By the end of the 1950s, Franz Kline was at the height of his creative powers. His epic black and white abstractions grew even larger in scale, and the sheer visual force of these paintings engulfed the viewer. His position as a key figure of "Action Painting" and Abstract Expressionism had solidified and attracted new audiences abroad and throughout the United States. Rue, 1959 is a classic example from this period, which embodies the qualities that made Kline one of the most important abstract painters of the 20th century. He belongs to the rarified group of artists such as Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich who made abstraction a subject unto itself, and not just a simplification or reduction of some kind of figurtative representation. Yet unlike the masters of the early 20th century, Kline imbued abstraction with vigor and boldness, that is at once bracing and awe-inspiring, akin to watching a daredevil diver poised to take a leap.
Kline goes further than any of his colleagues, except for perhaps Jackson Pollock, in order to attempt a picture of complete disengagement from the external world, so that he might forge a new reality in painting. Frank O'Hara stated in his introduction to the Franz Kline Retrospective Exhibition, 1964:"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." (Cited in D. and C. Shapiro, Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, 1990, Cambridge and New York, p. 291). Kline's hand as shown in the brushwork of Rue is extraordinarily confident and daring, that pushed against the edge of the canvas, but also successfully reined in the raw energy of his seemingly uninhibited brushstrokes.
Although Kline was born in rural Pennsylvania, he had the demeanor of a cultured European; he had urbane wit and cut a striking figure. B. H. Friedman recalled seeing him in an elegant dark suit standing with Willem de Kooning, equally well dressed, at parties, calling them "a pair of natural aristocrats." (B. H. Friedman, "Franz Kline: A Personal Biographical/Bibliographical Collage," Franz Kline: Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat., Fundaciò Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 1994, p. 159). He admired the art of Diego Velasquez, Eduard Manet, Gustave Courbet and Paul Cézanne, who themselves worked in a black and white palette, which excluded distracting color, focussed on the structure of the composition, and reveled in the drama created by the sharp contrast between black and white, whether it be shadows and light, foreground or background. Like his predecessors, Kline was keenly interested in the visual effects of absolute tonal contrasts; however, his use of black and white is more subjective in aim, by engaging the viewer on a more emotional level.
With regard to Kline's classic abstractions, David Anfam writes in the Franz Kline: Black and White 1950-1961 exhibition catalogue, "Each [painting] presents an epic field that functions as wall, an environment unto itself, and a sheer surface of almost industrial power and rawness upon which momentary radiance contends against ashen gloom." (D. Anfam, "Kline's Colliding Syntax," Franz Kline: Black & White 1950-1961, exh. cat., Menil Collection, Houston, 1994, pp. 13-14). Rue stands nearly 9 feet tall and 7 feet wide and possesses a "mural effect" where the picture functions as an element of architecture. The composition of Rue reveals an armature of horizontal and vertical lines, and in the central section of the painting, a dark mass of concentrated force hovers in front of the structure. The complex interaction between the colors of black and white of Rue is masterful; the white is especially crucial to creating atmosphere in the picture, by softening the black into subtle gray near the edges of the canvas.
It is thrilling for the viewer to follow the trace of Kline's hand and body and his incredibly energetic brushwork in Rue. His friend Philip Pavia reminisces, "When I would visit Kline in his studio, he had stretched a large canvas on the wall, and underneath he would push with his feet a wood beer box to a certain spot. After a few trials and errors, he fixed the box into a right spot. He then slanted a plank from the floor with one end on the beer crate. A temporary ramp. Coming up the plank and down the plank, he slanted his brushstrokes for long strokes or short ones, and some of them were very loaded with paint. At last his paintings emerged as pure abstractions. Not geometrical, not decorative, no "subject matter" for the artist, no dreams, no Jungian monsters like children's doodlings. William James would have called Kline a perfect pragmatic human being, a hardcore American pioneer." (Quoted in S. Foster, "Franz Kline and the Downtown Community: The Artists' Voice," Franz Kline: Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat., Fundaciò Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 1994, p. 46).
One of the previous owners of Rue is Steve Martin, who was immortalized with the painting in a celebrated photograph by Annie Leibovitz. The photograph shows Martin posed in front of the painting, in a white suit plied with abstract black bruskrokes.
Steve Martin c Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images
Franz Kline in his studio, New York, April 1961 c Fred W. McDarrah