PRINT Summer 1975

Franz Kline’s Romantic Abstraction

To be right is the most terrific personal state that nobody is interested in.
—Kline in 1958 interview with Frank O’Hara

FRANZ KLINE IS FOREVER IDENTIFIED with large black-and-white paintings, ominous but often amiable and tender, that revealed him to be a major Abstract Expressionist when first exhibited in a one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery late in 1950. Kline spent the rest of his life, a little more than ten years, developing, benefiting from, but also at times burdened by his irrevocable style, one too easily misinterpreted as blown-up Japanese calligraphy or a deafening series of pictorial thunderclaps. Actually his mature abstractions are filled with subtleties, soft-spoken variations on the themes of passion, gentility, resignation, conflict, celebration, solitude, and many others, all eagedy romantic. Kline’s big black-and-white style has its heroic side, but it is intimate as well.

Within the humane context of Abstract Expressionism, now that a rudimentary historical perspective is possible, Kline emerges as the most efficient architect of painting produced by the New York School. His art is unavoidably physical in impact. His black and whites declare their tangibility. The fast legibility of images in fluctuating matte and shiny surfaces generates a kinetic sensation. One of the enduring values of Kline’s abstraction is its open-armed amplitude. Like a slap on the back, a punch in the gut, or a no-holds-barred embrace, it goes for whomever dares face up to it.

Kline was a many-sided personality. He liked beer at the Cedar Bar and English tea in the studio. He could play the dandy or the clown, act like Ted Lewis, Wallace Beery, or Mae West, talk about rugs, vintage cars, Géricault’s horses, baseball, and Baron Gros. He loved jazz and Wagner. He was a confirmed New Yorker, but had roots that he never forgot in the gritty coal country of eastern Pennsylvania. He also bore an allegiance to England where he lived from September 1935 to February 1938. He attended Heatherley’s Art School in London hoping to prepare fora career in illustration. His mother, a native of Cornwall who had come to the United States when seventeen years old, encouraged him along these lines. While in London he met his wife-to-be, Elizabeth V. Parsons, a former ballet dancer who modeled in Frederick Whiting’s drawing class at Heatherley’s. Willem de Kooning has recalled, “He was an Anglophile in a nice way.” He could juggle life until it came up fun. But he believed all artists are lonely.

Kline had an inclusive knowledge of art and could talk eruditely about it at length if he wished. Philip Guston and George McNeil remember how he liked to talk about Henry Patrick Raleigh whose illustrations had accompanied stories in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines—and whom very few persons at the Cedar Bar had ever heard of: Yet Kline did not often discuss his own work. John Ferren who lived in the same brownstone with Kline at 52 East Ninth Street for more than five and a half years recalled his making few references to his own art; perhaps once or twice only Kline related his painting to Hofmann’s “push-pull.” And in 1955 reflecting on changes in style and meaning in his mature work represented in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition “The New Decade,” Kline noted: “The first work in only black and white seemed related to figures, and I titled them as such. Later the results seemed to signify something—but difficult to give subject or name to, and at present I find it impossible to make a direct verbal statement about the paintings in black and white.”

Kline’s laconic attitude toward articulating the purpose of his abstraction in words may in part have been due to a desire to let his painting account for itself. He may also have preferred not to talk about his work because of his own ambivalence about its evolving meaning. Only gradually, after his art had matured and was developing fully, would Kline acquire a conscious awareness of his intentions as an abstract painter. Before that he was primarily involved in achieving a workable, individual style. Not until realizing that style could he begin to recognize and define its purposive range and significance for him as an artist.

As indicated by Kline’s published statements, he did not set out to make a painting with a clear-cut goal in mind. Some paintings began as structural interrelationships. Some were, above all, evocations of mood. Others were affirmations of imagery with figural connotations. In the foreword for Kline’s first one-man show, Elaine de Kooning wrote that he “sees these structures as personages—not menacing ones but playful or gentle or lost.” Two things which Kline specified that his paintings were not were calligraphy and symbols. On the contrary, he regarded his work as “painting experiences” whose prerequisites were excitement and surprise—for him and the viewer.

Kline’s art is original and reiterative. Like his life, his art has many styles, seldom growing organically. Throughout the 1950s he zigzags among stylistic alternatives. He works from painting to painting, sometimes transposing an idea from one to another but without the persistent continuity of series. Black and white imposes a familial brand on his art, yet each painting requires autonomous creativity. Otherwise the dominance of black and white would, through a debilitation of artistic and emotional substance, soon reduce his work to facile variations.

