Focus: “Franz Kline: Black & White, 1950–1961”

The Menil Collection

“You instinctively like what you can’t do,” Franz Kline said in a 1958 interview, referring to the precise yet ethereal style of Fra Angelico. Like many other statements of the period, Kline’s remark was probably coaxed forth by the interviewer (in this case, Frank O’Hara) and may even be an invention. Yet it holds true to the painter. Kline wanted what he couldn’t do. He desired the kind of difficulty he didn’t experience in the world outside the studio, where things generally came easy to him. Everyone liked Kline: he had great looks, an engaging manner, effortless charm and wit. He was Kline the “affable” (I quote the first adjective used to describe him in a 1952 Artnews feature). The painter himself couldn’t be satisfied with an analogous ease in art, one of his many “natural” talents. It must be significant that Kline was a child survivor of a father’s suicide. Perhaps he was compelled to make art hard for himself in order to create a working environment absorbing enough to offset his enduring and unfathomable human loss. Painting, the more challenging the better, becomes escape not only for the viewer but for the artist.

In a sense, Kline did not escape until 1950, when he inaugurated his signature series of large abstract paintings in black and white. These are the subject of “Franz Kline: Black & White, 1950–1962,” organized by the Menil Collection, Houston, guest-curated by David Whitney, and with a catalogue essay by David Anfam. Before 1950 (as well as after) Kline made numerous striking but tiny drawings; the larger dimension might be no more than five or six inches, a format strained by the breadth of his mark. Many of us already know the story of Kline’s “breakthrough” from tiny to grand, safe to risky, studied to exuberant, modest to ambitious (or perhaps bombastic): around 1949, at the suggestion of his friend Willem de Kooning, he projected some of his drawings on a studio wall. The experience inspired him to imitate what he saw, that is, to imitate himself. As a result (so this entirely plausible story goes), Kline began again as a painter, began to live in the present he crafted, a present he would maintain (if I may elaborate on the standard mythology) by holding himself on the razor’s edge between success and failure.

The catalogue essay rightly warns its readers to be wary of myth. But what’s a viewer to do? How do these paintings from the ’50s actually affect viewers today? Interested parties are likely to know the pictures that came before the black and white abstractions as well as the problematic Klines of color that would join them later, especially after 1958. The black and whites are the best. Yet the Kline of this exhibition—judged by the artist’s own standards—both succeeded and failed. Some of his abstractions are taut (success), whereas others are stiff (failure).

Certain paintings, regardless of size and no matter how worked over—such as Painting No. 2, 1954, nearly nine feet wide—appear effortless and even spontaneous. It doesn’t matter that Kline may well have turned the painting around a few times (most of the drips run upward). Other paintings sporting similarly grand dimensions, though, particularly works after 1958 on either canvas or Homosote panels, appear overextended and overbearing. (The surface texture of Homosote drains much of the life out of Kline’s oils.) Perhaps Kline preferred perpetual challenge, surprise, or mere unevenness to any kind of stability: he set himself problems he couldn’t really solve, developed new formats, tested out materials, increased the size of his works to the point where even he sometimes lost the vision. It has been said many times before: Kline of the early ’50s satisfies viewer desire, Kline of the late ’50s doesn’t quite do it. We don’t know whether the painter would have recovered his precarious balance. He died in 1962.

The compulsion to make art hard for oneself—and to make it still harder for a viewer to like—typifies the entire Abstract Expressionist generation of which Kline was but one, and in fact the most likable one. He and his associates lived at the margins of the conformist culture of ’50s America. They maintained an American work ethic only by working obsessively while others slept. (Kline, true to the philistine’s stereotype of the artist, was a night person.) Earning little money, the painters neither built the American economy nor drained it; they neither produced in the conventional sense, nor borrowed, nor consumed (at least not in their earlier years—but by 1960 Kline’s art enabled him to buy a Ferrari). The painter’s divided supporters, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, complained of artists who made both art and money too easily by exploiting a talent or facility without ever developing substance. Kline and company cultivated their substance through awkward gestures, finding a countercultural challenge in making art from crude, jarring marks. Rough-edged angular strokes and curving scrapes may now look overplayed and arty, but they didn’t when de Kooning showed his black and white abstractions in 1948, or when Kline did the same in 1950.

