Emil Michael Klein, Untitled, 2014–15, oil on canvas, 74 3/4 × 49 3/4".

Emil Michael Klein, Untitled, 2014–15, oil on canvas, 74 3/4 × 49 3/4".

Emil Michael Klein

Galerie Francesca Pia

Emil Michael Klein, Untitled, 2014–15, oil on canvas, 74 3/4 × 49 3/4".

A problem faced by painters—and also by writers—is how to begin. As Emil Michael Klein has pointed out, there’s something transgressive, even repellent, about the first step: brushing pigmented fat onto a pristine white canvas. But once the first act has been committed, it brings other decisions in its wake. Elaborations, deviations, and corrections can be brought into play. A process can be begun that results in a finished painting. It’s perhaps not coincidental that the word process, so popular in art pedagogy, can also refer to a trial by law, as if the original act were a crime that needed to be expiated.

To circumvent the difficulty of beginning, low-intentionality painting techniques have evolved in the last decades, from subcontracting to commercial painters (which can be done hygienically, over the phone) to studio techniques that draw upon the methods of mass production. Klein works around the initial act of transgression more scrupulously. To make the majority of his works, he stretches his own canvases, then paints the entire canvas in a dark-colored ground, either deep blue or black, in order to be able to begin somewhere after the beginning,in medias res. He then slowly builds fields of white—specifically, an oil-based titanium unbleached white with a strange chalky translucence. The white fields approach each other but do not meet, remaining separated by rivulets of exposed blue or black.

The colored lines that seem to be the most intentional part of the composition are thereby produced indirectly, through the repeated overpainting of the space around them. Lines are usually personal, idiosyncratic things. But as Klein claims, there are no lines in nature; the drawing of a line is a human gesture. Lines mark paths, delineate outlines, and form autographs. Klein’s, however, manage to distance themselves from these associations. They barely seem engendered by human agency at all, but rather appear to act according to their own volition. They meet, as if attracted to each other, or flee the canvas, as if repelled, but they do not begin or end upon the canvas. They form loose networks that recall the cropped images of aerial photography, the meaningless decisiveness of a landscape viewed from the sky. One decision entails another. As Klein points out, if the lines did not extend beyond the painting, they would have to end on the canvas—but the end of the line would also be the beginning of the line, and as I mentioned, these are pictures that eschew beginning. It makes sense, in the context of this anti-genealogy, to note that Klein’s father and sister are also accomplished painters.

Klein’s low-affect, low-intentionality approach has paradoxically resulted in paintings robust enough and articulate enough to be subject to the forced evolution of repetition, reflection, and reiteration. Although there’s a distant resemblance, this is not the sensual edge-to-edge painting of the Abstract Expressionists. It’s somewhat closer to David Joselit’s concept of transitive painting, although Klein’s paintings refuse all commentary. This is a network gone offline to think itself anew, thus approaching a condition uncomfortably close to what we once called beauty.

Adam Jasper