Kline’s figurative work (c. 1935–50) and his abstraction seem self-sufficient, from adjacent but nearly isolated worlds. His figurative art did not lead him progressively closer to an ultimate abstract style. Yet his figurative work and abstraction were each grounded in drawing. Much of the figurative art is a modest achievement when compared to the later abstractions, but if the early work is regarded merely as an unknowing prelude to the “big” style, a distorted picture results. Kline was a man always searching for style. He believed his best figurative work had it. To grasp the total extent of his accomplishment as an Abstract Expressionist, one must first be familiar with the “unknown” Klines, those figurative drawings and paintings which often speak in a conversational tone rather than as drama or soliloquy.

One of the ironies is that Kline and his art have seemed so well known that studying them systematically has apparently promised to be superfluous. The power of his paintings has nullified any urgency to learn about them in any way other than confrontation. Reading about Kline’s abstraction may seem as beside-thepoint as looking at photographs of Hemingway when trying to understand fully his novels and stories.

Monographs have been devoted to other major Americans whose abstraction reached a high level of maturity after World War II—Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, Newman, Motherwell—but 13 years after his death none has yet appeared on Kline. The Kline literature is filled with general statements about his art, usually pseudo-poetic monologues about the late black and whites. The catalogue for the 1968 Whitney retrospective remains the nadir of ersatz scholarship foisted on the public: cliched “introductory essay,” chronology flawed by factual errors, and Kline paintings reproduced sideways and upside down with no attempt to insert errata.

The most informative Kline reporting and criticism during the 1950s and ’60s was published by Art News: “KIine Paints a Picture” (December, 1952); two articles by Elaine de Kooning (November, 1962 and in the November, 1957 Annual), and a brief essay by Robert Goldwater (March, 1967). Thomas B. Hess, then the editor of Art News, has also made perceptive contributions to Kline criticism, the latest of which appeared in the April 7th issue of New York Magazine. Leo Steinberg’s sensitive self-appraisal of his response to Kline’s 1956 one-man show (Arts, April, 1956) has been useful in terms of how to approach and respond to Kline’s abstraction. And interviews with Kline conducted by Frank O’Hara (Evergreen Review, Autumn 1958), Katharine Kuh (The Artist’s Voice, 1962), and David Sylvester (Living Arts, Spring 1963) offer palpable comments from the artist. While not such a vast lacuna of information and criticism as that for Rothko, the literature about Kline, nevertheless, has been limited to abbreviated considerations of his art.

Initial Abstraction, 1947–49

In 1947 Kline began his crucial shift toward abstraction. Little by little, representational imagery was relinquished, perhaps reluctantly, as if Kline were engaged in a tug-of-war with his years of training and experience as a draftsman and painter of picturesque anecdote. By focusing on drawing, he began to liberate line from likeness.

Also in 1947, Kline produced what may be most accurately referred to as his “white drawings” because of open compositions exposing relatively large areas of paper and, too, because of extensive white overpainting. Several drawings related to this group are dated ’48 and bear traces of collage and color. In these, Kline has recognized that white and black are coefficients each with a positive and negative side. Moreover, he often used white to cancel out a black segment and establish an alternative to what lay directly beneath it. A reciprocity of white-and-black calligraphy had not been one of his interests until this time; he had thought of line as essentially a positive mark on a neutral surface regardless of how that surface might be incorporated in a composition. Until the “white drawings,” black had done nearly all the work.

The next step in this stylistic evolution was the complete fusion of drawing and painting, obviously a major factor in Kline’s move into total abstraction. An untitled painting dated ’47 testifies to how many changes occurred in that year. Abstraction free from all specific figural associations has become the mode, even though the oval prominently positioned here is a feature of Kline’s semiabstract works just preceding it which are this painting’s direct antecedents. (The oval will be just as conspicuous in later Klines such as Chief, 1950, and Figure Eight, 1952, although in the latter the oval swells, spreading out and away from the geometric overtones that it carried in the earlier works.) In realizing this new abstraction, line has been assimilated by mass. But to interpret this merely as “drawing with. the brush” is to forget that KIine had done so as early as 1940 in a series of murals for the Bleeker Street Tavern and to overlook the entire change in his approach to painting.

No longer preoccupied with edges of forms, he is just as committed to their bulk. A concomitant concern is that space lies between the layers of paint—or collage—as well as around its primary forms. Empty space per se does not exist in this untitled painting of 1947. The surface is taken up with abstract forms which by their shape, heavy texture, or both, negate the impression that there is any room for moving around. Packed inside the frame, the forms in their fixity and contrast—between an opaque black that ready extinguishes the blue underpainting, and bright red, yellow, and creamy white—create a density as luminous as stained glass.