There had been roughness and awkwardness before Abstract Expressionism. It carried familiar Modernist connotations of the primitive, the honest soul struggling for self-expression within a morally degenerate society. Along with a number of other painters, Kline added the element of size to his awkwardness. Nearly unique to him, however, was the somewhat methodical way he conceived and executed works of great size. Unlike Barnett Newman, Kline expressed no qualms about planning things out through studies and fussing over the fine points. (De Kooning’s method had its similarities, but was much less straightforward.) Kline’s Artnews photo, looking a bit staged, shows him leaning against an oversized canvas adjusting a detail: “changing the large white areas,” reads the caption. This is hardly a pose of emotional abandon. What it is is Kline as Kline saw himself. In order to generate the look of the unexpected, the painter used a deliberatecollage technique; he constructed small studies by drawing black strokes on telephone-directory pages, then tearing them up and recombining them. His large works too were often combinations, virtual collages: he would use small works as the models for the different sections.

In small formats, Kline’s procedures inevitably generated physical imperfections. His brush might pass rapidly over the surface, perhaps catching on a spot of roughness, inadvertently casting a fleck of pigment to the side. Like the abrupt juxtapositions typical of collage, such irregularity connotes accident or spontaneity, an order inherently “difficult.” Untitled, 1952, from Cy Twombly’s collection, lets you see how expressive, yet also how puzzling, material irregularities can be once the small scale of a work draws your eye in. You can’t help but notice the somewhat uneven quality of the paper’s resistance to the ink, the tear at upper right, even the tiny fold at lower right. Each of these features becomes visible as a part of the composition, and each emphasizes the work’s materiality. Who can now determine the degree to which such elements were intended? Most of the grayness in Untitled may well have been arrived at accidentally. The transparent paper support is folded over on itself, so that ink markings show through from the back side to the front, creating a ghostly variant, a kind of negative or reversed version of basic black. Study for Requiem, 1958, uses a similar device for generating surprising grays across a predominantly black surface a mere eight inches wide. Kline mimicked this effect across the more than six feet of his oil version of Requiem, 1958. The change of size converts seeming accident into seeming gesture. And both accident and gesture may or may not be what they seem.

One of the exhibition’s great pleasures is Ninth Street, 1951, which captures Kline’s physicality in a way that appears particularly innocent—if it’s still possible to speak of accident, spontaneity, and innocence after we’ve all gotten so used to reading the signs of these things, unmasking the simulations where Rosenberg and Greenberg might once have seen the real items. Let’s say that if you believe in innocence strongly enough, you can be—you can make yourself—naive. Kline played with his Ninth Street like a child. He kept turning it, layering it, scraping it, scratching it, scoring it, rubbing it. Perhaps its vaguely circular or spoked motif allowed it to be oriented in any direction. At one point he added an uncharacteristically large, graffitolike signature; it remains at upper left, resting on its side and partially obliterated. Given the unusual range of Kline’s marks, his entire surface assumes a weathered or naturally aged look, as if no surface could be so irregularly and minutely varied by human design. This is all enhanced by the yellowing of Kline’s whites, a natural change he didn’t care to prevent.

To see Ninth Street is to feel assured of a certain survival. In a culture dominated by electronic imagery, the attraction of handcrafted, labor-intensive painting—Kline’s kind of painting, the kind that keeps you working all night—relates to a general fear that we have been losing control, even losing possession, of our bodies. To be separated from your own image (as when you’re the object of surveillance by video) is a metaphor for loss of any stable personal and social identity. Your image drifts. You become a sign, to be captured and possessed by others—both other signs and other people, things you do not know. Painting reasserts a sense of immediate contact between body and image, even when the image painted amounts to no more than an accident seized upon, analogous to the verbal accidents we call criticism and interpretation. While attempting his difficult paintings, Kline was acting out the role of responsible agent in an unpredictable situation. His art is vaguely Existentialist—out of fashion, nevertheless meaningful, and still difficult.

Richard Shiff