Franz Kline's Four Square was first exhibited at the Charles Egan Gallery where the artist's third one-man show was held in 1954. Only four years previously, Kline burst upon the art world with his strikingly monumental black and white abstract paintings. Critics were flummoxed by his paintings' apparent lack of subject matter, and yet, they were taken in by their highly arresting quality. Together with works by de Kooning and Pollock, Kline's paintings created a triumvirate that defined the quintessential traits of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950's: larger-than-life scale, denial of discernable subject matter, sense of immediacy and action, abstract marks on canvas that energetically trace the movements of the artist's hand. The title Four Square may refer to the Four Corners, where the boundaries of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet; all converging to form a quasi-gridded square.
A review of the Egan show reveals the critic's intuitive awareness of the historical importance of Kline's paintings. Hubert Crehan, a critic for Art Digest, wrote:
"Occasionally we see an exhibition that comes on the scene with such aplomb, such visual impact that there can be no doubt that we are witnessing a sequence of visual statements that will make a lasting impression and alter the idea of what a painting is" (quoted in S. Foster, Franz Kline: Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat., Barcelona, Fundacio Antoni Tapies, 1994, p.28).
Another review of the show describes in vivid detail the effect of Kline's virtuoso technique. Kline's use of black and white does more than simply show contrast of high tonal values; he plays with the illusions of depth and surface, negative and positive space. As shown in Four Square, the black is a deep rich velvety presence whereas the white is its brilliant foil; also the black is visible as the positive space and the foreground, while the white is the negative counterpart accentuating the background.
Lawrence Campbell's writes precisely on this phenomenon in Art News which was accompanied by a reproduction of Four Square (which was identified as Untitled Painting):
"In this third exhibition, he has slashed, sliced and otherwise altered the pictures by the action of one color upon the other. The result is the final work not only traces the creative journey-as an automobile which has passed through a snow storm carries with it the snow---but it is the point where the picture has come to a stop at a junction between black and white forces." (L. Campbell, "Reviews and Previews, Art News, 53 (Summer 1954), p. 54). The perceived force in Kline's painting is based on an almost impossible combination of velocity and bracing stillness, where the brushstroke speeds across the canvas and finds the point of impact either on the edge of the canvas or against the opposite color. For Four Square, such a description is apt. The vertical bars that run through the painting show evidence of Kline's rapid application, especially at the edges where the paint skids and skims the surface. The brushstrokes contain a bold monumentality similar to the post-and-lintel of Classical architecture. David Anfam observed that another work by Kline possessed "vectors truly interlock like the vise forms of Four Square." (D. Anfam, "Kline's Colliding Syntax," Franz Kline, Black and White 1950-1961, exh. cat., Houston, Menil Collection, 1994, p. 15).
The reference to architecture is often made to Kline's paintings. His early works of the 1930s and 1940s include depictions of New York street scenes and interiors. Though Kline at the time was working in a realist mode, there are glimpses of what was to come in the later decades. The composition of these paintings was such that they were organized by clearly defined contour lines, strong planes of color and active diagonal lines. As Anfam observes, by the 1950s, "he now instead assumed the architect's persona, master of equivalent forces that, as he said, 'cut into' each other" (D. Anfam, p. 17). In Four Square, the color white is very much an active presence especially in the areas in the upper center and left side. In a painting from 1945 entitled White Door, 1945, Kline depicts a door set in the doorway, in mostly monochromatic white with the panels of the door and edges of the doorway articulated in black. This basic armature of the horizontal and vertical lines set perpendicular to each other is reflected in Four Square.
Kline was keenly aware of pictorial structure, which he considered the foundation of the painting. Once he remarked: "In 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, of being a carpenter, a joiner. You see it in Barney Newman too, that he knows what a painting should be. He paints as he thinks painting should be, which is pretty heroic" (F. Kline quoted in Frank O'Hara, "Franz Kline Talking" re-printed in Franz Kline: Art and the Structure of Identity, p. 155) What is unique in Kline's painting is the sense of pressure or force asserted upon the compositional structure. For example, the longer vertical bars of Four Square seem to squeeze together the two smaller sections, either pinning or suspending them in mid-air.
The evocation of the urban cityscape is an important element in Kline's paintings. The organization armature of Four Square is indeed suggestive of a latticework of welded steel of a skyscraper or bridge. Or it could be an aerial view of a gridded street, where tall buildings cast long shadows against a bright flat light. Fred Mitchell reminisces how the artists would wander through the Manhattan streets at night. He recalls:
"We took a trip on the ferry boat at night and, looking at the city, I felt that too. His paintings did remind me of certain sensations. It's the atmosphere of cities that he really liked. He also liked the changes; as you look at the edges of the city, you see abrupt changes. I think it's the edges of things that he particularly liked. And I think as much as anything else, it is a contrast of scale you get there; the little bars nestled within the shadows of these huge buildings. And the streets converge and there are little pockets of light (F. Mitchell quoted in S. Foster, Franz Kline: Art and the Structure of Identity, p. 20-21).
The description is fitting in Four Square where the abstraction is rooted in an experience of the actual world. Kline's genius lies in fashioning a new pictorial language that is not weighed down by tradition or deliberately illegible, but one that is universally understood because of its simple yet grand gestures. In Kline's paintings, intangible sensations such as power and awe are made concrete.
In 1956, Kline produced another black and white painting with the same title, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Franz Kline, White Door, 1945 c 2003 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Franz Kline, Four Square, 1956 Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. c 2003 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Franz Kline in his studio on 242 W. 14th Street, April 1961 c Fred W. McDarrah
Interior view of Dorothy C. Miller's home c 1978 Wendy Jeffers