Between 1947 and 1948 Kline decided that abstraction could require an all-out effort. No longer “another way” to paint, it became more and more the sole chance worth taking. This did not demand an immediate stop to his figurative art, for as long as the possibility existed that pictures would sell he might earn a little money. No visionary about-face and the result of no intellectual whim, the turn to abstraction was for Kline, among others, a matter of personal and professional integrity.

Kline worked his way toward abstraction on a good-sized, easel-painting scale through color. In 1949, however, color became something to paint against, to plow under in making a painting. Gray Abstraction, c. 1949, while having a few patches of blue is primarily a black-and-white painting; the light brown of the beaverboard showing through the paint actually supersedes as color the dark blue which tends toward black. (Kline may have used this piece of beaverboard as a tabletop for holding paint cans before painting on it. Some of the marks and smudges appear to have originated prior to the abstract overpainting.) The next stage was to squeeze color out completely, a process Kline tersely described in the 1961 interview with Katharine Kuh: “I painted originally in color and finally arrived at black and white by painting the color out.” A key word, perhaps too easily overlooked, is “finally.”

First One-Man Show

Color surfaced rarely in the 11 mature abstractions which made up Kline’s first one-man show—some brown underpainting near the bottom of Nijinsky and traces of a glowing green in Leda. The paintings displayed a variety of images and moods: the geometric austerity of Wotan, a tentative, weblike balance in Giselle, and a tautness and sharpness in Cardinal as if the springiness of the blacks were contained only by the density of the whites pressing back against them and out toward the frame. Yet in spite of this range, the paintings shared one physical fact which they at once proclaimed openly: They were black-and-white. Details of specific paintings might slip away but not the indelible afterimage that they were made of black-and-white paint.

Kline’s dynamic juxtaposition of black and white—a welding together of opposites that while mutually dependent also went against each other’s grain like “Min and Bill”—made such an emphatic impression that it lasted the rest of his life. (A movie fan since the 1930s, Kline loved the scroungy toughness characteristic of the Beery-Dressler camaraderie.) Kline had not been regarded as a painter of black and whites until his first Egan show. Yet the association stuck and in later years Kline would at times feel restricted by it. Once when Sidney Janis was his dealer, Kline in reference to the “necessity” to turn out always black-and-white paintings remarked to his friend Emmanuel Navaretta, “They won’t let me leave the harbor.” His first one-man show marked nearly the simultaneous beginning and end of his major invention as an abstract artist. At the age of forty he secured a consummate style. He mastered it immediately, based upon years of drawing. Its potentiality was almost completely limited to varying and rearticulating the essential tensions between black and white. Moving beyond meant, inevitably, going back into color, clearly the direction Kline was headed at the time of his death.

Kline prepared for his one-man show earnestly, designing the four-page brochure and working hours on lettering his name. He struggled with it again and again, saying to Navaretta, “I haven’t got a signature.” He also framed his paintings, covering the edges of the stretchers with thin metal strips. Thinking up titles for the paintings, he had help from his friends, the de Koonings, Egan, and Navaretta, who named Hoboken. He suggested the title and Franz said OK. They sometimes went to Hoboken to eat fish and Franz liked the name. The word would also have had earlier associations for Kline—in 1939, working with the stage designer Cleon Throckmorton, he had painted tavern decorations in Hoboken—and for de Kooning too, who lived there after coming to the U.S. in 1926. Kline had one eight-hour naming session with the de Koonings and Egan. It was, as Elaine de Kooning recalls, “in a spirit of levity with a bottle of Scotch on the table.” They agreed on veto power. If one person didn’t like a title, even though the others might, it couldn’t be used.

