American, yet imbued with visual culture of Europe, Franz Kline exemplifies the development of pictorial language from a figurative form that derives from Rembrandt and the other great masters whose work he knew well from visiting European museums, to abstraction. Kline’s is an abstraction reduced to the primary relationship between white backgrounds, albeit constructed using visible superimpositions, and black brushstrokes laid on the surface, often off-center, imperious in their constructive force, reflecting a style entirely driven by the artist’s impulses. Kline’s work never lost its intensity, even when color became the key factor of his compositions and his bold lines grew more ragged, creating effects almost of chiaroscuro and spatial illusion.
– Ida Gianelli, Castello di Rivoli
Franz Kline was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1910. He studied at Boston University and Heatherly Art School in London, moving to New York in 1938. Subsequently, he held teaching positions at Pratt and Black Mountain College. The artist’s breakthrough moment occurred in 1950 with a solo show Charles Egan Gallery and subsequent exhibitions with Sidney Janis. Kline would later be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1958 exhibition, The New American Painting, and several Whitney Annuals during the 1950s. He was exhibited internationally at the Venice Biennale (1956, 1960), Documenta 2, Kassel, Germany (1959), and the São Paulo Biennial (1957). The artist died suddenly in 1962 from rheumatic heart failure. A memorial exhibition was organized that same year by the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. From the 1960s onward, there have been regularly occurring monographic exhibitions: The Menil Collection, Houston (1994), Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona (1994), and Castello di Rivoli, Torino (2004). In 2012 a large work on canvas, Untitled (1957), sold for over 40 million dollars, a record for the artist.
Before Abstract Expressionism’s influence was fortified, Kline was a master draughtsman of lively port scenes and moody interiors. It is speculated that the angular geometries of chair frames and the steel trusses of bridges in his native Pennsylvania – often found in these early drawings – were the originary sources of the artist’s iconic black and white paintings. Kline’s pastoral line-drawings, portraits, and watercolors, transitioned in the mid 1940s to energetic abstractions, then to grand architectural black and white paintings and abstractions similarly structured, but more atmospheric color works. In his black and white paintings, Kline establishes his vocabulary, sometimes organic, fluid, and even lyrical, while other times more geometric and architectonic. The mature paintings are atmospheric, architectural, calligraphic, totemic, gestural, immediate. A feeling of spontaneity often betrays the procedures used to produce a majority of the artist’s larger works. For major canvases, Kline adapted his compositions from small ink and oil sketches that were enlarged using a projector. Given this methodology, his mastery thus is demonstrated not just by his ability to translate these sketches into convincing large scale achievements, but also by the power with which he endowed these small sketches: their ambitious scale far surpasses their measurements. Kline’s paintings are some of the most important in the American postwar oeuvre, they capture the momentum and aspirations of an industrial society pulled by the opposing forces of unrivaled mobility and unprecedented destruction.