-making. Every single brushstroke had to be applied not only with vigor and directness but also with complete faith and conviction in what he was doing. As Kline, with fond reference to his friend Pollock, asserted in this respect, "Jackson always knew that if you meant it enough when you did it, it will mean that much" (F. Kline, quoted in Franz Kline 1910-1962, op. cit., p. 78).
The result of Kline's dynamic attack in the way in which he approached and made his work was that his paintings, although often planned out in advance, became ultimately, what he described as 'painting experiences.' "I don't decide in advance that I'm going to paint a definite experience," he said, "but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me" (Ibid., p. 125). Such was his command of his medium that the immediacy of mark and the spontaneity of intuitive response to the forms taking shape before him as he worked was something that, he recognized could "be accomplished in a picture that's been worked on for a long time just as well as if it's been done rapidly" (F. Kline, quoted in D. Anfam, "Franz Kline: Janus of Abstract Expressionism," in Franz Kline 1910-62, op. cit., p. 42).
Kline was the leading exponent of the so-called 'Action Painters' therefore, because, in spite of whatever preparations he may or may not have made beforehand, his paintings were very demonstrably the physical consequences of the often dramatic event of their making. They provided an indefinable spatial field into which the painter's instinctive and intuitive energies, alongside his ambition and will was 'given'--laid, upon the surface and transmitted into the material entity of his paint. "You don't paint the way someone, by observing your life, thinks you have to paint," Kline said, "you paint the way you have in order to give, that's life itself, and someone will look and say it is the product of knowing, but it has nothing to do with knowing, it has to do with giving. The question about knowing will naturally be wrong. When you've finished giving, the look surprises you as well as anyone else" (F. Kline, quoted in Franz Kline: Art and the Structure of Identity, op. cit., p. 157).
The reductive and complete abstraction of black and white provided the perfect means for Kline therefore, because, unlike de Kooning for example, with his 'slipping glimpses' of reality, Kline was not trying to reproduce or emulate the appearance of anything. Nor was he, like Pollock or Rothko, invoking an inner state of being, psychology or state of mind. Rather, he was only attempting to transmit something hitherto unexpressed and unknown through the material properties of the painter's art. "Instead of making a sign you can read," he said, "you make a sign you can't read" (Franz Kline, quoted in ibid., p. 57). Unlike Rothko or Newman for example, there was nothing transcendental about Kline's work. Of all the great Abstract Expressionist artists, Kline was the least influenced by Surrealism. Indeed, of all these artists, he was perhaps also the least modern. His work had little to do with any extension of Cubism or the invocation of archetypes from depth of man's soul or psyche. The product of an extremely conventional training in figurative drawing and painting at the Heatherly School of Art in London, Kline cited his influences as being those of Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Goya, rather than the more usually referred to Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse or Mondrian.
Kline was an adoptive New Yorker and like the city he had chosen as his home, his art too was similarly no-nonsense. It was an open, direct and ultimately pure form of painting that dealt only in is own material actualities and formal properties. In the 'city that never sleeps,' Kline was famous for working predominantly at night, and even, at times, for working all through the night with an apparently tireless strength and endurance that no doubt came to be manifested in his finished canvas. Nonchalantly, he once remarked to a visitor to his high-windowed Manhattan studio in this respect, "Yes, it's a nice view and there's plenty of light. But you know I don't really need either -- not for my work. I frequently paint at night and the inspiration -- well that comes from somewhere else" (F. Kline, quoted in Franz Kline; Art and the Structure of Identity, op. cit., p. 24).
Despite Kline's insistence that his inspiration came from 'somewhere else,' his black-and-white abstractions are in fact powerfully evocative of the cultural atmosphere and locale in 1950s New York within which they were made. There is, for example, an almost film noir-like character to many of these works that extends well beyond the simplicity of their black-and-white drama to evoke, like a character or scene from a Raymond Chandler novel, what David Anfam has described as "a peculiar American toughness" (D. Anfam, "Franz Kline: Janus of Abstract Expressionism," op. cit., p. 41). Along with their seeming ability to invoke a sense of the vast scale and power of America--the expanse of its landscapes and the might of its industry--there is also coursing through the frenetic dynamism of these works a strong feeling of modernity, of spontaneity, directness, and a celebration of the immediacy or the "newness" of the moment of creation that powerfully echoes the freeform and improvisational spirit of Jazz in New York in the 1950s.
The vast sweeping black forms thrusting through this great untitled painting from 1957 for example, seem like vast girders forging some impossible, imaginary construction or composition in the air. With the stark, undeniable facticity of their monolithic forms streaked across the canvas, they scream out a distinctly urban reality with a pictorial noise that seems to speak strongly of the pulse and energy of the city streets. At the same time, the discordant, febrile tension of the almost accidentally arrived-at pictorial structure they produce seems to evoke the fleeting, tenuous spontaneity of a Jazz solo, its improvisational structure generating an indefinable but mesmerizing freeform pattern in the manner of one of Lester Young's imaginative leaps or Charlie Parker's dazzling but unfathomable Bebop flights of genius.
Like these, Untitled, like most of Kline's black-and-white paintings, is ultimately an indefinable entity, but one that remains nonetheless deeply evocative of its time and of the exhilarating improvisational spirit of creative experiment in which it was made. Indeed, it was for this reason that Kline often eschewed the practice of bestowing titles upon such works. "The first work in only black and white seemed related to figures, and I titled them as such," he recalled. Later, as the paintings grew ever bolder and freer in both scale and form, "the results seemed to signify something--but difficult to give subject or name to, and at present I find it impossible to make a direct, verbal statement about the paintings in black and white" (F. Kline, quoted in H.F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, op. cit., p. 106).
It is, in the end, this element of enigma and indefinability in these great works that bestows them with their enduring power, authority and ability to fascinate the viewer. Using an analogy to another Jazz musician, Kline once famously answered a spectator who asked him to explain the meaning of his paintings by saying: "I'll answer you the same way Louis Armstrong does when they ask him what it means when he blows his trumpet. Louie says, 'Brother, if you don't get it, there is no way I can tell you'" (F. Kline, quoted in H.F. Gaugh, op. cit., p. 13).