"Was he an architect, a calligrapher, a mystic, a Zen master, or merely a superb, disciplined draftsman who learned to give vent to his frustrations when he fell in with a hard-drinking group of painters?" (A. Stone, quoted in Franz Kline 1910-1962, exh. cat., Milan, 2004, p. 87).
Painted in 1951, Untitled is an exciting early abstract picture by Franz Kline. It was only in 1948 or 1949, a couple of years before Untitled's execution, that Kline had visited the studio of his friend and fellow painter, Willem de Kooning, and seen the effect of one of his small sketches on paper illuminated on a large scale against a white wall through the device of a Bell-Opticon projector. This was a revelation to Kline. The strange little ciphers that had formerly filled so many sheets of paper held their own on the grand scale. Kline bought a large roll of canvas and he began to explore the new possibilities in painting that this breakthrough suggested. In its rigorous, calligraphic simplicity and also in the sense of gesture and spontaneity, Untitled displays its origins in the world of sketches, but holds its own as an imposing, mysterious emblem.
Kline could sketch rapidly due to his early interest in becoming an illustrator, and his ability to capture scenes in seconds. This has been translated into Untitled in the immediacy with which this mysterious brushstroke and near-square have been rendered. The energy of these simple gestures lends an emphatic urgency to this modern sigil. This, and the elemental power of these searing black marks and the surrounding white paint, make Untitled both arcane and absorbing.
The white, as Kline was at pains to point out, is an important part of the painting in its own right: "calligraphy is simply the art of writing...You don't make the letter 'C' and then fill the white in the circle" (F. Kline, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 62). Unlike the sketches, which were often in black on the torn sheets of telephone directories, the paintings show black and white in union, or in contest. In Untitled, Kline applied the white in such a way as to capture a great sense of the gestural application of the oils. This large painting -- essentially a foot taller than the artist himself -- bears the traces of his exertions like proud scars, like the side-effects of some campaign, some struggle between black and white, between existence and obsolescence.
To link Kline's sketches to his oils too directly would be to miss the importance of the painting process. Kline had become a painter. He used the sketches as guides, sometimes combining them, sometimes ignoring them completely. The paintings would, to a great extent, define themselves while he was making them, relying on sketches merely as prompts. As Kline worked with the oils and canvas, the solutions would suggest themselves: "In other words, these are painting experiences. I don't decide in advance that I'm going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me...I paint an organization that becomes a painting" (F. Kline, quoted in S.C. Foster, Franz Kline; Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat., Barcelona, 1994, p. 36).
In Untitled, a large part of that organization relies on the square. Kline featured them in several of his works. On the one hand, it related to a tradition within modern art, for instance Malevich, Mondrian and of course Albers, a teacher at Black Mountain College, where Kline himself would teach the year after he painted Untitled. Showing some affinity with Albers, Kline said about him, "It's a wonderful thing to be in love with The Square" (F. Kline, quoted in H.F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, exh. cat., New York, 1985, p. 98). This reflects its importance to him as well as to Albers, but Kline's square was a more personal expressive device. Its geometry implies some level of figurative origins, and at the same time is reduced to the barest means necessary. It has been rendered with clear energy, dragged into painterly existence, and becomes all the more vital a sign. Kline himself pointed out that his work has imagery, though not symbolism, and it is in the universally expressive square in Untitled that we perceive this.
It is telling that, when Kline was asked to explain his abstraction, he retorted: "I'll answer you the same way Louis Armstrong does when they ask him what it means when he blows his trumpet. Louis says, 'Brother, if you don't get it, there is no way I can tell you'" (F. Kline, quoted in Ibid., p. 13). The subjects of Kline's paintings were deliberately elusive. Simple understanding would bring nothing about. Instead, Untitled demands our mental and emotional involvement on both a universal, fundamental level, and a more personal, subjective one. Our investigation, our questioning, and Kline's own adventure of discovery in oils -- these are the driving forces of Untitled, as encapsulated in the artist's own explanation: "well, look, if I paint what 'you' know, then that will simply bore you. If I paint what 'I' know, it will be boring to myself. Therefore I paint what I don't know" (F. Kline, quoted in Foster, op.cit., 1994, p. 32).
Kline's painting was fundamentally linked to the world, to the Wagnerian powers that Kline perceived underlying all of life, and to his own self. His painting resulted from the forces of the world and the artist himself, coming together in the space of a watershed year just before he painted Untitled. His stark palette owed as much to the bleak Pennsylvanian landscape of his childhood as to the sense of elemental powers of existence. He was a painter beyond schools, accumulating influences from Velasquez and Manet to Sargent and Whistler to Pollock and de Kooning. His art is linked to his own past and America's. In embracing and analysing those pasts, Kline represents with brutal painterly simplicity and honesty the present, the world, the eternal. Kline therefore remains, even by his own admission, un-pin-downable. "Somebody will say I have a black-and-white style, or a calligraphic style, but I never started out with that being consciously a style or attitude about painting," Kline explained, when discussing the evolution of his unique and potent visual idiom. "Sometimes you do have a definite idea about what you're doing and at other times it all just seems to disappear. I don't feel mine is the most modern, contemporary, beyond-the-pale, gone kind of painting. But then, I don't have that kind of fuck-the-past attitude" (F. Kline, quoted in ibid., p. 155).