Elaine de Kooning has written that Chief and Cardinal were names of trains Kline remembered. She adds that he may also have made an association between Cardinal and a fence. (Titles often meant clusters of personal references for Kline.) Navaretta recalls that Clockface came from an allusion to the clock on Wanamaker’s Department Store. High St. is a subway stop in Brooklyn and may go back to 1945 when Franz and Elizabeth lived there. Wyoming, a county in eastern Pennsylvania, was also the name of a 1940 film with Wallace Beery and Leo Carillo which Kline may have seen. (A 1957 painting, Garcia, in all likelihood owes its title to Kline’s affection for a 1936 Beery film, A Message to Garcia. Navaretta notes that “Franz really dug Beery and often did hilarious take-offs of him. Also, he sometimes used the phrase, ‘You know, like the Message to Garcia,’ to emphasize a breakthrough.”) Nijinsky was a dual homage to the great dancer who had died April 8, 1950 and to Kline’s long fascination with him as Petrouchka. Giselle grew out of Kline’s knowledge of ballet and the Sadler’s Wells Ballet had performed Giselle with Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer alternating in the title role at the Metropolitan Opera House in late September, two weeks or so before Kline’s one-man show opened on October 16. Moreover, a form at the left of the painting suggests the moss-covered cross that traditionally is on stage during Act II of the ballet. A similar association of title and image is possible with Leda, considering the bird- or winglike form at the bottom. And the relationship between the configuration in The Drum and its title is obvious. Wotan originated in Kline’s love of Wagner and reflects his recognition of the one-eyed god’s supremacy. Kline painted frequently while listening to Wagner and sometimes put Götterdämmerung on the phonograph at 5 a.m., necessitating a plea from John Ferren to please turn it down. (Later titles attributable to Wagner are Siegfried, 1958 and Curvinal, 1961, Kline’s way of respelling Kurvenal from Tristan and Isolde. To celebrate his 29th birthday, Franz and Elizabeth had stood through a gala performance of the opera on May 23, 1939. Later, he got secondhand Wagner records in the Village and played them, remembering the gala.)

In 1950, as often throughout his life, Kline liked to paint at night. Ferren remembered that he always kept late hours, sleeping in the daytime. Navaretta who shared Kline’s loft for about 11 months in 1950 would sometimes wake up at 7 a.m. and find Kline still painting.

Kline’s abstract paintings at this time were based on drawings made on telephone book pages. He used these, rather than drawing paper, because they could be picked up for nothing. (Robert Goldwater pointed out that the print pattern on these pages “prevents any mistaken perspective recession,” perhaps another reason why Kline liked to paint on them.) After choosing a drawing which he thought would work as a painting—and Kline looked through these telephone page drawings stacked up by the hundreds in a corner from time to time—he might paste it to a piece of cardboard and either tack it at the side of his painting or hold it and, following it closely, paint directly on the canvas. He evidently did not like transferring an image with any kind of grid system. High St. may have passed through a grid stage as indicated by a drawing on graph paper, but it began as a telephone page sketch and remains closer to one in bluntness of drawing and thickness of forms, as well as in overall proportions, than to the slightly attenuated and more refined graph paper example.

Working at night under a strong light hanging from the ceiling and aimed at the painting wall intensified contrasts between black and white, reflecting the glossy texture of the black and giving a sheen to the white. The even distribution of light on the painting wall was commensurate also with the allover focus Kline directed across an entire canvas. He saw at the outset a small sketch amplified many times its original scale; realizing that visual conception required an evenness of attention which on the creative level paralleled the fully illuminated surface in front of him. Strong light helped bring the big image into being, burning away as it were the gray rows of type from the telephone page.

Controlling the repertoire of circles, rectangles, triangles, splinter-edged struts and sticks that moved through his 1950 show, Kline occasionally resembles an acrobat in paint, especially when he cantilevers shapes out from only one or two sides of a painting without weakening its foundations. His agility in handling these basic shapes is pointed up by comparing Hoboken to one of the telephone book sketches which must have preceded it. The sketch, viewed upside down and reversed, approximates the painting in general composition. Yet Kline adjusted size and location of the circle in the painting to bring it in line with the scale of the other forms. From his first one-man show on, paintings with two or more shapes are not dominated by a single overbearing form. Give-and-take, not autocracy, is the principle governing the community of shapes in a Kline. Naturally, this is not the case when a painting has but one shape, Wotan being the ultimate example.

Back and Forth, 1951–54

The diversity of Kline’s imagery in his first one-man show continued through 1951 yet seemed headed toward a loose stylistic dichotomy. On one hand his painting assumed a sculpturesque character as in Ninth Street with its black totemic presence. An untitled painting of nearly the same scale (with orange and yellow under-painting) also seems filled with “things.” And its black armature and caliperlike prongs turn topsy-turvy defying containment by the frame. These paintings are aggregates of centrifugal energy. Their black-and-white shapes in clanging desperation strive to pull away from the center as if it were ground zero.

