New York

Franz Kline

Allan Stone Gallery

A marvelous odyssey was recounted in this exhibition—the story of Franz Kline’s metamorphosis from a hackneyed illustrator, of the Greenwich Village sidewalk-art-show variety, to an Abstract Expressionist working in a grand, swashbuckling scale. The breakthrough works among the seventy on view were a number of brilliant, untitled drawings made on paper cut from a New York City telephone book (although some are studies for paintings, such as Study for “High Street,” 1952, the works can stand on their own). The thick black gestures, sometimes in ink, often in oil and collage, sit on the thin paper with beautiful insouciance as though supported by their own weight—levitating in space and transcending the banal, endless list of names (symbolic of the unknown personages Kline began his career portraying).

These dark drawings have an epigrammatic intensity and ferocious directness that became the model for virtually everything Kline did afterward. They seem truly spontaneous, rapidly and decisively executed, and they show Kline struggling toward abstract imagery and the kind of monumental structures that mark his best-known works like logos. Considering the show, in fact, one wondered whether Kline’s subsequent paintings maintain the same level of expressive eloquence and abstract illusion or become illustrations of grand gesture, their singularity more manufactured than sui generis.

Another question the exhibition raised was how well Kline’s color paintings hold up. Provincetown II, 1959, and Scudera, 1961, on view here, lack the dramatic flair of two untitled 1957 black-and-white paintings on view. But then the color works are of a different order; where the black-and-white paintings struggle toward a precarious equilibrium using an economy of means, the color paintings are more in process. Structure barely survives their greater compositional fluidity; a tension between a more or less central black “image” and a flashy, atmospheric color field seems to be the issue, not the elevation of the emblematic image to near-mythic proportions above a white ground. Where the black-and-whites tend toward an almost Suprematist minimalism, the color works go maximal. Nietzsche distinguished between artists who work from a position of scarcity, parsing and individuating just a few elements, and those who work from abundance, expanding their boundaries in an almost Dionysian way. Kline seemed to want it both ways. The conflicts evident here, and the hints we see toward a synthesis of these positions, make Kline’s work an object lesson in the possibilities, and frustrations, of making art.

Kline comes closest to a potential reconciliation in a number of untitled works, the most intriguing and important in the show, in which fragments of color and black slashes compete side by side in a kind of tango. A striking example is an untitled 1955 phone-book-paper drawing, in which the geomorphic structure—an icon, by reason of the cross in its center?— is rendered in bright red and surrounded by dashing black gestures. In other works, particularly a number of untitled oils on paper from 1957, the interplay of blackness and colorfulness becomes excruciatingly intricate. I think Kline was freest on paper, and this exhibit showed him arriving at the triumphs and the problems that are central to his oeuvre. These are the works of a master who kept reaching beyond his limits—who left the safe world of representation to explore the jungle of his gestural imagination, and found new, unclassifiable creatures there in habitats he hadn’t dreamed of.

Donald Kuspit