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Teeming with the frenetic energy of the buzzing metropolis, Franz Kline’s dynamic paintings emerge as the archetypes of Twentieth Century New York action painting. Evoking the fast cars, rising girders and rampant nightlife, Kline’s canvases are emblematic of the vibrant cultural downtown scene of the 1950s. Channeling various modern elements into a new heroic form of painting, Kline and his contemporaries thrived on the vivacious jazz scene, and like their musical counterparts took an active stance in the improvisational creation of their art. A complete embodiment of the energy, drama and freedom of this seminal decade in the history of American Art, the surfaces of Kline’s paintings clearly demonstrate the importance of the moment, of the gesture and of the artist’s own vigorous movements, putting brush to canvas.
A brilliant and complex fusion of strokes and pigments, Kline’s King Oliver emerges as a blaze of inspiration garnered from the free-improvisational and vivacious spirit of the 1950s New York urban jazz scene. A totemic and empowered action painting, the monumentality and energy of Kline’s signature black and white brushstrokes burst from the canvas as the rare addition of vibrant yellow, red, blue, green and purple pigments permeate the work with the distinguished mark of a master colorist. Singled out by historian Harry Gaugh in the first full-length study on the artist, Gaugh attests: “The massive King Oliver, a cacophony of slatted and buckling color, stands as a joyous monument to the great jazz musician, affirming at the same time the range of Kline’s figural implications. Important as one of his most accomplished color works, it is also his only mature color painting to declare openly a figural identity. Other canvases with significant color only allude to figures, and these are relatively few” (H. Gaugh, The Vital Gesture: Franz Kline, exh, cat., Cincinnati Art Museum, 1985).
Marking a pivotal moment in Kline’s career, the reintroduction of color—usually bright and unmodulated—undeniably works against the received opinion that white and black dominated the artist’s interests. While Kline reputedly had color on his palette when working on his stark black and white paintings, colored canvases too filled his closets and lined the walls of his studio. From his figurative work in 1930s and 1940s through to his biomorphic paintings and into his artistic maturity, Kline produced chromatic abstractions with the force and engagement of a committed colorist.
While the contemporary critics often denounced this new appearance of color as a risky move, there is no doubt that Kline’s career was undoubtedly on the rise. By this time he was included both nationally and internationally in the Americans exhibitions curated by Dorothy C. Miller at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside both friends and fellow artists, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. However, more notably, he moved from Charles Egan Gallery and began showing his work with Sidney Janis in 1956. With this heightened visibility and greater acclaim, at the behest of Janis, Kline turned from commercial enamel to artists’ tube paints (for which the gallery paid), lending to Kline’s intensified investigations into color.
And while the artist cautioned his dealer stating, “If I can’t do more with color than I can with black and white I won’t use it” (F. Kline, quoted by Sidney Janis, 1978). The action painter took on the challenge of using color to attack his canvas with the same intensity as before subsequently producing an extraordinary combination of dynamism and gravitas, which previously only his black and white paintings were thought to possess. Adding visual complexity and structure to his composition, King Oliver consists of numerous vectors and strong diagonals that contribute to Kline’s distinct appearance of tautness and vitality. Working in concert with his signature black and white, the vibrant hues carve out a dynamic sense of space within the picture and highlight the strong gestural marks forcibly made by the artist. While the apparent brushwork of each mark appears spontaneously rendered, the complexity of the overall image unites the construction of the brushwork in true architectural fashion.
Though Kline was commonly known to be ambivalent to a defined sense of “style,” his work decidedly possessed one, and his implementation of color was distinctly his own. “Kline’s color, in which purples and reds, yellows, oranges and greens clash for dominance, isn’t like anyone else’s,” Abstract Expressionist critic and historian, April Kingsley described. “Kline loved Matisse, but his color does’t have the sparkling Mediterranean limpidity of the French master. Instead, some of New York City’s grime, the gritty matter with which its inhabitants are constantly showered and which seem to have solidified and in Kline’s blacks, clings to his color” (A. Kingsley, “The Turning Point,” C. Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Franz Kline: 1910 - 1962, exh. cat., Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin, 2004, p. 390).
Entrenched with the grit of his city, his heroic brushwork and seemingly spontaneous gestures combined with his vivacious and fervent use of color, King Oliver is a supreme manifestation of the celebrated grandeur of the artist’s signature style. An artist who was as engrossed in the urban culture of New York—included among his friends and bar buddies, besides artists were jazz musicians, writers, collectors, neighborhood drunks, starstruck art students, and the beat (and not-so-beat) poets—as he was in his own art, Dore Ashton fondly remembered, “I have always thought he had style in the way the term was used by a jazz trumpeter I once heard who, after a long improvisational digression, waved his instrument and shouted exultingly, ‘Man, I got style I ain’t even used yet!’” (D. Ashton, “Kline as he was and as he is,” ibid., p. 28 - 30). Alluding to Kline’s reinvigorated style, Ashton’s assertion further recalls the zeitgeist of the 1940s and 1950s downtown culture. Indeed, King Oliver itself is an eponymous homage to the jazz musician himself.
An American jazz cornet player and bandleader, Joe “King” Oliver became popular during the 1920s in Chicago and New Orleans. Taking great interest in the alteration of his horns sound, King Oliver pioneered the use of mutes, which he unceremoniously fashioned out of rubber plumber’s plunger, derby hats, bottles and cups in order to gain a wider range. A talented composer, he wrote many tunes that are still regularly played today including, “Sweet Like This,” “Canal Street Blues,” “Doctor Jazz” and “Dipper Mouth Blues,” which became an early nickname for his younger protégé, Louis Armstrong. Remembering Oliver as “Papa Joe,” Armstrong considered him his mentor, idol and inspiration, stating in his own autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, “It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. He was a creator in his own right” (L. Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, New York, 1986, p. 99).