A fusion of volatility and presence charged up one aspect of Kline’s abstraction in 1951. Yet he investigated less rigorous alternatives in other paintings that had their origins in work predating the 1950 show. An astringent relative of Wotan, Yellow Square, c. 1951, has shallow roots in such an unresolved painting as Yellow, c. 1949–50, as well as in less tentative ink drawings from the same period. The Small Yellow Square, c. 1950, surely served too as a study for the larger painting and is much more convincing in its succinct severity. While tempting to regard the big Yellow Square as a lyrical painting, one soon discovers that it does not sing. It is a piqued exchange between an understated but determined yellow and a weatherbeaten white, both intruded upon by the black bar inching up from the bottom. With firmed-up ends and thinner crossties, the yellow square is suppressed in poetic reverberation. Comparable to April when it abounds, yellow can be the cruelest hue. Its acidity reigns over one of Kline’s most arid paintings of the square. How much more gregarious and accessible the irregular pentagon in a black-and-white painting dating possibly from the same year!

One of the most important works in Kline’s second one-man show at Egan’s (November through December 8, 1951) was Painting No. 11, the skeletal configuration of which was reproduced on the gallery’s announcement. Larger than anything in the 1950 show, Painting No. 11 confronted the viewer with a quizzical synthesis of sign and body language. The planklike blacks, nearly as rickety as the Rocker-turned-self-portrait-caricature also in 1951, carry figural connotations of human predicaments from tightrope walkers to Frankenstein. Yet the painting simultaneously conveys a landscape spaciousness whose yellowed, off-white, and off-center planes, colliding in midair, push away from the “horizon,” head toward the spectator, and set him or her quickly on edge. Kline unearthed this black configuration from Lehigh River Bed, a 1948 painting where an unmistakably similar “sign” occupies the upper left corner. In Painting No. 11, however, Kline tightens the blacks, increasing their elasticity while stretching them across the whole canvas. This is an instance—as was Wotan in a more retentively geometric way—of Kline’s ability to whittle down an image, backing it to the brink of irreducibility. White Forms, 1955, and River Bed, 1961, are later examples albeit more densely painted.

In 1952 Kline pressed toward a greater monumentality by sharpening the focus of his forms, expanding proportion of image to field, and by continuing to amplify scale. But he did not move consistently in one direction. Horizontal II, Painting No. 3, and Painting No.7 are evidence of this tendency to streamline shapes while articulating a horizontal canvas into blocklike, measurable precincts. Because their forms have momentarily settled down, these works are highly legible constructions, yet they retain their restless, elbowing capacity. Painting No.7, one of the finest works with a squarelike zone, is in effect a structural complement to Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. (Kliine undoubtedly knew the Whistler by heart. As an art student he had looked carefully at Whistler’s work.) Neither “Whistler’s Mother” nor Kline’s Painting No. 7 can be broken into from any side. The totality of these paintings denies compartmentalization. Attempting to close off the vertical bars at the left of the Kline from the white “square” at the right is just as impossible as trying to turn off the last notes of the “Fate” theme from Beethoven’s Fifth. Once heard, the theme meshes with memory. Once seen there is no forgetting the whole Kline.

As noted, Kline’s art did not evolve exclusively toward an abstraction of “deliberate speed, majestic instancy.” Figure Eight demands more time to fathom the multiplicity of its just-snapped torsion letting fly in all directions. It is a keyed-up, hard-bitten descendant of the untitled “wobbly” painting of 1950–51. As an indication of its ancestry, Figure Eight contains variations on those caliperlike forms in the earlier work. One, inverted, hangs in Figure Eight’s upper right corner. (A further variation hurls through the top half of New York, 1954.) Even greater surges of complexity characterize Black and White No. 1 and an untitled painting whose center is convulsed by upheaval of a bent and ragged rectangle. Yet an untitled telephone page drawing, also 1952, reveals an animate identity. Generated by a Kafkaesque metamorphosis that gave rise to Chief two years before, this little image is filled with poignancy. As if helplessly frightened, it startles even itself. It is as close as Kline will come to biomorphic abstraction.

During 1953–54 Kline’s paring down of imagery went hand in hand with a thickening of tarlike blacks and plaster-heavy whites many of which soon yellowed. Using scrupulously clean house-painter brushes Kline troweled on paint aggravating its malleable, sticky, and uneven texture. Many paintings from this period and later are polyphonic as to harmony—and dissonance—of the blacks. Several blacks of differing sheen, pigmentation, and opacity are included in single canvases, providing as active a surface as overall structure. In some works such as Herald and Diagonal, Kline was able to turn paint, image, and his own physical activity as a painter into solid, tactile substance. He did so, moreover, without filling up the canvas with brushstrokes-turned-surrogates for matter and space, one of de Kooning’s major achievements in Excavation of 1950. Kline would occasionally approximate this later, in 1958 for example in Siegfried and Requiem, but during the middle-’50s he approached a painting as territory to be inhabited not eradicated by his brush.

