Franz Kline stands amongst the finest and most influential American painters of the post-war period. Powerful, vigorous and imbued with a palpable sense of liberation, his seminal series of black and white paintings dating from between 1950 and his untimely death in 1962 embody the unquenchable energy of mid-century New York, and are the manifestation of the extraordinary triumph of painting that defined art during that time. Pushing painting to the limits of its expressive and abstract potential, Kline’s unforgettable, dramatically refined painterly style and stark monochrome palette privileged the experience of painting above all. Demonstrating the complete physical and emotional commitment of the artist, it encapsulates the revolutionary agenda of the Abstract Expressionists, the first artistic movement from America to gain significant international attention. It was a movement that was born in the dark shadows cast by war, and that emerged as an heroic attempt to find an appropriate artistic language with which to represent the tragedies and suffering that occurred on a global scale. These painters, also known as the New York school, were deeply interested in exploring the connection between the subjective, inner self and the abstract painterly mark. It was, they vehemently believed, an inextricable relationship that was able to convey the unknowable and the universal emotion. The material expression of man’s struggle towards resolution, it was with bold, honest, and immediate paintings such as Steeplechase that they transcended the profane to explore the mysterious territories that language cannot articulate.
Executed at the peak of his career in 1960, Steeplechase shows Kline using his distinctive, dramatically economic visual vocabulary with mesmeric strength. Exemplary of the finest of his final works, it was exhibited at Kline’s memorial exhibition at The Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, D.C., in 1962, and since then it has been in private hands, and rarely seen by the public. Indubitably a tour de force of painting, dense black angular forms interplay with white on a monumental scale, resonating with a vivid intensity. Playing dark tone against light, passages of viscosity against smooth, and dynamic diagonal lines against horizontal gestures, the work is taut with dramatic tension, despite using the most fundamental of painterly means. The brushstrokes are strong, thrusting gestures that seem to push beyond the canvas’ physical limits, provocatively testing not only the confines of the two-dimensional picture plane, but compositional convention, which would normally work with within the given boundaries of the canvas. Kline’s bisecting, contrasting monochrome forms are deliberately elusive: they are neither representative of any known sight, nor are they symbols. They exist for and of themselves, courageously emphasizing, in Kline’s own words “the awkwardness of ‘not-balance,’ the tentative reality of lack of balance” (F. Kline, in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 63).
Exceeding seven feet in height and nearly five feet width, Steeplechase is a monumental canvas, heightening the enthralling visual impact of its composition with a mixed sensation of fragility and raw strength. Subtle differences in the texture and speed of the paintwork provide a definite sense of Kline himself, a small but strong man, working with palpable energy across the vast canvas. This human sensitivity combines with the theatricality of the painting’s scale and its stark contrasts of color and its visceral, jagged lines, to create a unique, beguiling tension between monumentality and intimacy. Elaine de Kooning, as the wife of Willem de Kooning—who once described Kline as his “best friend”—and knew Kline very well, eloquently wrote of this aspect of his work, “it was Kline’s unique gift to be able to translate the character and the speed of a one-inch flick of the wrist to a brush-stroke magnified a hundred times. (Who else but Tintoretto has been able to manage this gesture?) All nuances of tone, sensitivity of contour, allusions to other art are engulfed in his black and white insignia, as final as a jump from the top floor of a skyscraper” (E. de Kooning, “Franz Kline,” quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev, (ed.), Franz Kline 1910-62, exh, cat. Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin, 2004, p. 345).
Kline’s incredibly spare use of black linear form alongside white has repeatedly brought comparisons with oriental calligraphy, which was influential on many other artists of his generation and of those with similar abstract inclinations. However, although from afar Steeplechase creates a striking impression of black and white marks, the areas of white and areas of black paint display considerable variation in application, which gives the painting its unique richness and depth. Treating white as an equal to black, not a mere surface to be covered, defied convention. We are used to privileging the importance of the darker mark: Kline subtly disrupts this. Kline’s white is not uniform. There are warm and cool shades of white alongside the black, each tone carefully applied in specific configurations of density and lightness. There are passages of matte black pigment that cut sharply across opaque fields of white, but there are also cloudy blue-grey areas where the white and black bleed into each other. In these areas in particular, individual strands of the paintbrush become visible—material traces of the velocity with which Kline moved his brush across the canvas. Kline worked energetically in a pattern of dynamic contrasts, applying black forms over a base of white, and then returning to lay white back over the black in a struggle of opposites. The immediacy of this tension and resistance between the marks and tones is manifest in the painting’s aesthetic energy as it fights its way towards the final resolution. In this respect Kline’s painting was therefore not at all calligraphic, unlike so many of the second generation of gestural abstractionists who were to follow his lead. Rather, it was an intuitive constructive process in which, through the very act of making the painting, a dialogue between two opposing and materialized forces combined to forge a dynamic and often surprising resolution. “When I paint a picture, I don’t know every line in advance, but I know in general what I’m about,” he said. “I put something here and here, and here and here, and then I pull it all together” (F. Kline, quoted in H.F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, exh. cat., Cincinnati Art Museum, 1985, p. 16).
Similarly, the carefully layered construction of color and the sweeping gestural marks give the impression of spontaneity, whereas in fact they are more premeditated then one might suppose. 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 for the painting. In fact, it was always claimed by Elaine de Kooning that Kline’s abstract style came suddenly after seeing one of his own oil sketches enlarged by a Bell-Opticon projector at de Kooning’s studio. The drawing was of a rocking chair that he had drawn many times. Yet projected onto a wall, upside down, the familiar lines became suddenly interesting and unusual, and a new light was shone on the possibilities of his creative energy. In Kline’s own words, the chair “loomed in gigantic black strokes which eradicated any image, the strokes expanding as entities in themselves, unrelated to any entity but that of their own existence” (F. Kline, quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev, op. cit., p. 13).
In the process of painting, Kline would be continually mindful of the duet between forms: measuring, balancing or disrupting them until they became what he called “an organization” (F. Kline, quoted in C. Christov-Bakargiev, op. cit., p. 29). His friend, Dore Ashton, recalled that Kline painting was akin to a dance. “Every nerve was enlisted while he was at work,” she wrote. “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” (D. Ashton, quoted in op cit., p. 28).
Unlike many of his Abstract Expressionist peers, Kline’s interest lay chiefly in the painting experience. He had little interest in tapping into the unconscious, or invoking of archetypes from the depth of man’s soul or psyche. Epic aspirations of transcendence, tragedy, and timelessness are qualities that are better associated with the color field painters, such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. Kline on the other hand pointed out that there was imagery in his work, but no 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, Velasquez, Goya, Rembrandt (“Rembrandt’s drawing is enough in itself!” he once said)—more than than Surrealism or proponents of modernism, finding inspiration in the quality of their line, and the depths of tone and contrast that they achieved.
Yet Kline’s work was rooted firmly in modern America and of his everyday realities, living in New York City. Indeed, many of the titles of his paintings from this period refer directly to the city. Quite literally, the rough black grids disappearing out of sight evoke the scale and power of the expansive skyline, as well as America’s industrial might; while the grubby white suggest the sidewalks and the changeable sky that threw the city’s iconic architecture into silhouette. Steeplechase also conveys some of the raw sense of energy and grit of 1950s New York, but it is humanized, like the city itself, by traces of intimacy. At once legible and highly memorable, his work stimulates the feelings aroused by looking rather than what we might see. 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).