Franz Kline (1910-1962)
Accent aigu
signed and dated 'FRANZ KLINE '57' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
78 x 49 in. (198.1 x 124.4 cm.)
Painted in 1957.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, Milan, 1959
Egan Gallery, New York
Helen W. and Robert M. Benjamin, New York, 1967
Their sale; Sotheby's, New York, 8 May 1996, lot 15
Private collection, Aspen
Acquired from the above by the present owner
A. Kingsley, Franz Kline: A Critical Study of the Mature Work, 1950-1962, Ann Arbor, 2000, p. 565, no. 206 (illustrated).
C. Christov-Bakargiev, Franz Kline 1910-1962, Milan, 2004, p. 322 (illustrated in color).
Rome, La Tartaruga Galleria d'Arte, November 1963, no. 4 (illustrated). New York, Egan Gallery, Franz Kline: 2 Paintings from European Collections, 1967.
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, The Helen W. and Robert M. Benjamin Collection, 1967, p. 81, no. 174 (illustrated).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 20th Century American Art from Friends' Collections, July-October 1977.

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Koji Inoue
Koji Inoue

Lot Essay

A magisterial essay in line and movement, Accent aigu, is a painterly translation of the traditional elements of pictorial illusionism, where line, compositional arrangement, and gesture convey the expressive boldness of abstract form--an electrifying conflation of material and action in an array of dynamic surface incident. A play on the French diacritical marking, accent aigu, Kline uses his signature pictorial vocabulary of bold streaks embedded in white ground, to engage the diagonal upward thrust of the phonetic mark. Creating an animated translation of rudementary strokes into a campaign of highly-charged mark-making, Kline creates a vibrant and compelling profusion of vigorous brushwork and directional contrasts. Two horizontal bars stretch across the field's width, enclosing a rectilinear form as if in parallel to Cézanne's card table turned on its side, the "legs," one above and below, compressing the trapezoid as they rush toward and extend beyond the left framing edge. Above this irregular geometry, hovers the accent aigu in complementary, but opposite motion. Its directional slant forces a play of contrasts between the density of depicted form and agitation of surface gesture, creating a volatile equilibrium. These forces create a condition of warring energies between the streams of white and black chroma, the roughened painterly impasto, and the emerging forms. In defiance of the charging and converging bands below, the upward slant of the accent aigu leaps with calligraphic energy.

Clement Greenberg was the first to comment on the relationship between Kline's visual language and Cézanne's reductive forms, comparing Kline's "blurted black and white calligraphy" to the "tautness" of Cézanne's modernist images. He praised in particular Kline's awareness of the framing edge "while opening up a seemingly un-Cubist or post-Cubist ambiguity of plane and depth elsewhere" (C. Greenberg, in Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston, 1989, p. 151). Using as his point of departure the rectangle in its "solid, one-piece" Cubist iteration, Greenberg praised the contrast between open field and "enclosing shape" (Ibid.) Commenting on its initial impact, Greenberg shared the view with other critics of the period that any encounter with Kline's canvases was arresting. That Kline also felt a particular affinity for the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, can be read in the depth of his black chroma and colliding and caroming angularities. A comparison between the present work and Velázquez' painting, Portrait of a Lady, circa 1630, housed in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, demonstrates in the figure and dress of Velázquez' model a related volumetric weight and dynamic balance between closed and open angles present in Kline. Where lighter ground peers through the enlivened registrations of foreground and background created by the folds and finishes of the costume collar and short jacket, in Accent aigu, the white background similarly cuts between strips of roughened angularities in Kline's table-like form. Kline has acknowledged, "there are forms that are figurative to me. I don't have the feeling that something has to be completely non-associative as far as figure form is concerned" (D. Anfam, "Franz Kline," article, in New Grove Art Online). Further, a suggestion of Kline's handling of the accent aigu itself, a daub in the upper left portion of the canvas, echoes the thrusting angle of the chair back used in Velázquez' portrait to support the standing figure. Although displaced from the floor to float freely in the swirling white ground, the verve of Velázquez' dynamic diagonal thrust is mirrored in Kline's allover canvas.

With a powerful inventiveness, Kline was at the center of America's first-generation Abstract Expressionist in mid-century. Starting as a realist painter, Kline's subject matter was the coal mining Pennsylvania landscape with its trains, bridges, and trains. Through his brief exposure to Cubism after World War II and the undoubtedly strong influence of Willem de Kooning's black and white paintings of 1948-49, Kline achieved his signature style in the 1950s, creating canvas that explored black and white linear contrasts over a vast surface in expanding and interlocking grid-like vectors. Making preliminary sketches often on pages of telephone books, Kline became amazed at the drama inherent in expanding these images, when, around 1948 de Kooning enlarged some of Kline's sketches along with his own using a Bell-Opticon projector. With a broad brush Kline delivered power and energy over large swaths of turbulent, overlapping planes. Capturing the aggressiveness and grit of post-World War II America, Kline's monumental canvases celebrate not only the physical realities of the time, but also the rage inhering in subjective expression. Kline's canvases seem to have been created with the modernist poet Charles Olson's statement of 1951 in mind: "If there is any absolute, it is never more than this one, you, this instant, action" (C. Olson, "The Human Universe," in Human Universe and Other Essays, San Francisco, 1965, p. 5.)

Like Kline's related canvas Accent Grave, 1955, in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, with its corresponding downward sloping shape in the upper left region of the canvas, Accent Aigu realizes a strong structural core, a demonstration of his oft- rehearsed notion that "painting is an organization," not an image or a symbol. As he remarked in conversation, "'s not an illusionistic thing. It just seems as though there are forms in some experience in your life that have an excitement for you. Those sort of forms in your experience do, in some way, not dominate, but they become the things that you are involved with....A curve or line or rhythmical relation do have, in some way, some psychological bearing, not only on the person who looks at them after they've been conceived but also they do have a lot to do with the creative being who is involved with wondering just how exiting it can be..." (F. Kline, quoted in 'Interview with D. Sylvester,' in Living Arts, Vol. 1, Spring 1963, London, The Institute of Contemporary Arts). As vectors are joined, interlocked, and suspended, they splinter in a recasting of the grid, while their energy condenses in a powerfully dynamic structure, both embedded in white impasto and ripped through it, skidding away from perspectival depth. Kline manages to keep event on the surface, to compress energy into generative forms. In this way, Accent aigu presents armature-like marks, which in their erupting energy, seem spontaneous, but which are, in fact, deliberate and considered planar contours whose torque and weight express the bodily trace of an act of painterly mastery that catalyzes an exhilarating optical drama of line and form.

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