A draftsman to the core, Kline rigorously focused on structure, whether in the force of broad individual strokes or the refined balance of layering black over white or white over black, all within the confines of a single canvas such as Elizabeth. Famously included in Kline’s seminal 1961 one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, this monolithic painting comprises a visceral onslaught of Kline’s inimitable aesthetic. Kline’s autographic pictorial language was founded on the dynamic juxtaposition of the two essential and basic chromatic components that have come to describe his legacy, and Elizabeth, as an archetypal example of its creator’s enduring aesthetic influence, ultimately celebrates the inherent tension between these simultaneously interdependent and autonomous opposites. The phenomenal painting embodies the balletic precision of Kline’s painterly approach; just as the picture recalls the movement of his dancer wife, Kline’s own studio process evoked the rhythmic motion inherent in his works. Dore Ashton remembered: “Every nerve was enlisted while he was at work. His emphasis on ‘feeling’ as the proper criterion for a painter was not casual. Those great diagonals he favored reflected his inner rhythms, his own way of vaulting into the grand spaces he envisioned. How endemic to his whole being those diagonal trajectories were can be gauged by the way he danced… He had an impulse to shoot out into space, to slam through a wilderness of black and white and reach a climax of total freedom… He dances as he paints, beating out an idiosyncratic rhythm over sustained periods, and then suddenly, and with élan, breaks the rhythm dramatically by shooting out one foot in a precipitous accent grave movement.” (Dore Ashton, “Kline as he was and as he is,” in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Ed., Franz Kline: 1910-1962, 2004, p. 28)
The tracery of broad strokes that demarcate the architectonic structure of Elizabeth retell the narrative of its execution, as well as the speed and vigor of the artist’s practice. Kline’s signature style of thick brushstrokes, applied with an unerring calculation cloaked as apparent spontaneity, betrays little sign of his more realistic and figurative paintings of the 1940s. Kline’s Abstract Expressionist paradigm sprang forth at the turn of the decade of the 1950s independent of the European modernist influences in the work of his fellow artists such as Willem de Kooning or Mark Rothko. The vibrant energy of Elizabeth indubitably manifests Kline’s internalized response to the gritty and urban environs of Manhattan, an atmosphere so engrained into the very core of the Abstract Expressionist identity. The fast-paced, brash city is a formative undercurrent to much of the Action Painting that established New York as the new center of the art world in the postwar years of the mid-20th century, and this propulsive atmosphere was deeply embedded in the energetic and symbiotic compositions that poured forth in the 1950s from the brushes of both Franz Kline and his friend, Willem de Kooning. As Kline described in an interview with Selden Rodman in 1961: “When I look out the window—I’ve always lived in the city—I don’t see trees in bloom or mountain laurel. What I do see—or rather, not what I see but the feelings aroused in me by that looking—is what I paint.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection (and travelling), Franz Kline: The Color Abstractions, 1979, p. 16) Informed as it was by Kline’s immediate surroundings, the present work thrives in its celebration of the tactile presence of provocatively painted surfaces, with a dramatic tension between form and gesture, surface and volume, process and speed that was equal to the innovations of his fellow Abstract Expressionists at mid-century.
The fame of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still and Kline can all be traced in part to their ability to break through the enveloping influences of art history toward a fusion of abstraction and expressionism that was wholly new and original. The process of discovering their distinctive styles each rests to some degree on a tension between figuration and abstraction. Kline, more consistently than his fellow New York Abstract Expressionists, succeeded in subsuming vestiges of objectification in his mature works, such as Elizabeth. In Kline’s own words: “[T]hese are painting experiences. I don’t decide in advance that I’m going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me… I paint an organization that becomes a painting”. (Katherine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1962, p. 144) Many of Kline’s greatest paintings are marked by an impressive and iconic simplicity as evinced by the tectonic elegance of Elizabeth. No less an observer than Elaine de Kooning famously stated: “It was Kline’s unique gift to be able to translate the character and the speed of a one-inch flick of the wrist to a brushstroke magnified a hundred times.” (Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., Gallery of Modern Art, Franz Kline Memorial Exhibition, 1962, p. 16) With its gentle wisps of white that surround the black cross sections spanning the top and bottom of the canvas’s vast expanse, vigorously refracting off the edges of the picture plane, Elizabeth belies the misleading assumption that Kline simply painted heavy black strokes over white backgrounds. Rather, the artist unerringly alternated between the two colors to achieve a taut, unified composition and atmospheric grounds, improvised through a strong instinct for equivalent paint areas. One senses that each application of one color invited a corresponding gesture from the other, so that the balanced dynamism of Elizabeth evokes a strong kinetic response from the viewer as if we too are standing at Kline’s window, looking upon the churning metropolis below and assuming its ineffable dynamism.
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