Suspended, 1953, one of Kline’s radiant and elegant paintings of the open-square, is a logical exception to his preference for markedly rectangular canvases. The painting is a variation on a telephone page drawing, c. 1950, which he had trimmed down to an 8 1/4" square. Composition, also from 1953, and its study are further examples of nearly identical images, yet they differ in shape of field and in integration of black and white. Within the almost square format of Composition, Kline extended its vertical proportions by pulling an unbroken black down the spine of the painting, countering it with no horizontal equivalent.

A prominent characteristic of his work during 1953 was its vertical momentum: New York, Tower, and Four-Square. A preponderant verticality would carry over into some of the late paintings: Sabro II, 1959–60, where the vertical slices through a horizontal field and is pinioned between impacted whites; Ludgevande, also 1959–60, whose monolithic verticals are crowned by the ubiquitous open rectangle; and Torches Mauve, 1960, which began as a horizontal painting. Kline often turned paintings while working on them. He may also have had difficulty sometimes deciding which way a painting worked best. The back of Le Gros, 1961, is signed and dated one way, yet the word “top,” arrows, and the title lettered beside the artist’s name on the stretcher indicate the opposite.

Painting No. 2, now in The Museum of Modern Art, was the largest work in Kline’s third and last one-man show at Egan’s (April 13–May 8, 1954). It was also his largest abstraction to date. Egan recalls that it hung in the most commanding place in the gallery and that Kline worried about whether it worked as a painting. Based on’ a telephone page sketch, Painting No. 2 affords a new openness of spatial relationships. Its abbreviation of imagery, deriving in part from Painting No. 11, 1951, creates an itinerant state of in-between. Everything is falling into place, crystallizing as a new ambiant of sprawling structure and immense, semipermeable space, but it’s all going to take more time. Everything will snap to, however, the next year in White Forms, Painting No. 2’s leanest progeny.

By 1954 due to spatial expansion in some paintings as well as their crustaceous skin of scarred impasto, Kline seemed to be pressing images ever closer to the viewer. Thorpe, 1954, contains one of the bluntest, most matter-of-fact images, a surly presence painted, so it seems, with well-cooked asphalt embedded in dirty white. Like a cyclopean rock, it blocks us as surely as Jim Thorpe or Pennsylvania’s Mauch Chunk Mountain. (Philip Guston recalls that in the early 1950s Kline talked so much about Mauch Chunk that he thought Kline had been born there.) In fact, Kline painted and named Thorpe during the same year, 1954, that the two communities of Mauch Chunk, neighbors to the artist’s hometown Lehighton, merged as “Jim Thorpe.”

Other Kline titles taken from the Pennsylvania landscape are: Luzerne, Lehigh, Mahoning, and Shenandoah, all 1956; Hazelton, 1957; Bethlehem, 1959; Palmerton and Scranton, 1960. Kline’s identification with these places—and his attraction to the sound of their names—is affirmed by this declaration of personal geography. It also suggests that a Kline painting so named bears an approximation to physical location: the painting as place, staking out an area all its own. Commissioned in 1946 by Lehighton’s American Legion, Kline had painted a panorama of the town. Measuring 73“ x 166” the canvas was affixed to the wall behind the bar in the Legion’s assembly room. One of his greatest abstractions, Shenandoah Wall, 1961, shares the mural’s proportions and is quite close in scale (80 1/2“ x 171”). The mural and abstraction have in common the power to produce emphatic physical effects, respectively, pulling the viewer in and shoving him or her back. In both cases, the paintings’ authority makes one aware of the alterability of place: the place where one stands is subject to that of the painting.

Apropos the power of Shenandoah Wall to relocate a viewer, its title stresses Kline’s identification of place in his art: Shenandoah, a town about 25 miles west of Lehighton rooted in his past, and Wall, a general place yet one made specific by the presence of a painting wall in his studio, the birthplace of many abstractions, Shenandoah Wall among them. Finally, there is the painting itself, big enough and packed with enough physical power to establish a locale all its own.

Cresting in White and Pairs, 1955–61

Kline’s most articulate abstraction began to crest in 1955–56 in such muscularly insolent paintings as Wanamaker Block, Monitor, and Mahoning. In these well-built monuments to the durability and resiliency of black and white under stress, he turned abstraction into a rough-hewn, anxiously planed carpentry. There is just no getting around these paintings. They assault and seduce all at once. And a spatially seditious work, like Mahoning with its gleaming, mesmeric blacks, may pull us in only to leap at our throats.

