I don’t decide in advance that I’m going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me…. If you look at abstraction, you can imagine that it’s a head, a bridge, almost anything—but it’s not these things that get me started on a painting.”
Perhaps more than any other art of the period, the paintings of Franz Kline have come to be regarded as the embodiment of Abstract Expressionism. His broad sweeps of paint and dramatic black-and-white gestures combine to produce enigmatic forms that evoke the aggressive dynamism of the urban landscape. Yet, for Kline, the physical act of painting is not a means to capture or replicate the energy of New York or his native Pennsylvania; it is an experience in and of itself—an act in which the artist commits to canvas his emotional reaction to the modern metropolis.
At nearly eight feet tall, Light Mechanic belongs to a group of monumental canvases that Kline painted between 1950 and the early 1960s. In both physical size and artistic scope, it skillfully captures the masculine energy that epitomized Abstract Expressionism, as onto this large canvas Kline lays down bold architectural swaths of paint. Vertically, horizontally, and at oblique angles, this arrangement of muscular linear markings coalesces into a form that immediately recalls the towers and girders of the iconic Williamsburg or Brooklyn Bridges, or any of the other monolithic structures that traverse New York’s skyline. In addition to these melodramatic signs, the forthright masculinity of the composition is also in part achieved by the primal nature of his surface as Kline includes intentional voids as an integral part of the composition. These areas reveal only the primed canvas, creating a sense of space and depth, and when tempered by the sweeps of the artist’s brush, a canvas of unrivaled motion and energy.
As with his contemporaries (Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock), Kline’s signature style harnessed the gestural brush stroke to execute a vision that filled the canvas with what Meyer Shapiro called “… 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). From 1950, Kline’s “field of operation” and “stroke” became an energizing juxtaposition of black against white markings, of abstraction against figuration. 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 .The interlocked horizontals and verticals that are so prevalent in Light Mechanic can be traced back to this early figuration and landscape paintings. The hovering gloom of the urbanization of the industrial coal towns of eastern Pennsylvania and the velocity and dynamism of railroads and bridges also run through these later abstractions, as Kline’s armatures convey the aesthetic of construction and mechanization—much like the elements of cone and cylinder that convey the machine aesthetic of urban architecture in paintings from Fernand Léger’s “mechanical period” (1918-1923). Kline once 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…” (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 skeleton of lines and planes on the order of Léger’s darkly contoured machines. Likewise, his earlier 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.
The origins of Kline’s interest in his black-and white aesthetic lie in his own roots in the landscapes of industrial of Pennsylvania. The artist was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1910 during the heart of the American industrial revolution. Mattison describes it as “…a landscape of black and white especially during the winter months. The industrial areas are stripped bare and punctuated by great fissures cut into the land by the mining operations. Black culm piles rise against the empty horizon. Machinery is everywhere, and the black openings to the mine shafts set against the white light punctuate the landscape. The monumental forms and off-center geometry of the breaker buildings with the coal shoots projecting at irregular angles from them still exist” (R. Mattison, ibid).
David Anfam has written extensively about the relationship between Kline’s black-and-white sensibility and the growth of photography, particularly as a fine art form, in the 20th century. Kline had a strong interest in photography gained in part through his friendship with Aaron Siskind. The pair lived near each other on New York’s East Ninth Street in 1947, and later in their career they both shared the same art dealer. Kline named a painting after his friend (Siskind, 1958, Detroit Institute of Art), and after Kline’s death, Siskind created a series of photographs of close-up images of markings on a wall that he dedicated to Kline. The artist also knew that other great photographer of mid-century America, Robert Frank, who famously photographed Kline in his studio in 1951.
As Robert Mattison points out in his book Franz Kline: Coal and Steel, the relationship between Kline’s painting and the black-and-white photographs of Siskind and Frank goes far deeper than the abstract nature of their monochromatic palette. All are concerned with compositional concerns too, including the simplification of form, the representation of space, off-balance arrangements, and an understanding of the depiction of energy, speed, and dynamism. In addition, Mattison continues “The photographers that are sometimes referred to as the New York School of photography were interested in capturing the rapidity of change in the modern era. Their works often concern the swift rise of the American industrial age and the contrast between ideal models of industry and the reality of working environments. They suggest both the constructive and desolate character of the machine age” (R. Mattison, “Black and White and Color: More Than Abstraction,” in Franz Kline: Coal and Steel, exh. cat., Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, 2012, p. 81).
Yet, unlike his photographic counterparts, Kline’s paintings are not portraits of the American industrial landscape, as they are concerned with an investigation into the nature of three-dimensional space within the context of a two-dimensional surface. In Light Mechanic, Kline achieves this through his use of the black and white pigment. “The Oriental idea of space is an infinite space; it is not painted space, and ours is,” he said, “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” (F. Kline, quoted by K. Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1962, p. 44).
The monumental nature of Light Mechanic also invokes an “otherworldly” nature into and of itself. However, it is far from being insular. The striking beauty and intense excitement 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 what Harold Rosenberg called 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 surface with 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 paper. Nevertheless, his working method belies this appearance of spontaneity; he often deliberated on making the crucial stroke or made revisions during multiple sittings.
But, unlike many of his Abstract Expressionist peers, Kline had little interest in tapping into the unconscious, or invoking of archetypes from the depth of man’s soul or psyche. While Kline admitted that there were traces of imagery in his work, it was not symbolism. “I’m not a symbolist,” he said. “In other words, these are painting experiences. I don’t decide in advance that I’m going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me” (F. Kline, quoted in op cit., p. 33). He favored old masters—especially Tintoretto, Velásquez, Goya, Rembrandt—more than the Surrealists or proponents of modernism, finding inspiration in the quality of their line, and the depths of tone and contrast that they achieved. Deliberate imperfections, irregularities, and imbalances within the composition give life to the architectonic geometry of the bisecting forms, inciting an almost visceral sympathy with the action of the painter. Managing to invoke instinctive responses via the most essential of means, Kline’s paintings speak to a shared humanity. “If you’re a painter,” Kline once observed, “You’re not alone. There’s no way to be alone. You think and you care and you’re with all the people who care, including the young people who don’t know they do yet.” And with characteristic, effective directness, he concludes: “If you meant it enough when you did it, it will mean that much” (F. Kline, quoted in op. cit., p. 78).