An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
Painted in 1954, Franz Kline’s Painting is a quintessential example of his most celebrated body of work, the black-and-white paintings he created between 1950 and 1961. Stark, raw and powerful, Kline’s monochromatic canvases are the ultimate embodiment of the brave new era in which they were created, when Abstract Expressionism prevailed as the dominant force in American painting. Rendered in authoritative gestural strokes of velvety black oil paint against an off-white ground, Kline creates a work whose dramatic tension is encapsulated within a taut surface, where an impenetrable black form presides over the scene like an ancient totem. Its rectangular format is solidified by the stark horizontal and vertical beams of its creation—post and lintel construction for a new era, with ancient feats of engineering at its core. Devoid of recognizable imagery and driven by the sheer force of the artist’s will, the succinctly titled Painting epitomizes Kline’s style, and it is perhaps not surprising that another artist, fellow Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell, once owned the painting at her estate in Vétheuil, France. In its stark black-and-white palette and the rawness of its painterly verve, Painting is a lasting visual testament to the exhilarating era in which it was created.
The dramatic act of Kline’s brush as it sweeps across the canvas surface leaves a visceral sense of energy in its wake. Thick and velvety, the stark black oil paint retains a tactile surface with a subtle glossy sheen. Defined by its rectangular shape, the central image appears like a door or portal, seemingly composed of perpendicular strokes recalling the basic architectural components of post and lintel construction (Stonehenge comes readily to mind) only to be penetrated by zooming diagonals that rush toward the painting’s central core at an oblique angle. The speed and velocity of these rushing diagonal strokes, particularly within the lower left corner, as they careen toward their inevitable collision with the brooding central figure, is one of Kline’s most important pictorial features. Unapologetic and direct, the painting demonstrates the curious push and pull between the dominant black figure and its white background, as the optical tricks of perspectival distance force the black form into the receding distance, though it still manages to cling resolutely to the skin of the canvas surface. Triangular bursts of bright white contribute to this notion, acting as a window through which distant light and space are conveyed. Typical to his working method, Kline often used the white oil paint to define and shape the contours of his black forms. This technique is especially visible in Painting along the right edge, where the artist used white to “cut in” against the black form. The result is a stark creation that epitomizes the freedom, triumph, and individualism of the American postwar period. As Kline’s diagonals race toward their ultimate end, so too, did the world zoom into the unknowable future.
Only four years earlier, Kline came upon the scene with his first black-and-white abstractions, essentially jumpstarting a new direction in American painting. Beginning with his first solo show at the Egan Gallery in 1950, up until his death in 1962, Kline’s black-and-white abstractions formed the core of his output. Alongside Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Kline helped define the quintessential traits of Abstract Expressionism in New York in the 1950’s: monumental scale, a startling sense of immediacy and action, a lack of identifiable subject matter, and bold, abstract marks that retain the feel of the artist’s hand. In his 1954 review of Kline’s third exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery, the critic Hubert Crehan described this effect: “we are throwing up painters in this country today who are making an artist such as Jackson Pollock appear to be an “old master.” Events move so fast; new discoveries are so frequent; there is such prodigious activity in the art world... we have as yet no clear idea of the total situation, how it is changing, where it is moving, what will become of it. Occasionally we see an exhibition—Franz Kline’s third show at the Egan Gallery, for example—that comes on the scene with such aplomb, such visual impact that there can be no doubt that we are witnessing a sequence of pictorial statements that will make a lasting impression and alter the idea of what a painting is” (H. Crehan, “Inclining to Exultation,” Arts Digest, vol. 28, no. 15, May 1, 1954, pp. 15; 33).
Around this time, Kline began to work in pairs or series of canvases that related to each other in terms of similar imagery, scale and proportion. (Along with Painting, of 1954, there exists a similar painting of a slightly smaller scale, Painting I, also of 1954, consisting of the same vertical format and imagery). Indeed, the vertical format of Painting also prefigures later masterworks such as Four Square (1956, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Meryon (1960-1961, Tate, London). Working in series allowed Kline to refine and perfect those particular features he deemed visually striking—those capable of the visual force that so captivated viewers at the time. This practice was a natural result of Kline’s working process, in which he often enlarged the simple drawings that he made on sheets of paper using a Bell-Opticon projector.
Rendered in thick, gestural strokes of rich black pigment that at times recall the viscosity of newly poured tar, Kline creates a stark painting that epitomizes that unique and vital period in American postwar art. Upon his untimely death in 1962, the legendary Museum of Modern Art curator Thomas B. Hess summed up Kline’s accomplishments and their effect on American culture, which seem particularly apt in relation to Painting. He wrote: “Franz Kline’s white and black pictures performed that miracle which is a constant in all major art. He changed the look of the environment and history. His style has that quality which rips the filters of Style from our eye. After 1950, we started to see city buildings, bridge spans, car tracks, asphalt spilling in cement, Velasquez, painted-out wall slogans, Rembrandt... It was as if a whole slice of our culture, overnight, had come to life - with Franz Kline at our shoulder to point where to look” (T. B. Hess, “Editorial: Franz Kline, 1910-1962,” Art News, Vol. 61, Summer 1962, p. 53).
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An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
and dated 'FRANZ KLINE '54' (on the reverse)
Franz Kline (1910-1962)
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Turin, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Kunsthalle Basel; Vienna, Museum des 20 Jahrhunderts; London, Whitechapel Gallery; Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne, Franz Kline: A Retrospective Exhibition, September 1963-September 1964, n.p., no. 24 (Turin; illustrated on its side); p. 17, no. 24 (Amsterdam, Basel, Vienna and Brussels); no. 23 (London); no. 22 (Paris).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March-November, 2000, pp. 155-157 and 289, no. 35 (illustrated in color).
Franz Kline 1910-1962, exh. cat., Rivoli-Turin, Castello di Rivoli Museum d'Arte Contemporanea, 2004, p. 349 (illustrated in color).
Egan Gallery, New York
Eleanor Ward, New York
Joan Mitchell, Vétheuil
Private collection, New York
Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1998