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

Provincetown II

Franz Kline (1910-1962)
Provincetown II
signed, titled and dated 'FRANZ KLINE 59 PROVINCETOWN II’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
93 x 79 in. (236.2 x 200.7 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Estate of the Artist, New York
David McKee Gallery, New York
Stephen Edlich, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Irving C. Deal, Dallas
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
J.S., “Reviews and Previews,” Art News, v. 59, April 1960, p. 12 (Illustrated).
“The 30th Venice Biennale: Illustrations,” Art International, 4, September 1960, p. 41 (illustrated).
R. Goldwater, “Franz Kline: Darkness Visible,” Art News, v. 66, March 1967, p. 41 (illustrated in color).
Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings and Sculpture, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1983, p. 127, fig. 9 (illustrated).
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, New Paintings by Franz Kline, March-April 1960, no. 9 (illustrated).
Venice, XXX Biennale Internazionale di Venezia, June-October 1960.
New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Franz Kline 1910-1962, March 1967, p. 21, no. 11 (illustrated in color).
Washington D.C., The Phillips Collection; Houston, Institute for the Arts at Rice University; Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Seattle Art Museum, Franz Kline: The Color Abstractions, February-November 1979, p. 54, no. 6 (illustrated in color).
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Franz Kline: Architecture & Atmosphere, October 1997-January 1998, no. 57 (illustrated in color).
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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Executed in 1959, Franz Kline painted Provincetown II shortly after purchasing a studio in the titular seaside village perched at the tip of Cape Cod. Provincetown was renowned as much for its spare beauty, characterized by rolling dunes and seemingly never ending tracts of blue sky and sea, as its artistic legacy. The town boasted a reputation as an artist mecca that dated back to the arrival of the American Impressionists at the beginning of the 20th century. Hans Hoffman opened a summer satellite location for his New York School of Fine Arts, and throughout the 1940s and 50s, Provincetown attracted proponents of Abstract Expressionism including Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. In fact, Kline’s studio—where he painted the present lot—had been previously rented in 1944 by Pollock and his wife, artist Lee Krasner.

Kline created Provincetown II three years after his “uninterrupted ‘return’ to color” (H. F. Gaugh, Kline: The Color Abstractions, Washington D.C., 1979, p. 12), a creative gambit that was risky given the critical success of his monochromes, but ultimately proved indisputably rewarding, and served to further cement his status as a canonized master of modernism . The present lot articulates the nature of these rewards in patently compelling terms. It combines the natural beauty of the eastern seaboard with the boisterous paint handling and architectonic forms that convey dynamic energy of New York City and constitute defining qualities of Kline’s oeuvre. The topography of Cape Cod appears manifest in the profusion of oceanic blues; the forest green blocks and citrus sherbet tones, evocative of cattail-blanketed marshes and majestic sunsets. Against this colorful backdrop, the black mass hovering in the center of the canvas loses its manmade connotations, appearing more like a murder of crows in flight than a bridge or skyscraper.

Kline once told an interviewer that he was drawn to Provincetown because it was both “quiet and jazzy.” (Albert Boime, Franz Kline: The Early Works as Signals, New York 1977 p. 3) The present work assimilates these polarities in stunning terms, simultaneously exuding the contemplative quietude of a snow blanketed beach and the vibrancy and spontaneity embodied by “cool” jazz. Willem de Kooning’s wife, Elizabeth, once described Kline as a “many-faceted personality, a composite of contradictions” (Albert Boime, Franz Kline: The Early Works as Signals, New York 1977 p. 1), which she felt manifested “in the incredible contrasts” (ibid) that pervade his work.

Raised in rural Pennsylvania, Kline was characterized as an “All American boy” (D. Ashton, Franz Kline: 1910-1962, Italy 2004, p. 24) endowed with good looks, a “gift for gab, “(ibid.) and an innate athleticism. Despite these natural advantages, his early life was anything but charmed. At the age of six years old, Kline’s father died under inauspicious circumstances and he was sent to a school for fatherless children, where he would remain for the next six years. This childhood trauma, and the attending loneliness and despair that he experienced in its wake, would prove to be a profoundly formative experience for Kline that would forever shape his worldview and creative sensibility.

In 1938, eager to jettison the provinciality and anguish associated with his upbringing, Kline moved to New York City. He became enamored with the virile power of Manhattan, personified by the soaring skyscrapers, locomotives, automobiles and freighters traveling along the rivers that circumscribe the island. These emblems of the big city populate his early figurative work, and appear distilled to their monumental essence in his later abstractions, which would also come to reflect the unnatural hues of a “neon-illuminated cityscape” (D. Anfam, Franz Kline: 1910-1962, Italy 2004, p. 5). In New York City, Kline adopted the stylings of a metropolitan sophisticate, but to some degree always remained tethered to his small town roots. He encompassed a wealth of contradictions appearing simultaneously urbane and naïve, meticulous and impulsive, full of “strength and loneliness” (D. Ashton, Franz Kline: 1910-1962, Italy 2004, p. 14).

These contrasts suffuse Provincetown II, as Kline combines delicate brushwork with violent and frenetic strokes; organic and electric hues; matte color blocks with iridescent stipples of impasto and watery rivulets of pigment that cascade towards the base of the canvas; and flashes of pure color with moments of polychromatic coalescence that collectively produce a universe teeming with life, texture and wondrous possibility. A sapphire channel cuts through the center of the composition, navigating between a slab of emerald above and a crag below replete with seams of turquoise, ruby and orange garnet, before emptying into an oceanic expanse that breaches the canvas’s borders. Flecks of primed canvas peek out from beneath these geological forms, appearing alternately like the radiating surfaces of a beveled gemstone and small clearings within fields of color.

These moments of negative space allow the composition to breathe, like the buffering silences between musical notes, imbuing the painting with a sense of unfulfilled potential, preserving the fantasy that a sublime but palpable pleasure could somehow be heightened, and that its apogee has yet to come. This hope most often proves elusive, if not fallacious, however. In fact, it is Kline’s restraint that imparts the painting with much of its dynamic strength, like an instrumental solo that one feels could continue with equal verve for stanzas but is truncated, in order to maintain a modicum of unrealized possibility. This possibility, in part, invests life with excitement, promising an ever brighter and more lustrous reality just beyond our grasp.

Sculptor John Chamberlain once remarked if every Abstract Expressionist were to be defined by their quintessence “with Franz Kline it was power.” (D. Anfam, op. cit., p. 45) While Provincetown II inescapably conveys power in the aggressively contrasting hues and vigorous paint handling, it also suggests a latent sensitivity and even a vulnerability rarely seen in the machismo world of Abstract Expressionism. Kline appears unafraid to reveal himself in the indexical vestiges of his brushwork that appear to record the brushes’ every bristle and, at times, appear to vacillate in space as if plotting the course of their next visual riff. Like the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, there is an inescapably synesthetic quality to Kline’s ouevre that communicates the “dissonant passages and the improvisational asymmetry” (D. Ashton, op. cit., p. 30) of modern jazz rather than the harmonious cohesion of classical music. Provincetown II exemplifies this musical lyricism. It resounds with the staccato rhythms of avant garde jazz on a scale that produces the sensation of standing “in awe on the sidewalk at the foot of a tall skyscraper, almost unbalanced.”(D. Anfam, op. cit. p. 60) Here, one can perceive Kline’s singular ability to translate the feeling of modernity into painting—with its cacophonous noise, motion, and vertiginous cityscapes—which is perhaps why the acclaimed poet Frank O’Hara regarded Kline as the “quintessential action painter” (D. Anfam, op. cit., p. 41).

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