FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)
FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)
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Vital Line: A New York Collection
FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)

Washington Wall

FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)
Washington Wall
oil on canvas
43 1/8 x 175 in. (109.5 x 444.5 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Jane Suydam (formerly Wheeler), Washington, D.C., commissioned from the artist through Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
McKee Gallery, New York
Edward R. Broida, Los Angeles, 1980
His sale; Christie's, New York, 8 November 2005, lot 38
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Kline, exh. cat., Atlanta, New Arts Gallery, 1961 (illustrated on the back cover; titled Washington Wall Painting).
J. Schuyler, “Reviews and Previews,” Art News, vol. 59, no. 10, February 1961, p. 10.
N. Edgar, “Franz Kline Exhibit Exceptional Event,“ Art/World, vol. 3, no. 6, February-March 1979, p. 4 (illustrated).
B. Forgey, “Phillips Brings Out Color Abstractions of Franz Kline,” Washington Star Portfolio, 1 March 1979, pp. B1 and B3 (illustrated).
J. Russell, "Kline's 'Effulgent Abstractions,'" New York Times, 18 March 1979, p. D31.
C. Moser, "In art and life, Franz Kline was more than black and white," Houston Chronicle, 6 May 1979, p. 8.
M. Crossley, "Black and white...and color," Houston Post, 13 May 1979, p. AA.
F. Hoffman, “Franz Kline: The Color Works,” Artweek, 16 June 1979, p. 16 (illustrated).
D. Tannous, “Report from Washington,” Art in America, vol. 67, no. 7-8, July-August 1979, pp. 24-25 (illustrated).
P. J. King, “Color Him Franz Kline,” Los Angeles Heald Examiner, 29 July 1979, p. E4 (illustrated).
W. Wilson, “Franz Kline: Color Adds Another Dimension,” Los Angeles Times, 5 August 1979, p. 81 (illustrated).
“If You Liked Treasures of Tut, You’ll Love Korean Exhibit,” Roundup, 16 September 1979, p. 28 (illustrated).
H. Gaugh, “Franz Kline: Abstractions with Color,” Mizue, vol. 11, no. 896, November 1979, p. 95 (illustrated).
Hauser & Wirth Institute, Franz Kline Paintings, 1950-1962, Digital Catalogue Raisonné, digital, 2023-ongoing, no. 180 (illustrated).
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, New Paintings by Franz Kline, March-April 1960, n.p., no. 7 (illustrated; titled Washington Wall Painting).
Washington, D.C., Phillips Collection; Houston, Rice University, Institute for the Arts; Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Seattle Art Museum, Franz Kline: The Color Abstractions, February-November 1979, pp. 19-20, 45 and 72-73, no. 21 (illustrated and illustrated on the front and back covers).
Orlando Museum of Art, The Edward R. Broida Collection: A Selection of Works, March-June 1998, p. 88B (illustrated).
Further Details
One of only two paintings from its series to contain color, Franz Kline’s Washington Wall is a dramatic and innovative triumph in gesture, color and volume. Spanning nearly fifteen feet across, the emotional and gestural forces of the artist’s signature black brushstrokes have been unleashed in a series of dramatic diagonals, which race toward the painting’s center. By 1959, both the scale and palette of Kline’s work had expanded, and he added hints of color to accentuate the emotional gravitas of his iconic black-and-white paintings. The sweeping magnetism of monumental paintings like Washington Wall reflects not only the raw, industrial landscape of the artist’s native Pennsylvania, which was once the heart of a booming coal mining industry, but also the energy and dynamism of postwar New York, with its soaring buildings and towering bridges.

Washington Wall belongs to a series of paintings inspired by the scarred landscapes of the artist’s youth. Born in Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, Kline grew up surrounded by the presence of heavy industry, particularly the mining of anthracite coal that dominated the area. The nearby town of Washington was home to one of the region’s largest coal mines, and the location of many prime seams—or “walls”—of coal. The profound influence of the raw, industrial environment is ubiquitous in all of Kline’s most iconic work.

Other paintings from the period, including Mahoning (1956, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Bethlehem (1959-60, Saint Louis Museum Art Museum), and Lehigh V Span (1959-60, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) reflect the impact that growing up in the shadow of heavy industry had on the direction of Kline’s art, and works such as Shenandoah Wall (1961), and Mahoning Wall Panel 1 (1961) extend this homage further to the specific source of the region’s wealth. In addition, parallels have also been drawn to the ‘industrial’ landscape of Kline’s new home in New York City, for example the soaring, vaulted forms of his black-and-white paintings also strongly call forth the pillars and joists of the iconic Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges.

