Franz Kline's Mars Black and White, painted in 1959, is epic in scale and in intent. Over two meters tall, the canvas sports an accumulation of black bar-like forms, the traces of both the white and the black brushstrokes adding to the surface texture and vigor. A brooding power looms in the black forms. Kline fills the picture with a strange dynamism that speaks both of his actions and of some internal energy, some force that has driven the composition itself. The rigorous black-and-white idiom which characterises Kline's paintings here has a vitality that is increased by the painterly quality, the deliberate looseness, of the forms. This looseness became more apparent throughout the 1950s, contasting with stricter shapes and strokes of his earlier works. Mars Black and White signals strangely an imprecise symbol, a glyph that has no linguistic meaning but which relies on its own visual power to communicate the energies and emotions that underpin our universe.
The use of black and white in Mars Black and White results in an Manichean duality, a struggle or perhaps symbiosis between light and dark, life and death, construction and destruction. In this way, Kline used an epic, Wagnerian visual language to capture a fundamental, elemental dimension of our existence revealing similar concerns to some of his fellow Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. However, Kline relied on his instincts far more than most of his colleagues and contemporaries, shunning any overintellectualization of either his pictures or his painting process. He sought a visual immediacy in his paintings that spoke to the gut, that was visceral and instinctive.
This owed itself in part to Kline's early ambitions to be an illustrator. Like several other Abstract Expressionists, Kline had been hugely influenced by comics because of their ability to grab the viewer's attention and keep it, because they could communicate a vast amount of information through a pictorial shorthand, and because they formed a visual lingua franca in the United States, able to cut across cultural and class divides alike. This democratic artform perfectly suited a nation founded on notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and these concerns drove Kline's abstract paintings too, as he sought a new visual language that was appropriate to this new country, this "new" continent. In the openness and immediacy of Mars Black and White we perceive Kline's desire to create an art that tapped into a modern universal equivalent to Old World mythologies, art that deepened our understanding of the new wonders that surround us. Perhaps for this reason, this painting's title invokes the epic, referencing the Roman god of war, just as one of Kline's earlier masterpieces had paid tribute to the Norse deity Wotan.
In seeking out a new visual means of representing life in the post-war era United States, it is telling that Kline concerned himself with the urban and industrial experience. He lived for decades in New York, and that city informs the vertical composition and the architectural mass of forms in Mars Black and White. Allan Stone recalled a conversation with Charles Egan, one of Kline's early dealers, in which Egan pointed out that the forms of some of the abstract paintings came from such simple everyday objects as tables and chairs; Kline himself said that he did not mind people "reading" figurative forms in his paintings, as there was something familiar about them. The immediacy of the recognisable heightens the picture's visual impact. If people saw bridges, so be it -- not least because Kline liked bridges. And it appears to be a bridge-like, modern and industrial form that underpins the vivid, gestural strokes which climb like scaffolding in Mars Black and White. However, the deliberate lack of perspective or illusionistic depth in this painting emphasizes that it is as visual elements in their own right, rather than as a direct pictorial reference points to the outside world, that the powerful beams and brushstrokes of Mars Black and White exist.
Kline was often at pains to point out that his pictures had little to do with calligraphy. They were black and white, not black on white, and they were very much based on the world around him:
"Everybody likes calligraphy. You don't have to be an artist to like it, or go to Japan. Mine came out of drawing, and light. When I look out of the window -- I've always lived in the city -- I don't see trees in bloom or mountain laurel. What I do see -- or rather, not what I see but the feelings aroused in me by that looking -- is what I paint" (F. Kline, quoted in S. Rodman, "Revolution in Paint: Franz Kline," Franz Kline: 1910-1962, exh. cat., Milan, 2004, p. 110).
So it is that the city, the modern buzzing metropolis, the engineering, the girders, the fast cars, the nightlife, the jazz, the people, the Cedar Tavern, informed Kline's paintings. In Mars Black and White, he channelled these various modern elements into a new epic form. And he did so using darting forms that themselves echo the darting movements with which Kline danced to his beloved jazz, heightening the modernity, energy and internal rhythm that fill Mars Black and White.
The surface of Kline's paintings clearly shows the importance of the moment, of the gesture, of the artist's own sometimes frenzied movements in putting brush to canvas. However, it also matters that he nonetheless seldom created his pictures spontaneously, instead relying on sketches and studies. Sometimes, he jotted these onto small scraps of telephone directories. According to Abstract Expressionist legend, Willem de Kooning encouraged Kline to place one of his small abstract drawings into a Bell-Opticon projector in de Kooning's studio. Kline was amazed at the intense visual impact that resulted; this was the epiphany that led to his large black and white paintings. Kline still depended on his studies, but they served only as springboards, their composition already, on this smaller scale, touching upon the visual and emotional stimulus that he wanted to crystallize in his paintings: "When I paint a picture, I don't know every line in advance, but I know in general what I'm about" (F. Kline, quoted in H. F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, exh. cat., New York, 1985, p. 16). Sometimes the transition from small study to large oil would be rapid; sometimes it would be direct and little changed; but sometimes the study merely prompt Kline, and the final picture would result from months of painting over paintings, adding mark upon mark, removing visual traces then rebuilding them, trying repeatedly to capture whatever would make the picture work. And then, it would be self-evidently completed, attaining its distinctive visual potency, proving the artist's statement that, "It just seems as though there are forms in some experience in your life that have an excitement for you" (F. Kline, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 64).