Painted in 1958, a vintage year from the highpoint of his artistic maturity, Kline's Crow Dancer presents the viewer with an epic and dynamic battle between the elements shown on a large scale. The monumental canvas absorbs the viewer, as it did the painter, this intense play between black and white becoming the focus of our world.
In his greatest and most recognized works, Kline's painting reduced Abstract Expressionism to a vital and terse struggle between black and white. This in itself was a struggle, like so much of the greatest Abstract Expressionism, with the nature of painting itself. Here Kline has turned the very gesture and act of painting into a statement about art's continuing validity. There is something at once incredibly and refreshingly simplistic about abstraction--a painting is a painting and nothing else--while at the same time there are deep currents of emotive meaning, of significance, and of energy in the turbulent play of black and white.
The abstraction of Crow Dancer reveals one of Kline's greatest influences--Wagner. In Crow Dancer, the struggle that we see splayed across the canvas is epic and Wagnerian, involving the nature of art, the nature of life, and the nature of existence. This is the death of the old gods and hierarchies of painting, and the dawn of a new age, presented on an absorbing scale, with almost calligraphic simplicity in the swirling black and white maelstrom.
The forms in Kline's paintings often have a figurative appearance, which is particularly strong in the black areas of Crow Dancer. Here, we can really envisage the frenetic energy of a tribal dancer bedecked in feathers, as is hinted at by the title. With the title in mind, the viewer can even begin to imagine a headdress and other such details. In particular, the thinner strokes emanating from the central block of Crow Dancer give a sense of swirling movement. The visible and pulsating energy of the brushstrokes is that of an abandoned and mystical dance. Kline was greatly interested in and intrigued by the place names of his childhood surroundings, not least those with Native American origins. Here, we find him taking a mystical and Native American concept and placing it in his painting, creating a very distinct sense of place, a distinct sense of the American-ness of his painting and his subject. Kline was conscious to a far greater extent than the other first-rank Abstract Expressionists of the distinctly American identity of their so-called movement, and distills it into this work, creating a new, yet established painterly mythology, invoking the Wagnerian gods of a new continent and a younger, more vital civilization through a younger, more vital art form.
Kline's paintings are often marked by an impressive and almost iconic simplicity. However, he went to great lengths to distance himself from those who believed that his works were calligraphic, that the black elements were the sign on a blank canvas. This is not black-on-white, but black-and-white: 'I don't think about it either as calligraphy or infinite space. Coming from the tradition of painting the areas which, I think, came to its reality here through the work of Mondrian in other words, everything was equally painted - I don't mean that it's equalized, but I mean the white or the space is painted, it's not [black on white]... In other words, calligraphy is simply the art of writing... You don't make the letter 'C' and then fill the white in the circle' (Kline, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 62). In Crow Dancer, the white is as strong an element and as important an element in the painting as the black, removing it further from any semblance of direct figurative content.
The energy of the painting lends it a great immediacy. This appearance extends to apparent energy of the application of paint. However, Kline's techniques were far distanced from Action Painting, as is explicitly shown by the existence of a markedly similar study for Crow Dancer. While certain elements differ, the overall composition is echoed directly, with seemingly chance strokes taken from the small study into a more epic dimension in this painting. Interestingly, H.F. Gaugh states that Crow Dancer began in a horizontal format, but that Kline changed its orientation during its execution, something that happened in several of his paintings, allowing us an insight into the way that the artwork continued, despite its solid beginnings in study and inspiration, to evolve through the act and during the process of painting.
Kline's interest in large-scale canvases for his paintings truly developed in the late 1940s, when he was in de Kooning's studio. There, some of his small abstract drawings were taken and placed in a Bell-Opticon projector. The sight of these pictures blown up to monumental proportions on de Kooning's wall, and the latter's enthusiasm for them, gave Kline the impetus to truly explore his abstract works on the large and enveloping scale that makes Crow Dancer such a striking work. The fact that the main black area is a vertical, totemic, man-sized apparition forces the viewer to react emotionally: 'It just seems as though there are forms in some experience in your life that have an excitement for you, (Kline, quoted in Sylvester, op.cit., 2002, p. 64).
This idea of forms that have some deep resonance was important to Kline. Although he did not object to people seeing shapes and reading meanings in his paintings, he explicitly explained that the shapes were not figurative. The viewer is free to make associations, to conjure readings, but like a Rorshach test, these readings are matters for the individual. Kline explicitly avoided the figurative in his abstract paintings. The painting is a painting, the brushstroke a brushstroke, and it is in this simplicity that it gains its power and its truth. In his interviews, it is clear that Kline deliberately avoided allowing his works to be nailed down to one association, one view. Instead, Crow Dancer thrives through its indefinite appearance, through the free-ranging power of association of this amorphous yet vivid emanation. When Kline was asked once to explain his abstract art, he explained the situation with customary succinctness: ''I'll answer you the same way Louis Armstrong does when they ask him what it means when he blows his trumpet. Louis says, 'Brother, if you don't get it, there is no way I can tell you'' (Kline, quoted in H.F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, exh.cat., New York, 1985, p. 13).
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT AMERICAN COLLECTION BEING SOLD BY THE JCF
Signed and dated 'FRANZ KLINE '58' (on the reverse)
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Franz Kline, May-June 1958, no. 12. Geneva, Musée d'art et Histoire and Musée Rath et Cabinet des Estampes, Art du XXe siecle, June-September 1973, no. 221.
Basel, Galerie Beyeler; Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró and Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, America America, October 1976-September 1977, (illustrated back cover in color).
78 x 69 in. (198.1 x 175.3 cm.)
D. Sieberling, 'Franz Kline: Dramatic Structures of Tension and Conflict', Life, New York, 16 November 1959, p. 75 (illustrated).
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Jean Lacarde, Paris
Lambert Monet, Cologne
Private Collection, Switzerland
Galerie Beyeler, Basel
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1978