PRINT July 1962

Franz Kline

PAINTERS AND SCULPTORS ARE a fortunate breed in that it is not uncommon for these creators of visual imagery to realize their full potentialities after they hit their fifties. Indeed, it is not uncommon for painters and sculptors to reach the apogee of their creative powers at some point well beyond the half-century mark.

The roster of painters and sculptors who matured in creative scope and depth with advancing years reads like a “Who’s Who” of blue-chip masters. Some of the names that come racing to mind are Goya who lived to a vigorous 82, Michelangelo to 89, Edvard Munch to 81, Renoir to 78, Rodin to 77, Brancusi to 81, Monet to 86, Matisse to 85, Tintoretto to 76, and the incredible Titian, at work on one of his greatest paintings, a Pieta, when he died at the age of 99 in 1576.

The extraordinary capacity of painters and sculptors continuously to push their creative powers to the limits as they grow older can be seen in the recent efforts of such living masters as Braque, Picasso, and Hans Hofmann, now in their eighties, and Lipchitz, Jean Arp, and Chagall in their seventies.

This proclivity for creative growth into advanced age makes the early death of such artists as Masaccio at 27. Seurat at 32. Giorgione at 35, and Raphael, Toulouse-Lautrec, and van Gogh at 37 especially tragic, for had they lived a fuller life span they unquestionably would have enriched the domain of art immensely.

The foregoing remarks on the creative growth of painters and sculptors, towering with advancing years like so many giant Sequoias, were precipitated by the death of painter Franz Kline at the age of 52. Kline’s untimely death has deprived modern American painting of one of its most persuasive, resolutely adventuresome, and powerfully influential artists.

The loss to American painting becomes evident when one recalls that Kline matured relatively late in the game, and almost certainly had some of his most productive years ahead of him. It was not until 1950 that Franz Kline’s unique abstract vision manifested its full scope. In that year, his one-man show at the Egan Gallery in New York catapulted Kline overnight into one of a handful of American artists of a new generation who were to attain world-wide fame and influence in the following decade.

The vehemence, the urgency, the driving force of Kline’s scaffolded black and white abstractions added an entirely new dimension to the range of the new American painting. With this one exhibition Kline became an artist who in 1950 joined the company of such other figures as Jackson Pollock, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Robert Motherwell.

It was Kline’s unhappy fate to have the nature of his accomplishment widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. The emphasis in Kline’s pictures on the force of the brush-stroke, the exclusion of color, the abrupt, grid-like forms, suggest a resemblance to the calligraphy of the Orient, with the consequence that in speaking of his works the critics at first saw in his painting an effort to assimilate the “writing” of China and Japan into the stream of Abstract Expressionism.

Though there’s no doubt that Kline was fully aware of certain resemblances between his efforts and the calligraphy of the Orient, the differences were far more significant than the elements in common. Nor had he arrived at his immense tracts of black and white as a result of exposure to Oriental calligraphy, despite the fact that, as a highly-schooled and knowledgable artist, he recognized the surface kinship.

The mature works of Franz Kline are rooted in the legacy of Western art. He was concerned with the autonomy of the picture plane. That is to say, he sought to “activate” the entire surface of a picture as a continuous field, the force of the black bars and sweeping passages gaining impact by their conjunction with surrounding whites. A Kline painting “pulsates” from border to border, the rectangular shape as much a part of the “event” as the inscriptions on the canvas.

The last work belongs to Kline himself. In an interview with the poet and critic Frank O’Hara in 1958, Franz Kline observed with his characteristic simplicity and insight—

“You don’t paint the way someone, by observing your life, thinks you have to paint, you paint the way you have to in order to give, that’s life itself, and someone will look and say it is the product of knowing, but it has nothing to do with knowing, it has to do with giving. The question about knowing will naturally be wrong. When you’ve finished giving, the look surprises you as well as anyone else . . .

“Hell, half the world wants to be like Thoreau at Walden worrying about the noise of traffic on the way to Boston; the other half use up their lives being part of the noise. I like the second half. Right?

“To be right is the most terrific personal state that nobody is interested in.

Jules Langsner