In the mid-to-late 1950s, Kline, who was already considered an action painter par excellence, overcame the predominance of black and white within his brooding compositions due to various innovations in both color and scale. At the request of his new dealer Sidney Janis, Kline turned to higher quality materials, including larger canvases and more versatile paint, which broadened his palette. With a new and expanded palette, Kline gradually introduced touches of color into his work, beginning first with green, and then followed by yellow and blue. By 1959, when he painted Washington Wall, he had freely mastered the entire spectrum. Simultaneously, Kline was deeply engaged in an artistic exchange with close friend and master colorist, Willem de Kooning, which clearly impacted his output from this period.

Distinguished by its monumental scale, Washington Wall has been described as ‘cinemascopic,’ and it is indeed a wholly immersive experience. A series of black diagonals rush upwards from the left corner, racing toward the painting’s mid-section, where they crash into each other to create a riotous cacophony of color and form. This results in a series of opposing directional pulls, as each diagonal stroke elicits an equal and opposite reaction on its neighbor, compelling the eye in many different places at once. In his manifestation of light and dark, Kline was heavily influenced by the work of artists such Tintoretto, Goya, and Velázquez, and his airy passages of white paint act as the foils to their emphatic black counterparts, but Kline never conceived of these white spaces as “empty.” Rather, he used them to buttress and ‘cut in’ to the black. Touches of color augment and expand the painting’s emotional range, in sparkling pops of orange and pale blue, which convey light and atmosphere, whereas dark crimson, teal and cobalt elicit deeper, more operatic emotions. Compositionally organized into thirds, Washington Wall is a work that can be read in three parts, proceeding from left to right: introduction, crescendo, and denouement.

The second half of the 1950s found Kline’s career in its ascent. In 1956, after signing on with Janis, a business-minded dealer who also represented Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, Kline reached a new stratosphere of acclaim to a growing international clientele.

In 1957, he signed a three-year lease on a large studio space at 242 West 14th Street in lower Manhattan. Although he would be forced to stop painting because of a recurring heart condition in 1961, Kline was at the top of his game. As the influential art historian Robert Goldwater has written, “Kline, who found his mature style about 1950 and developed it in the following decade, belongs entirely to the heroic period of Abstract Expressionism and its most searching, questioning years. He himself was, and remains, one of its heroes” (R. Goldwater, “Franz Kline: Darkness Visible,” ArtNews, March 1967, p 38).

In 1959, Kline accepted two rare commissions; the first was Orange and Black Wall, which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and was ordered by the renowned collector Robert C. Scull. The second was Washington Wall, acquired by distinguished Washington, D.C. collectors, Mr. and Mrs. George Y. Wheeler. In preparation for Washington Wall, Kline painted a preliminary study, which was collaged together from different components and was specifically designed to occupy a space in their D.C. apartment. From the study to the finished painting, Kline added more passages of bright white, and changed the yellow ocher in the lower right corner to pops of bright orange. He also added the passage of rich phthalo green in the central register. The “cinemascope” proportions were determined by the scale of the room where it would be installed. Exactly twenty years later, Washington Wall was included in a groundbreaking look at Kline’s color abstractions, in a timely exhibit called Franz Kline: The Color Abstractions, which originated at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. It was there that the preeminent American art collector Edward R. Broida fell in love with the painting and successfully negotiated for its sale.

Along with his contemporaries, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, Kline’s signature style harnessed the gestural brushstroke to execute a vision that filled the canvas with what Meyer Shapiro called “… the mark, the stroke, the brush, the drip, the quality of substance of the paint itself…all signs of the artist’s active presence” (M. Schapiro, “The Liberating Quality of the Avant-Garde,” re-titled, “Recent Abstract Painting,” in Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries. Selected Papers, Vol. 2, New York, 1978). Indeed, in his epic paintings like Washington Wall, Kline’s “field of operation” presents the profundity of the brushstroke writ large, stretched and augmented to epic proportions. These energizing markings and vigorous brushwork convey the theatrics of the very act of painting itself. And yet, despite the many decades since their creation, Kline’s paintings remain alive with the spirit, energy and courage of the artist’s brush. They are the living relics of an optimistic and abundant age, with Kline’s expressive gestures and keen eye for color still just as impactful in the present day as they were in the first decade after the Second World War.

Tragically, Kline would die only a few years after painting Washington Wall, just before his fifty-second birthday in 1962. As curator and art critic Katherine Kuh has written, “Some critics find the last canvases over-romantic, preferring the less painterly bluntness of the early fifties. As for me, I strongly suggest that Kline was at heart a supreme romanticist, a man whose expansive warmth was best revealed in the turbulently brushed and often labyrinthine late work. Like Van Gogh, he drew with the pigment itself, the urgency and rush of the streaking paint becoming the key to his own emotions” (K. Kuh, “The Big Bold Brush of Franz Kline,” Saturday Review, January 26, 1963, p. 113).

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Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

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