In March 1956 Kline had his first one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery. Janis asked him from now on to use tube paint and good quality canvas as they would hold up better. When Kline said he couldn’t afford these materials Janis told him to go ahead, bill the gallery. In keeping with Kline’s practice since 1950, of painting on unstretched canvas supported by a composition-board wall in his studio, paintings were usually not stretched until finished. Larger canvases were stretched in the gallery in preparation for a show.

White Forms and Accent Grave of 1955 proclaimed Kline’s wholehearted dedication to white as preemptory plane and mass. Much of the white had been painted out in Wanamaker Block (now at the Yale University Art Gallery in a show of the collection of Richard Brown Baker), yet the impression persists that white begins to “cut into” the black significantly. According to Janis, “cut into” was an expression Kline used in talking about the action of white on the black. In White Forms and Accent Grave white has the upper hand for the first time during the mid-’50s, as is also true in Monitor, 1956. Kline extended the spatial prerogative of white in Corinthian, 1957, Initional, 1959, and Sabro II, a painting that turned on its side could, with undisputed legitimacy, claim Accent Grave and White Forms as parents.

Even more pronounced in Le Gros, 1961, are the layers of well-honed white capable of consuming the black in a flash.

White Forms and Accent Grave point up Kline’s pairing of paintings, a phenomenon encountered from time to time in the middle ’50s to 1961, when because of a heart condition he stopped work. Unlike his recurrent interest in the open square and rectangle this did not involve pursuit of an image from one painting to another but meant creation of independent associates, equal halves—a detached diptych—that would correspond across the wall separating them: Garcia and August Day, 1957; Requiem and Siegfried, 1958; West Brand and Polize, 1960; Wax Wing, 1960–61, and Ravenna, 1961; and the Mahoning Panels I and II, c. 1961. In each pair the paintings are generic complements yet retain their distinctions as counterparts. While Kline never developed imagery systematically through a cohesive series—there is nothing in his art comparable to the collectivity of de Kooning’s Women or “abstract landscapes,” 1957–63—synonymous images were reflected in canvases nearly identical in scale painted at the same time. On occasion, as with Corinthian, 1957, and Corinthian II, 1961, Kline would preserve an image’s essential physiognomy yet readjust its “likeness” to a different size and proportion of field. However, this is an uncommon instance in Kline’s art of replication of specific image—other than the open square and rectangle—in paintings several years apart. It was prompted by the destruction of Corinthian by fire on March 3, 1961 in the Executive Mansion at Albany. Kline had painted Corinthian in August 1957 at East Hampton in the barn of his friend John Little. And Kline took the title from Corinthian Avenue in Philadelphia next to the campus of Girard College where he had been enrolled from 1919–25.

Kline’s duality of imagery was not confined to reiterating a theme in side-by-side paintings. It extended to an inclusion of two black units or tracts in a single canvas either cohabiting with or ripping through the tightly stretched white. A compositional parallel to his commitment to the trenchancy of black and white, this double-headed imagery manifests itself as early as 1952 in Figure Eight where the two gyrating “ovals,” equally matched, clash with intersecting orbits at the center of the painting. In 1954 a pair of rowdy black diagonals backed up by rugged whites plow into each other at a collision of right angles in Two Horizontals. In Andes, 1957, and Black Sienna, 1960, twofold partitioning splits the paintings into upper and lower realms of Olympian portent. The two protagonists in Theodosia, 1960–61, and Curvinal, 1961, are simultaneously attracted and repelled, snared by their own ambivalent magnetism. And in Zinc Door, 1961, one of the grandiose late paintings, Kline hits a two-sided grand slam by abutting a colossal pair of open rectangles. The painting recalls his remark to Nicholas Marsicano: “Two squares can be two of the saddest eyes in the world.” It also conjures up the single square apartness of Wotan.

