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Franz Kline (1910-1962)
Property from an Important Canadian Collection
Franz Kline (1910-1962)


Franz Kline (1910-1962)
signed, inscribed and dated 'FRANZ KLINE '61 IV' (on the reverse); titled 'CURVINAL' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
78 7/8 x 59 1/4 in. (200.3 x 150.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1962
H. F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, New York, 1994, p. 177.
Franz Kline 1910-62, exh. cat., Turin, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, 2004, p. 332.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, New Paintings by Franz Kline, December 1961, no. 15 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Twenty-two years before his magisterial execution of Curvinal, Franz Kline and his wife Elizabeth attended a performance at the Metropolitan Opera that would resonate with Kline for the rest of his life. Seated in the elegant interior of the original 1411 Broadway Opera House, which opened in New York in 1883, the Kline’s celebrated the nascent artist’s 29th birthday with an extraordinary performance of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It is rumored that several days later Kline purchased a second-hand recording of the opera. Indeed, Franz Kline—like his contemporaries Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning—was known to have been avid listeners of music, particularly jazz, while they made their grand, gestural leaps around the canvas. However, Kline, who was married to the ballerina Elizabeth Parsons, also garnered a deep appreciation for the theater and would often make reference to his favorite ballets or operas within the titles of his work. Curvinal is one such example, drawing its title from the character Kurwenal in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; it joins two other such Wagnerian inspired works: Wotan, 1950 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), and Seigfried, 1958 (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh).

Largely based on the 12th century French tale inspired by Celtic legend about the love between the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Iseult. Wagner’s opera—which premiered in 1865—is seen by many to lay the ground work for classical music in the 20th century and became a main source of inspiration for many Symbolist poets in the coming decades. The opera follows the forbidden romance of Tristan and Isolde, who fall in love at the mercy of a strong potion given to them by Isolde’s attendant unbeknownst to them. Isolde, however, is promised to marry Tristan’s uncle, who raised the main protagonist like a son. The opera results in both Tristan and Isolde drinking poison as they realize their love can never be. While the baritone character, Kurwenal, in the Wagnerian opera serves as Tristan’s main attendant, it is perhaps the play on words that drew Kline to title his painting Curvinal after Tristan and Isolde. As Arthur Danto has explained: “The relationship of titles to paintings in abstract expressionism practice is never clear-cut. Kline’s are named after trains, ballets, figures in Wagnerian operas, subway stops, and places that had some meaning for him, without the paintings necessarily bearing any pictorial relationship to the bearers of those names” (A. C. Danto, “Franz Kline,” The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, Berkley, 2001, p. 119).

Gleaning his title from one of his favorite operas, Kline molds the character Kurwenal’s name into one worthy of the great Action Painters. Indeed, Kline was so attuned to audial sensation that he approached his canvases like a soloist to their instrument, entering the composition, developing it and exiting without finishing off its possibilities. “Every nerve was enlisted while he was at work,” Dore Ashton remembers. “His emphasis on ‘feeling’ as the proper criterion for a painter was not casual. Those great diagonals he favored reflected his inner rhythms, his own way of vaulting into the grand spaces he envisioned. How endemic to his whole being those diagonal trajectories were can be gauged by the way he danced… He had an impulse to shoot out into space, to slam through a wilderness of black and white and reach a climax of total freedom… He dances as he paints, beating out an idiosyncratic rhythm over sustained periods, and then suddenly, and with élan, breaks the rhythm dramatically by shooting out one foot in a precipitous accent grave movement” (D. Ashton, “Kline as he was and as he is,” in C. Christov-Bakargiev, ed., Franz Kline: 1910-1962, exh. cat., Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin, 2004, p. 28).

His sweeping armature-like marks can appear as drawn symbols in the sense of calligraphic pictograms, which are, like Kline’s signature gestures, immediately apprehended. Yet, Kline denied any association to writing: “The Oriental idea of space is an infinite space; it is not painted space, and ours is. In the first place, calligraphy is writing, and I’m not writing. 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. For instance, in this canvas we’re looking at right now, you can see how I’ve painted out areas of black with my whites” (K. Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1962, p. 44).

With a powerful inventiveness, Kline was at the center of America’s first-generation Abstract Expressionist in the 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 1948-1949, 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 de Kooning enlarged some of Kline’s sketches along with his own using a Bell-Opticon projector around 1948. 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).

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