The art of Franz Kline is at once arresting and dynamic. With seemingly economical expression of pictorial form solely addressed in black and white, Kline created a bold kind of abstraction unencumbered by the rigid constraints of ideology and didacticism. With their monumental size, these black and white abstractions, such as this Untitled work, evoke a world unto themselves. However, they are far from being insular. The ravishing beauty and intense emotion of these energetic brushstrokes strike a sense of awe within the viewer. While they are historically considered a classic representation of Abstract Expressionism, and also like Pollock's drips, an exemplar of Harold Rosenberg's "action painting," Kline's black and white paintings possess an uncanny sense of immediacy and of being in the present moment. One can easily conjure up an image of the artist "attacking" the canvas with housepainter brushes dipped in black paint. Because his gesture can be traced with such clarity, one can almost literally trace the movements of his hand and arm, forcing seemingly spontaneous decisions directly onto the canvas. Nevertheless, his working method belies this appearance of spontaneity; he often deliberated on making the crucial stroke or made revisions during multiple sittings.
In 1949, while visiting de Kooning's studio, Kline used a Bell-Opticon light projector to enlarge some of his drawings. What was once a diminutive drawing worked over many times, it suddenly became a colossal, dramatic image. It became apparent to both artists the power and potential of this new kind of abstract imagery. The paintings Kline created shortly thereafter such as Chief, 1950 (in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art) bears no resemblance to his earlier illustrative work and came into existence fully developed and resolved in their pure abstraction and gestural articulation of the pictorial arena.
In his now-famous essay about the abstract sublime, Robert Rosenblum applied Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime to Abstract Expressionist painting. While works by Rothko and Newman have been cited as cogent examples of this notion of the abstract sublime, the work of Kline should also be considered within this context. A sense of the sublime is evoked upon seeing a vision of the super-natural followed by an overwhelming of the senses. When one confronts a black and white painting by Kline, one is nearly overcome by the massive scale and raw power of the brushstrokes. While Kline took pains to create preparatory sketches for his black and white paintings, the end result appears as if the image had been spontaneously sprung forth from the artist's brush, already fully formed into existence. While Rothko and Newman's sublime paintings act as monochromatic fields that enfold the viewer, Kline's works on the other hand, dominate the vision of the beholder with fierce energy and vertiginous scaffoldings of substantive paint.
Kline's signature palette of black and white shares similarities with another Abstract Expressionist's work, Robert Motherwell's Elegies to the Spanish Republic. While both artists use dense, lush black and brilliant white paints, Kline's colors convey a more bodily presence. Furthermore, Kline's use of the color white is just as important as his use of black. In fact it is in this collision of the absolute contrast of hue and tone that gives Kline's paintings their explosive power. Motherwell's shapes appear more uniform as a motif, whereas in Kline, the element of spontaneity gives his imagery a quality of open-endedness. What is unique to Kline was his lack of attention paid to the works of Picasso and other European modernists, unlike most of his compatriots in New York during the 1940s. Instead, he admired the Old Masters, such as Rembrandt and Velasquez, masters who also utilized the color black for ravishingly profound effect.
In spite of their radically simplified composition and stark appearance, Kline's paintings contain subject matter. Kline asserted that his paintings usually allude to some kind of a personage or structure. Like de Kooning's, it can be said Kline's approach to abstraction is rooted in concrete experience. Oftentimes one seems a semblance of a rectangle, suggesting a door or passageway; other times the structures resemble bridges and highways. There is another reference to the urban architecture of skyscrapers, whose sharp angles jut up to the sky. In this particular work, a rectangular shape appears to be suspended in the air, a recurring motif that originated in earlier paintings such as Leda and Wotan, both of 1950. There is a black horizontal band on the bottom edge as to denote earth and its gravitational pull. The rectangular shape floating or hurtling above could also represent a person, more specifically, a dancer coiled in a pose in mid-air. A lover of the theater and dance, Kline painted an abstract evocation of the dancer Nijinsky in 1950. The compact shape alludes to the body--a being that is dense, alive and yet floating above, defying gravity in this instant moment. A sense of immediacy is aided by the tight cropping of the black forms, especially in the upper right corner. But these aspects are simply points of inspiration, as these paintings in the end do not reference anything representational. Untitled may possess the energy and tension of a dancer, but it does not depict a dancer. Kline once said, "What I do see--or rather, not what I see but the feelings aroused in me by that looking--is what I paint."
Some critics have incorrectly assumed that Kline was influenced by Asian calligraphy because of the flourishes of paint and economy of expression. But he had denied such an influence. This is proven by the strong presence of white is his paintings, which is equal to that of the black. They work in concert with each other, providing contrast and support. Nevertheless, there is a strong ideographic element in his work, which was a prevalent theme in other Abstract Expressionists' paintings by such artists such as Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Tobey. Each interested artist was trying to seek a new language of aesthetics, a primordial one that is pure, uncorrupted, and universally felt and experienced.