Late Atmosphere and Color

Magnifying tectonic substantiality in 1956, Kline had begun during the same year to dismantle and diffuse structure by melding black and white sometimes with an emergence of gray. A sharp interlocking of black and white is overlaid by atmospheric intangibility. Certainly an unpredictable trend in his art, this was one of Kline’s first “new” developments in abstraction since codifying the black-and-white style in 1950. The other “new” development also beginning in 1956 was a touch-and-go resuscitation of color, specifically a sunny, tropical green—comparable to phthalocyanine green—that wouldn’t quiet down. In Green Cross, tentatively dated 1956, this promiscuous hue does away with black. And in de Medici, Kline’s earliest wholly successful abstraction with color and indeed one of his most lucid, least strenuous big paintings, everything hangs loose as easily but inseparably interrelated as sunlight and shadow on a bright day in early spring. Green functions on a par with black in de Medici, in fact a large plane at upper left is an admixture of green and black, yet Kline slashes the most vivid green right down the center of the painting, a green which says don’t tread on me. Considering Kline’s disavowal of color on a large scale until de Medici, his ability intuitively both to localize it planarly and shape it plastically makes this painting an even more astonishing instance of his structural virtuosity. Far from “discovering” color in de Medici, Kline merely opened the spatial doors wide enough to let it “cut in.” (Thomas B. Hess has noted that in the 1950s Kline always had color on his palette and “unfinished” paintings with color were around the studio.) Kline did not abandon black and white as his primary mode, nor did his work hint at any such compulsive change until, possibly, his last two canvases Red Painting and Scudera of 1961 where he submerged structure in color. If he did feel up-against-the-wall in 1956, cornered by an irreversibility of black and white, he nevertheless continued to extol its constructive authority in some paintings while, in others, casting off into a Stygian gloom.

Generally put off by the indeterminacy of gray, Kline seldom explored its nuances. Black, White, and Gray, 1959, although superficially enigmatic and indebted to Whistler’s Nocturnes, represents a stylistic drift, intoxicating but not for long. In this painting, and more so in Requiem, Siegfried, and even the purplish Torches Mauve, Kline incensed sfumato until it steamed like Fafner guarding the Nibelungen hoard. This proved a sidetrack, removed from the main thrust of his art. Still, in New Year Wall: Night, 1960, by an imposing surge of painterly ingenuity, Kline vulcanized atmosphere into structure.

Clearly a peripheral accent in New Year Wall: Night, a streak of salmon pink about 12“ long edges across the bottom of the painting just making it into the homosote panel. Kline admits color even to this summation of his art, yet it remains a footnote to the sky-splitting drama above. Seen in the context of his abstraction, in particular that of the mature black and whites, color did play a subsidiary role in his work, yet he arrived at abstraction through planar color, gradually smothering it under black and white. And he was painting his way back to color when he died. Explaining his return to color after attaining black and white, he noted in the Kuh interview: ”Then I started with only color, white and no black—then color and black and white." In 1958, by which time color was again an explicit option, black makes no appearance whatsoever in Mycenae, all yellow, pink, orange, and red violet in the midst of white. A poetic but fragmented painting, Mycenae bares Kline’s struggle to hammer color into shape and secure it spatially—to pull it off with the rustic straightforwardness of de Medici. Mycenae remains open-ended, similar to Painting No. 2 of 1954, as if the artist had simply turned away from it realizing that some incipient ideas are better left unsaid.

Throughout the late 1950s Kline also used color for small sketches, yet these were not turned into big paintings with the frequency of black-and-white drawings. And in some otherwise all black-and-white works, such as Heaume, 1958, and Horizontal Rust, 1960, color was introduced as an accent embedded in the composition.

Place and Meaning

In the dozen years of Kline’s maturity as an abstract artist, he produced more than 100 paintings whose clear and present imagery and facture attest to his prominence as a major member of the New York School. Many of his smaller sketches and drawings also verify his unsurpassed ability as a builder through line, binding its gestural rhetoric and emotive release to a syntax of space under pressure. With Kline all space is activated, physically and psychologically. His paintings and drawings speak as places as well as images, yet because of the images’ spatial subsistence their ambiance appears inhabitable, offering if not imploring the viewer to stay. Containment for Kline becomes a moral as well as esthetic principle. Does an image, a presence, have enough room to keep itself together? Due to such physical veracity of black and white and the ramifications of their coal ition as opposites, his art insists that we take a stand now. It presses us to answer with a resounding “Yes,” or to silently back away.

Some of Kline’s last paintings such as Flanders, Sun Carrier, and Theodosia are possessed by tragic images too big and strong-willed ever to be at home in any community other than their own. In our world they would be exiles—or freaks—intriguing to watch for a while but maddening to live with. In other paintings such as Shenandoah Wall and Sabro IV, Kline makes exuberant exclamations overflowing with a baroque flamboyance worthy of Rubens. Through his abstraction Kline expressed with immediacy, sensibility, and sensuality an inexhaustible range of emotion with a severely limited means. In terms of technique, his art tended to close down early and he fought in painting after painting to keep it from foreclosing. But in terms of meaning Kline’s art is open-ended. Personally it grabs us or sends us reeling. Historically, like the voice of Demosthenes, it carries far.

Harry F. Gaugh