The bold, almost architectural, forms that expand across surface of Franz Kline’s 1955 painting Untitled, displays the artist’s revolutionary and uncompromising approach to the abstract form. One of the leading figures of his generation, Kline’s dramatic black-and-white canvases display the doctrines of the Abstract Expressionism in their purest form. Unequivocally American, yet built on foundations that are universal, the manner in which Kline composes and constructs his paintings is both very visual and yet deeply philosophical, and as such his calligraphic gestures have come to represent abstraction in its purest form.
The visually simple, yet conceptually complex, composition aligns to Kline’s interest not only in the gesture, but also the space it occupies. Two substantial vertical bands of black soar up from the center of the canvas, stretching up and stopping just short of the upper edge of the picture plane. This pair of vertical tower-like structures is then bisected by a more gestural sweep of pigment which traverses the canvas from left to right, before tailing off at an angle. A third, more ethereal, line runs diagonally, almost behind the uprights, joining the horizontal at its obtuse angle. Executed in a rapid, but deliberate manner, these lines display the full force of Kline’s gestures. From the thick, heavy verticals to the more delicate horizontals, together with the drips and incidental splatters of paint, the speed at which the artist’s hand traversed the canvas is also clear. In addition to commanding the center of the composition, by taking his forms right up to, and sometimes through, the confines of the picture plane, Kline adds an extra level of dynamism, expanding the flat two-dimensional constraints of the canvas to infinite proportions.
Kline’s painted forms have been likened to the graphic qualities of Chinese calligraphy, a source of inspiration that is in keeping with other Abstract Expressionist painters such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. The strong, well-developed forms that populate his canvases have also been likening to the industrial structures that dotted the industrial landscape of Kline’s native Eastern Pennsylvania, or the burgeoning forest of skyscrapers that crowded the skyline of his later home in Manhattan. Yet their true meaning is more complex than that. Unlike his contemporaries Mark Rothko (born in Dvinsk, in the western Russian Empire), and de Kooning (born in Rotterdam, Holland), Kline was born in America. Thus, along with Pollock (born in Cody, Wyoming), Kline was at the forefront of developing a new vernacular in American painting that was free from many of the traditions and histories of European painting.
Thus, Kline abandoned the perceived notions of line, form and three-dimensional space, and developed an entirely new and revolutionary form of artistic language. Thus, in works such as Untitled, the black gestures are not necessarily figurative representations of physical objects or even the emotional psyche, instead they can be read as investigations into the fundamental notions about space and depth. In a review of a 1954 exhibition, critic Hubert Crehan identifies Kline’s new, more complex, form of expression. “[he] makes his pictures with black and white paint…the blacks don’t become holes; the whites never recede or appear as backdrops. The black-and-white shapes are functions of each other to a degree that the conception of positive-negative space is cancelled out. This is an achievement of technique and artistic will” (H. Crehan, “Inclining to Exultation,” quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev, Franz Kline 1910-1962, Turin, 2004, p. 317). Continuing this theme, the following year curator Thomas Hess wrote, “In Kline’s pictures, white and black count as colors. The whites in Kline’s paintings… are not negative or positive spaces but mean the same as the blacks” (T. Hess, Art News, Vol. 55 No. 1, New York, March 1955, quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev, Franz Kline 1910-1962, Turin, 2004, p. 317).
Kline continues this theme by expanding beyond the realms of composition into the type of pigments he used. Unlike most artists who tended to use one type of paint—be it acrylic or oil, matte or gloss—within the scope of each individual painting, in Untitled Kline combines the use of gloss and matte paint with dramatic results. The reflective nature of the shiny paint combined with the recessive qualities of the matte adds a further degree of depth to the surface of the canvas, inviting prolonged inspection to try and decipher the inscrutable nature of Kline’s painted surface.
Untitled was painted during the period widely considered to be the height of the artist’s mature style. In these works, the bold black lines that define the complex spatial relationships extend out across the surface of the picture plane. The reductive tonal nature of the palette focuses attention on the act of mark making itself, as well as drawing attention to the nature of the medium as one well suited to the exploration of content, the observational and narrative. Kline’s inventive power and commitment to the act of painting through which he composes contrasts, clashing planes, and markings are central to works such as the present example, resulting in a tensile, central event located somewhere between abstraction and figuration, where forces come into contact within a dramatic open field.
These paintings have made an indelible impact on the discourse surrounding not only American 20th century, but also on the trajectory of abstraction globally. Kline does not deny the historical roots of non-figurative mark-making, instead he buildings on these foundations to produce a new, more relevant form for the new century. During a period when developments in paintings came thick and fast, critics identified Kline’s paintings as works which would make a lasting impression and ultimately alter the idea of what a painting is. “Feeling the tug of the great traditions of Europe, Africa and the Orient, with all their perfections, and knowing that his only task is too discover the voice of the New World,” writes Crehan, “the American artist is always making a fresh start, breaking things down to the elements, Kline’s achievement, it seems to me, is breaking down to black and white and simple shapes, is that he has broken through to a vision, very personal, which is a transcendence of those visual tugs from Europe, Africa and the Orient. His paintings look indigenous” (H. Crehan, “Inclining to Exultation,” quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev, Franz Kline 1910-1962, Turin, 2004, p. 317).