Engaged in an art-making process that was both active and interactive, the Abstract Expressionists, namely Kline and Pollock, like their musical counterparts composed as they painted or played. Engrossing themselves in a “dance” around their respective canvases, they became staunchly devoted to the improvisational process. In describing her husband Jackson Pollock’s love of the music, the artist Lee Krasner has explained that Pollock “would get into grooves of listening to his jazz records—not just for days—day and night, day and night for three days running until you though you would climb the roof! … Jazz? He thought it was the only other really creative thing happening in this country” (L. Krasner, quoted in, M. Hadler, “Jazz and the New York School,” K. Gabbard (ed.), Representing Jazz, Chapel Hill, 1995, p. 248). Indeed, noting that Pollock was “in the same state I was in and doing what I was doing,” Ornette Coleman, and originator of free-form jazz, openly recognized the reciprocity between artist and musician (Ibid.). Keeping his radio tuned to WEVD, where he would pick up Symphony Sid after bar hours, Kline appreciated more traditional jazz and named four paintings—King Oliver, Lester, Bigard and Hampton—after the mainstream musicians, Joe “King” Oliver, Lester Young, Barney Bigard and Lionel Hampton respectively. Identifying with both their unorthodox working procedures and their out-side-of-the-establishment status, Kline approached his canvases like a soloist to their instrument, entering the composition, developing it and exiting without finishing off its possibilities. “Every nerve was enlisted while he was at work,” Dore Ashton remembers. “His emphasis on ‘feeling’ as the proper criterion for a painter was not casual. Those great diagonals he favored reflected his inner rhythms, his own way of vaulting into the grand spaces he envisioned. How endemic to his whole being those diagonal trajectories were can be gauged by the way he danced…He had an impulse to shoot out into space, to slam through a wilderness of black and white and reach a climax of total freedom…He dances as he paints, beating out an idiosyncratic rhythm over sustained periods, and then suddenly, and with élan, breaks the rhythm dramatically by shooting out one foot in a precipitous accent grave movement” (D. Ashton, op cit., p. 28).
Embracing a reductive approach into complete abstraction, Kline’s work stood apart from the creations of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries as a purely gestural approach to painting. Unlike Rothko or Newman for example, there was nothing transcendental about Kline’s work. Nor was he, like Pollock or Rothko, invoking an inner state of being, psychology or state of mind. Rather, he was only attempting to transmit something hitherto unexpressed and unknown through the material properties of the painter’s art. “Instead of making a sign you can read,” he said, “you make a sign you can’t read” (Franz Kline, quoted in Franz Kline; Art and the Structure of Identity, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1994, p. 57). In fact, of all the great Abstract Expressionist artists, Kline was the least influenced by Surrealism. Indeed, of all these artists, he was perhaps also the least modern. His work had little to do with any extension of Cubism or the invocation of archetypes from depth of man’s soul or psyche. The product of an extremely conventional training in figurative drawing and painting at the Heatherly School of Art in London, Kline cited his influences as being those of Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Goya, rather than the more usually referred to Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse or Mondrian.
And yet, when discussing the addition of color to Kline’s painting in the 1950s, one must consider Kline’s close relationship with de Kooning, who considered Kline to be his “best friend.” Together they ruled the artistic intelligentsia on Tenth Street and captivated and influenced a younger generation of artists with their inimitable yet accessible styles. In 1955, de Kooning reverted to painting strictly abstract pictures after painting his iconic series of Women, but this time, he turned to bright, undiluted colors. His paintings like Police Gazette and Gotham News include energetic slashes of red and blue paints and built-up layers of yellow paint. While de Kooning may not have been a direct influence—and indeed, unlike de Kooning, Kline was not “slipping glimpses” of reality into his paintings—his new work was known to Kline. Further, in John Elderfield’s comprehensive catalogue that coincided with the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal retrospective on Willem de Kooning, Jennifer Field points out, “The calligraphic qualities of Ruth’s Zowie and de Kooning’s use of black in Bolton Landing connect these paintings to the works Franz Kline made through the 1950s. Around this time, Kline himself began incorporating color into his collages and paintings; like Bolton Landing, his monumental King Oliver features a palette of yellow, orange and blue intercepted by strong black verticals and horizontals” (J. Field, “Full Arm Sweep,” J. Elderfield, de Kooning: a Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 320). For Kline, the nature of his painting did not change with the addition of color. He had once stated, “An area of strong blue or the interrelationship of two different colors is not the same thing as black and white. In using color, I never feel I want to add to or decorate a black and white painting. I simply want to feel free to work both ways.”
Achieving compositional balance by means of interlocking forces, which imposingly overlap one another, and are brought to life with ricocheting colors, King Oliver is rampant with dynamic tension. The sense of organized chaos comes from the pressure of white against black, of calligraphic line converging with color, and from energies in disarray, “ a certain sense of the awkwardness of ‘not-balance,’ the tentative reality of lack of balance in it” (F. Kline, in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 63). It is, in the end, the element of enigma and indefinability in these great works that bestows them with their enduring power, authority and ability to fascinate the viewer. A phenomenal example of the artist’s mature work, and the era in which he achieved it, Kline’s genius is never more present than here in King Oliver, where, as Motherwell states, the artist “share[s] this possible miraculous event with you” (R. Motherwell, ibid., p. 134). Creating an analogy to King Oliver’s own student, Louis Armstrong, Kline once famously replied to a spectator who asked him to explain the meaning of his work by stating: “I’ll answer you the same way Louis Armstrong does when they ask him what it means when he blows his trumpet. Louie says, ‘Brother, if you don’t get it, there is no way I can tell you’” (F. Kline, quoted in H.F. Gaugh, op. cit., p. 13).