FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)
FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)
FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)
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FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)
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FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)

Pennsylvania

Details
FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)
Pennsylvania
oil and charcoal on canvas
signed 'FRANZ KLINE' (on the reverse)
45 x 62 3/4 in. (114.3 x 159.5 cm.)
Executed in 1954.
Provenance
Egan Gallery, New York
George and Elinor Poindexter, New York
Pace Gallery, New York, 1973
Private collection, New York, 1974
Private collection, 1981
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 2002, lot 45
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of 20th Century Evening Sale, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art

Lot Essay

With sweeping strokes and grand gestures, Franz Kline helped to usher in the era of American action painting. A vital part of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1940s and 50s, his tragically short career left an indelible mark on the history of art. Pennsylvania is a momentous example of the artist’s ability to create depth and drama with just black and white marks. Frank O'Hara, writing in the introduction to the posthumous Franz Kline Retrospective Exhibition of 1964, intoned: "To Kline, art meant power, power to move and to be moved. He is the Action Painter par excellence. He did not wish to be 'in' his painting, as Pollock did, but to create the event of his passage, at whatever intersection of space and time, through the world. Each painting is a complete and open declaration of feeling" (F. O’Hara, quoted in D. and C. Shapiro, Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, 1990, Cambridge and New York, p. 291). Kline’s work served as documentation of his exploration of the canvas with a loaded brush. Heralding the transition from figurative work to gestural abstraction, pieces like the present example are built upon an expansive knowledge of traditional painting that has been pushed into the next era.

Rendered on a stippled white ground, Pennsylvania is a poignant example of Kline’s mature style. Using house painter’s brushes, he creates wide swaths of deep black and energetic strokes that drag and crash across the composition. Two major horizontal sections across the top and bottom of the work extend nearly the entire length, their undulating lines made up of several solid strokes that create an almost mechanical form that one could connect visually to the artist’s youth in the titular state. Two upward strokes extend from these anchors, one solid and one brushy and smoke-like, connecting the entire work in a subtle grid structure that is only enhanced by a vertical drip on the right and the smaller incursions from the brush’s splatter and spray as it passed over the canvas. The artist Robert Motherwell, speaking about the tension and power within Kline’s oeuvre, extolled, "Who could not be moved by his sense of push and thrust? Kline's great black bars have the tension of a taut bow, or a ready catapult. And his sense of scale, that 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, “Homage to Franz Kline”, August 17, 1962, quoted in Franz Kline: The Color Abstractions exh. cat. Washington D.C. 1979, p. 43). Of great influence to his fellow artists in the New York School, Kline’s ability to coax such dynamism from spare brushwork in monochrome. Creating a loose visual vocabulary of forms that he arranged in various manners upon the surface, the artist was often asked about his interest in Chinese calligraphy, a connection he denied. However it is easy to see why some art historians make that visual link to the ‘art of the brush’ as Kline’s practiced hand pushed the paint across the prepared surface with lyrical dexterity.

Born in Pennsylvania, Kline went to college at Boston University from 1931-35 before moving to London to begin his studies at the Heatherley School of Art (1937-38). It was there that he began to hone his talents and developed a lifelong habit of creating many small sketches in quick, animated marks. Unlike his other Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, Kline was less influenced by Surrealism and instead came from a more conventional background in drawing and painting where his influences included Tintoretto, Whistler, Rembrandt, and Velázquez instead of the more common allusions to Cézanne, Picasso, or Matisse. His interest in these artists had to do with their handling of paint as a medium less than their psychological states, and the sketching was more in line with preparatory work than a means for expression. Though works like Pennsylvania might be considered for their gusto and active power, the large canvases were rarely records of immediate encounters between the artist and surface, and were instead a result of prudent planning through oil sketches on paper where Kline would hone his dynamic compositions. "When I work from preliminary sketches," Kline explained, "I don't just enlarge these drawings, but plan my areas in a large painting by using small drawings for separate areas. I combine them in a final painting, often adding to or subtracting from the original sketches. When I work directly, I work fast. I suppose I work fast most of the time, but what goes into a painting, isn't just done while you're painting" (F. Kline, quoted in Franz Kline: Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1994, pp. 164-65). This emphasis on process was exceedingly important to Kline, and his insistence on the link between all of his artistics outlets established a multilayered conversation that was as examined as it was rich.

Kline’s signature black-and-white canvases came out of a gradual refinement of earlier figurative modes, a trajectory that he shared with many of his Abstract Expressionist colleagues. In the late 1940s, he reached a point of epiphany while he was visiting the studio of his friend Willem de Kooning. De Kooning was showing his fellow artist a new method for combining sketches and smaller fragments by blowing them up large with a Bell-Opticon projector on the wall. At one point, he inserted some of Kline’s oil sketches into the machine, and the massive enlargements of the painter’s frenzied strokes on paper seem to have enraptured him and paved the way for what would become his groundbreaking personal style. As Elaine de Kooning so succinctly put, "it was Kline's unique gift to be able to translate the character and the speed of a one-inch flick of the wrist to a brush-stroke magnified a hundred times. (Who else but Tintoretto has been able to manage this gesture?)" (E. de Kooning, "Franz Kline," quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev, (ed.), Franz Kline 1910-62, exh. cat. Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Turin, 2004, p. 345). Distilling down years of traditional education, Kline was able to get at the heart of his own relationship with painting. No artist before had established such a strong connection between all processes of painting, between preparatory sketch and final canvas.
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