Franz Kline (1910-1962)
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Franz Kline (1910-1962)


Franz Kline (1910-1962)
oil on board mounted on masonite
30 x 22 in. (76.2 x 55.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1950.
Rosa Esman Gallery, New York
Private collection, Chicago
David McKee Gallery, New York
Marlborough Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Purchase, Neuberger Museum, Franz Kline: Early Works as Signals, September-November 1977, no. 51.
Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum, The Fifties: Aspects of Painting in New York, May-September 1980, no. 11.
New York, Rosa Esman Gallery, A Curator's Choice 1942-1963: A Tribute to Dorothy Miller, February-March 1982.
Special notice
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Lot Essay

Erupting almost beyond the framing edge, broad painterly marks careen across a field of thick white impasto in a complex web of angles, loops and ovoids. White polygons, shifting between internal and external spatial fields, create a dense web of colliding events. This force of multiple gestures has an almost improvisatory feel, yet one senses that Kline's placement of his marks is thoroughly considered. A fully realized composition, Kline has created a force field of rhythmic echoes, their emotional charge springing from two anchoring diagonal horizontal striations, which the artist wrenches downward at sharp angles seemingly by a sheer muscularity of gesture. A central oblong form, cut through by thick applications of white overpainting, generates a twin form above whose internal polygons are extended into a scalene triangular shape, which dominates the right side of the canvas. Composition, 1950, captures, in essence, Kline's construction of space, executed with a vigor and imagination compelling for its unifying thrust. Robert Motherwell, in his "Homage to Franz Kline" shortly after the latter's death in 1962, described Kline's commitment to wielding black and white toward compositional ends: "He and I were independently devotedto the development of a contemporary 'black and white' painting that has no intervening middle tones. An art of opposite weights and absolute contrast" (R. Motherwell, "Homage to Franz Kline," in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999, p. 133). The notions, on the one hand, of pure color contrast and, on the other, of an opposition of visual weight, are particularly vital in the present work. Thickened black striations oppose loose triangular geometric forms creating an ambiguity between positive and negative spaces that arrests vision as it confounds spatial perception. What at one moment seems fore-grounded at another might recede into the background as white and black alternate in visual primacy. "People sometimes think I take a white canvas and paint a black sign on it, but this is not true. I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important. You can see how I've painted out areas of black with my whites" (F. Kline, "Statement: Katherine Kuh," The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1962, 152). Composition, 1950, is at once startling and vigorous, a triumph boundless in emotional intensity and telling technical rigor.

Trained as a draughtsman at Boston University and Boston's Art Students' League (1931-35) as well as the Heatherly Art School in London (1936-37), Kline moved to New York in 1939, winning prizes at the National Academy of Design's Annual Exhibitions in New York (1942-44) before devoting himself primarily to fine arts. By 1950, the year of the present work, Kline had firmly departed from his early realism and the biomorphism prevalent in European and American art of the 1940s to embrace what became his signature style. The source of this style has always been a point of conjecture. Both the artist Elaine de Kooning and the dealer Charles Egan, who gave Kline his first one-person exhibition in 1950, believed that this style derived from enlargements of details from his sketches made on a Bell-Opticon projector, schematic rendering of chairs and tables, then rendered with an immediacy due to the artist's emotional relationship with the act of painting: "The speed and weight of the line kept increasing until finally the objective image was overwhelmed by its own outlines. The line, now a heavy brushstroke, no longer described solid forms: it had become itself, the only solid form on the paper" (E. de Kooning, "Kline and Rothko: Two Americans in Actions," Art News Annual, XXVII, 1958, p. 179). Closer to the truth, however, is Elaine de Kooning's acknowledgment that Kline's "...content was always gesture" (Ibid.) Gesture, however, is tied not only to the immediacy of his artistic practice, but also to a sort of "free association" that is filled with emotional content: "the emotion must be there. If I feel a painting I'm working on doesn't have imagery or emotion, I paint it out or work over it until it does" (F. Kline, in S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, 1961, p. 109). What becomes apparent from these statements -- about gesture, opposition of elements and color, and emotion -- is that Kline's "imagery" is deeply informed by expressive content and spatial decisions, so that the title of the present work becomes for the viewer a summatory statement of intention germane to the entirety of Kline's oeuvre.

The complex web of incident inherent in Composition, 1950, confronts the viewer not only with its stark polarities, but also with its spatial counterpoint. Motherwell best describes this complex structure by comparing Kline's proclivity toward ambiguity to the artist Hans Hoffman's theory of "push and pull," the idea that certain colors draw the viewer's eye more quickly and thus seem to exist in a constructed foreground, while others fall back into recession. Kline achieves this effect using various densities of paint application, at times fully opaque, at other times white interpenetrated by black coloration. "Who could not be moved by [Kline's] sense of push and thrust? Kline's great black bars have the tension of a taught bow, or a ready catapult. And his sense of scale, the 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" (R. Motherwell, op. cit., p.133). Extended muscular bands, variations in levels of saturation, and alternating torqued shapes create an invitation to decode the relationship between elements as much as an obstacle to vision. So that in addition to the spatial variations of surface, Composition, 1950, can be understood as a constructed series of planar events, in contrast to functioning as a surface from illusionistic associations might be extracted.

Kline achieves compositional balance by means of interlocking forces, which overlap, impinge and ricochet off bands, edgings and internal polygons. Composition, 1950, creates dynamic tension, which hangs on a firm skeleton of lines and planes "organized in front of you," so to speak (F. Kline in F. O'Hara, "Franz Kline Talking," Evergreen Review, 6, Autumn 1958, p. 60). The sense of organized chaos comes from the pressure of white against black, of line converging with ovoid, and from energies in disarray, " a certain sense of the awkwardness of 'not-balance,' the tentative reality of lack of balance in it" (F. Kline, in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 63). And yet, the seeming disorder is utterly intentional: Kline plays with disruption and instability, but finally, gravitates towards a structured and ordered signifying identity in this exceptional work. Created at a seminal moment of discovery, the artist would sustain these signature gestures over the next twelve years of his creative life. Kline's genius is never more present than here in Composition, 1950, where, as Motherwell states, the artist " share[s] this possible miraculous event with you" (R. Motherwell, ibid., p. 134).

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