The three virtuosos of Abstract Expressionism, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline produced extraordinary works on paper throughout their careers, which were by no means simply preparatory sketches or studies for their larger oil paintings. For these master draftsmen, paper represented a very special medium which gave the artists an overarching amount of control.
The magnificently lyrical brushwork that de Kooning was to make his own, with its sense of choreography, rhythm and balance, combined with his self-conscious drive for a mastery over space, manifests itself powerfully in this oil paper. It was executed precisely at a point when the artist chose to privilege abstraction over his earlier more figurative works. Yet, the allusion to human body, and in particular to flesh, was never completely eliminated from de Kooning's creative arsenal. Reflecting the artist's oft-quoted declaration, "flesh was the reason oil painting was invented," this spectacular work features a fleshly configuration on the lower right-hand corner alluding to the figure, in addition to its additive collage elements and areas of paper left bare to celebrate this medium.
Although Franz Kline received early critical acclaim for his black and white abstractions with their eloquent display of linear thrust and balance, he did indeed work with color throughout his career. In 1956, Leo Steinberg recalled Kline commenting on his Sidney Janis exhibition: "I'm always trying to bring color into my paintings, but it keeps slipping away" (Harry F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, New York, 1985, p. 132). In this work created in 1958, executed on paper mounted on wood panel, color seems to have triumphed in celebration of the artist's predominant concerns, namely composition and surface. We can observe how the softer strokes establish the atmospheric and recessive tone that in turn enables the lighter hues to powerfully push the aggressively gestural and daring central conglomeration of brown, black, and red towards the picture plane. It does so without allowing a figure-ground hierarchy, while still retaining something of Kline's signature contrasts of black and white hues, as seen in his earlier work. As is clearly manifest in this work, which showcases the artist's characteristic impasto, Kline's abstractions in color produce an even higher level of compositional complexity and chromatic impact in more intimately-scaled works on paper.
Rothko's infinite color sensibility strikingly realized in Blue-red-black on Red's juxtaposition of a fiery red, a concentrated ultramarine blue, and an unforgiving poignant black. This not only alludes to the timeless natural elements of fire, water, and soil, but it also invokes a sublime, universal language of feeling simultaneously expressive of "tragedy, ecstasy, and doom" to use the artist's own words. Painted at the height of the artist's maturity in 1967, three years before the end of his life, this work is an extraordinary example of the smaller-scale works Rothko executed on paper throughout his career in order to explore the unavailable possibilities presented in his more typical large-scale paintings on canvas: for example the possibility of energetic application of thick opaque color in swift broad and gestural strokes to give a more dynamic expression to the surface of the work.
"Preserved on paper are the records of their struggle to find, continually renew, and further advance the visual expression of their revolutionary ideas." (Messinger, Lisa Mintz, Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper. Selections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1993, p.xi)