For twelve years, from 1950 until his untimely death in 1962, Franz Kline created extraordinarily energetic abstractions in black and white, fertile combinations of slickness and viscosity, of which the present example is among the finest. Dominated by a collision of towering crisscrossing brush marks, the resulting form seems to force vision, to shock the viewer into immediate apprehension of its bulking instability and compressed energy. As Kline remarked, "I thought about [my work] in a certain sense of the awkwardness of 'not-balance,' the tentative reality of lack of balance in it" (D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 4). The central rectilinear form strikes one as slightly off-kilter, a teetering displacement embedded in a thick facture of whiteness. Kline's singular idiom charts a visual vocabulary that also pushes perilously against its framing edges with a violent, almost rupturing force. Orthogonal lines overlap, torque into shapes that seem untethered even as they enliven associations to abstracted forms from the everyday, whether bridges, rail tracks, or the human figure. Kline suggests that this sense of peril, of a destructive force at play, is welcome. "There are moments or periods when it would be wonderful to plan something and do it and have the thing only do what you planned to do, and then there are other times when the destruction of those planned things becomes interesting to you. So then it becomes a question of destroying the planned form. It's like an escape, it's something to do; something to begin the situation" (Ibid., p.4). This straining against the rectangular format is particularly felt in Untitled, 1955, where the play of disruptive forces accentuates the surface plane, while seeming to extrude linear projections beyond the framing edge.
A late-comer to the Abstract Expressionist canon, Kline's signature style nonetheless harnessed--as did Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock's--the gestural brush stroke to a vision that filled the canvas with "the mark, the stroke, the brush, the drip, the quality of substance of the paint itself, the surface of the canvas as a texture and field of operation--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). Kline's 'field of operation' and 'stroke' from 1950 became a relentless juxtaposition of black against white markings, of abstraction against figuration, for Kline's turn from the figure was never absolute.
Drawing was an essential element in Kline's process, and he would return over and again to forms first sketched on the pages of telephone books, structures that provided the basis of his essays in black and white. These interlocked horizontals and verticals can be related back to his early figuration and landscape paintings. The hovering gloom of urbanization of the industrial coal towns of eastern Pennsylvania and the velocity and dynamism of railroads and bridges that ran through them left traces in the artist's later abstractions. Kline's armatures convey the aesthetic of construction and mechanization-the bridges and railways, intersections of new roads and the design of engines, much like the elements of cone and cylinder that convey the machine aesthetic of urban architecture in paintings from Fernand Léger's 'mechanical period' (1918-23). Kline remarked, "Braque and Gris, they seemed to have an idea of the organization beforehand in their mind. With Bonnard he is organizing in front of you. You can tell in Léger just when he discovered how to make it like an engine, as John Kane said, being a carpenter, a joiner. What's wrong with that?" (F. Kline, quoted in F. O'Hara, "Franz Kline Talking," Evergreen Review 6, Autumn 1958, p. 60). The interior structures of Kline's early works have been shed of their surface detail in his later abstractions to reveal a rigorous, yet loose armature of lines and planes on the order of Léger's darkly contoured machines. Likewise his figurative paintings of the human form are in a sense rephrased in his abstractions. Recast and reduced to lines and planes, their relation to the human body persists. These equivalencies between the symbols of modern life and the sense of disruption of human life that was the postwar urban and industrial experience heightens the visual impact of Kline's otherwise impenetrable broad planar glyphs.
These 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).
However, Kline's use of the calligraphic contour in his early work in some sense pre-figures these black and white abstractions. Kline's celebration of structure, such as in the present work, also suggests figural connotations. David Anfam suggests that Kline's vocabulary repeatedly crossed between the abstract and the half-recognizable (D. Anfam, Franz Kline: Black and White, 1950-1961, Houston, 1994, p. 19), while acknowledging Kline's own sense that "certain of his forms could develop into a figurative image (Sylvester, Interviews, p. 7). In light of this argument, a suggestion of a leaning or curved torso in Untitled becomes all the more pertinent. The volume, torque, and sense of gravity might recall not only Henri Matisse's monolithic series of unique bas-reliefs, The Back, I-IV, 1908-31, but also, Kline's own early abstracted depiction in thickly contoured head-to-triangles, arms raised and extended at an angle, the leaning portrait of his wife, Elizabeth in Seated Figure (Elizabeth), 1948.
Elaine de Kooning had claimed that Kline's abstract style came suddenly after seeing one of his sketches enlarged by a Bell-Opticon projector. She wrote, "From that day, Franz Kline's style of painting changed completely. It was a total and instantaneous conversion" (E. de Kooning, Franz Kline Memorial Exhibition, exh. cat. Washington Gallery of Modern Art, 1962, p. 15). Part of de Kooning's assessment came from the value of spontaneity and action for that period, values that had been used to describe Abstract Expressionist painting as action painting. But, Kline's abstraction is as devoid of spontaneity as it is of heroism, subjectivity, symbols of life and death, or metaphysics of chaos and creation. "Symbolism is a difficult idea. I'm not a symbolist," Kline bluntly averred (K. Kuh, The Artist's Voice, p. 144). Rather, Kline, who began as a regionalist and maintained his realist style up to 1950, absorbed the lessons of Velázquez and Hokusai-the black contours and the flat plane (S. C. Foster, Franz Kline: Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat. Barcelona, 1994, p. 45). Trained at Boston University and Boston's Art Student's League from 1930 to 1935 and Heatherly's Art School in London from 1936 to 1937, Kline won prizes at the National Academy of Design's annual Exhibition in the years 1942, 1943, and 1944-bastions of realism, all. As Anfam asserts, Kline "had a taste for the vernacular rather than the sublime" (Anfam, Black and White, p. 13). Kline began to work against the grain of descriptive figuration only from 1950; his teacher in Boston, Henry Hensche, taught, "design should be based upon a firm skeleton, an armature of lines and planes" (H. Gaugh, "Kline's Transitional Abstractions, 1946-50," Art in America 62 [July-August 1974]: 43-47). Telescoping drawing and painting, Kline applied to his painting the gestural rhythms of drawing: "Line was pried loose from the task of figuration but not from that of design. While the line was freed of description and outline, the eye is taken on a merry chase often reminiscent of the compositional movements of Benton, Pollock's teacher" (A. Boime, "The Figurative Tradition," in F. Mitchell and A. Boime, Franz Kline: The Early Works as Signals, New York, 1977, p. 2).
Looking closely, Untitled reveals endless marks, end points, and smudges, athletic swirls, and violent dabs. The work is never still, filled as it is with complexity, with the sudden start and stop of full, visceral engagement. As Kline remarked to David Sylvester, "the elimination and the agitation and the simplification come in through the many varied experiences that go on just through the experience of painting" (Ibid., p. 7). Kline's inventive power and commitment to the act of painting through which he composes a stark simplicity of contrasts, clashing planes, and fugitive markings brings about in Untitled, 1955, a tensile, central event somewhere between abstraction and figuration, where forces clash within a dramatic open field.