Franz Kline

When Franz Kline’s mature abstractions were first made and shown, from 1950 until 1961 (a year before his death), their painterliness, size, and sheer abstractness were the qualities that most impressed viewers. The paintings seemed to need space to breathe, and in spacious, white-walled galleries, their bold brushstrokes bespoke paint as paint. Most recently, in the first major retrospective of his work since 1968, Kline’s abstractions were placed in a series of small, specially constructed rooms with deep-blue walls, under almost harsh artificial light—a setting that recalled the cramped, badly lit New York studios in which they were painted. This not only forced a more direct and personal response to Kline’s work but also encouraged a more literal interpretation, for the drawings and paintings that comprise this retrospective were grouped according to themes. (The Cincinnati installation will not be duplicated when the show travels to San Francisco and Philadelphia.)

It was not surprising to see some of Kline’s early works presented as “Interiors” or “Portraits,” or to come upon galleries of “Transitional Works”; after all, his development did not follow an orderly, chronological progression. But it was a bit startling to see the well-known abstract paintings categorized as “figural,” “landscape,” or “structural,” for it was an invitation to see them as much more than simply “arrangement[s] of line, form, and color.” It was not an invitation likely to have been issued in the ’60s and ’70s, when formal analyses dominated discussion of even representational works, but it was one that Kline himself encouraged with highly suggestive titles. Also, recent expressionist painting, because it is figurative and allusive in a specific as well as in a general way, has helped make subjective interpretation respectable again. But it would be a mistake to put too much stock in the exhibition’s loose classifications. It is difficult to see Kline’s paintings in purely formalistic terms in light of the work of artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, and Julian Schnabel, who have adapted the scale, viscosity, and texture of Abstract Expressionist painting. This retrospective suggests that these artists may owe more to Kline than to any of his contemporaries (except perhaps Willem de Koening), for Kline was not an action painter; his large-scale canvases are based on drawings that were altered only slightly in their transferral to a larger, more painterly format, as the paired drawings and paintings in this installation showed.

The thematic presentation was also probably part of an attempt to forge connections between Kline’s early and late works and, in the process, to debunk the “myth” that he came into his own overnight, after seeing some of his drawings photographically enlarged. In the clearly written, biographically oriented catalogue, guest curator Harry F. Gaugh argues, “Elaine de Koening reported Kline’s ‘total instantaneous conversion’ to abstraction . . . after he saw some of his drawings enlarged by a ‘friend’ (Willem de Koening) using a Bell-Option. . . . While important to Kline, this event must be seen in the context of his previous moves toward a totally abstract mode. . . . It can only have affirmed, not initiated, his ideas.”

Gaugh is right to clarify the facts, but the visual evidence suggested that the “myth” is pretty close to true. Kline’s work did change radically within a brief period of time, and the change was not just a matter of style. There was an enormous qualitative leap, an almost immediate gain in confidence. The early paintings are accomplished but drab and, surprisingly, not particularly expressionistic; they make it clear how abrupt his maturity really was, but they do not explain his most original contribution—the transformation of a certain kind of bold linear drawing into painting. For this, more early drawings are needed (the earliest exhibited drawings date from around 1940, when Kline was already 30 years old), and in a retrospective of this size (102 works) and ambition, their scarcity is surprising. Drawing was the source of Kline’s limited but not exclusively monochromatic palette, which added another level of abstraction and gave his work much of its power. More drawings might have helped explain how he suddenly—and quite literally—put it all together.

Jayne Merkel