"The artist is working on a large canvas in which colors--greens and yellows--have been introduced. The problem--which he has also attacked in a brilliant series of small oil-on-paper sketches--involves making the color count as color without turning the blacks and whites into absence of color. It entails finding a new way to calculate value--in every meaning of this term--to retain the qualities of passions, unity and complexity that make all Kline's pictures. But whether this canvas will be completed in time for the exhibition is still uncertain"--Thomas B. Hess, Art News, Spring 1956
De Medici, as Thomas Hess described in Art News in the spring of 1956, is a large, important and radical painting made in preparation for Franz Kline's first one-man-show at the Sidney Janis Gallery held in March of that year. This exhibition, Kline's first after moving to Janis' gallery and arguably his most important show to date, was one that also marked the first significant intimations of color beginning to emerge from within the famous black-and-white style that had previously dominated Kline's unique brand of abstraction since 1950.
A large landscape-format painting comprising predominantly of dynamic and sweepingly interactive black and white brushstrokes, De Medici has long been regarded as a key and central work from this vitally important period in Kline's development as it is distinguished by its bold and, for Kline during this period, rare use of a vibrant green form at its center.
Completed in time for the show, De Medici was exhibited at the Sidney Janis gallery, under the simple and assertive title of Black and Green. It was only sometime later (but before Kline's visit to Italy in 1960) that the painting gained the more specific title De Medici which, as Kline scholar Professor Harry F. Gaugh has pointed out, refers directly to the name on the tube of green paint that Kline had used in this work. Kline's change of dealer in 1956 had also led, inadvertently, to a change of medium. On signing with Janis, the dealer had requested of Kline that he now use tube paints to work with rather than the cheaper, more fluid but perhaps less stable admixture of artist's oil and cheap commercial enamel paint he had used previously, telling Kline that he was welcome to bill the gallery for any such supplies. 'De Medici Green' was a rich viridian color that Kline had used before in his first color abstractions of the late 1940s and would later use again. Its powerful, and for Kline at this time also daring, appearance at the heart of this otherwise predominantly black-and-white painting--one of very few non-purely black-and-white works in the Janis show--makes 'de Medici' an appropriate title as well as one that intriguingly anticipates the many other Italianate titles Kline would later bestow on his work after a trip to Italy in 1960.
As Thomas Hess pointed out in his article on Kline in the run-up to this important exhibition, as was often his manner, Kline had made detailed sketches and studies in preparation for the creation of de Medici, finally working up the picture from earlier oil studies on paper such as Green Oblique (Study for 'De Medici'). In addition, De Medici was by no means the only work in the show in which Kline intended to introduce color. As the critic Leo Steinberg recalled Kline telling him at the Janis show opening, Kline had originally intended this exhibition to be a more colorful show and was almost apologetic about having produced yet another show of mostly black paintings. "I'm always trying to bring color into my paintings, but it keeps slipping away and here I am with another black show," Steinberg remembers him saying. (L.Steinberg, quoted in Kline The Color Abstractions, exh. cat. Washington, 1979, p. 12)
As with several of Kline's works therefore, the vigorous spontaneity of De Medici is in fact the final product of a staged process of pictorial construction--a gradual procedure of building up and taking away, as can be witnessed by a comparison between this work and Green Oblique with its collaged layers and more solid forms--until each active element is held into a tenuous and febrile balance that hovers between stability and instability. Kline's dynamic use of 'de Medici' green in this work serves as an anchor of the whole composition. Reduced, most effectively, from the collaged Green Oblique into a single rectangular green form, it appears to both float above the other forms and to be set into them in a way that plays an integral part of their planar-like intersection in the middle of the canvas. Like each of these sweeping brush-stroked forms which speak simultaneously of movement at the very same time as they appear to fix and structure the surface of the canvas, Kline's brushwork asserts itself as both gesture and material, as both motion and stasis. The successful resolution of the painting--its successful 'coming together' as Kline once referred to it--is the sole justification of the action. The painting is, as Kline once described it, a 'painting experience'. "I don't decide in advance that I'm going to paint a definite experience," he said, "but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me... I paint an organization that becomes a painting" (Y. Kline, quoted in S.C. Foster, Franz Kline; Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat., Barcelona, 1994, p. 36).
Painted in March 1956, De Medici came into being at the very same time that Willem de Kooning, who was later to generously describe Kline as 'his best friend', was busy at work in preparation for his own show to be held at the Janis Gallery immediately after Kline's exhibition, on April 2, 1956. (W. de Kooning quoted in Kline: The Color Abstractions, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1979, p. 13) In close contact with one another during this important shared period of creativity, it seems that Kline's interest in the development of color in his work at this time may well have been stimulated from his strong awareness of de Kooning's explosive articulations of colorful brushwork. Similarly, as Harry F. Gaugh has argued, de Kooning who was busy at work on his largest and most ambitious canvas since 1950's Excavation at this time--the large painting Easter Monday now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art--may well have taken note of Kline's De Medici, a work which was also one of Kline's largest to date. "Although distinct in manipulation of space - Kline lets it hang loose while de Kooning mistreats and mangles it," Gaugh has written, "the two works correspond in some details. Kline's green diagonal stretched defiantly across the painting's midsection has a counterpart in de Kooning's green horizontal bar cutting through Easter Monday's right side. In each, open rectangles outlined in black set up spikey, lattice-like structures, in the de Kooning one rectangle is sliced in half by the green bar" (H. F Gaugh, "Franz Kline: The Abstractions with Color", in Kline: The Color Abstractions, op cit, p. 13).