Lot 48
  • 48

Franz Kline

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
2,965,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Franz Kline
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated 1957 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas


The Estate of the Artist (estate no. ZP-65)
Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in February 1974


New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Franz Kline: Architecture & Atmosphere, October 1997 - January 1998, cat. no. 39, illustrated in color
Turin, Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Franz Kline 1910-1962, October 2004 - January 2005, p. 253, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

Painted in 1957 at the heart of Franz Kline’s most revered period, Untitled is archetypal of his powerful yet sophisticated brand of action painting, and epitomizes the stark polarity of his signature black and white palette. Supremely evident in Untitled is Kline’s sharpening of focus on the 'object' of his composition and his enlargement of the proportion of image to canvas. This monolithic painting comprises a visceral onslaught of loaded impasto in the inky black and creamy white oils of Kline’s inimitable aesthetic, and was included in the most recent retrospective of the artist’s career held in 2004-2005 at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin. The tracery of paint drips and the broad strokes of its architectonic structure retell the narrative of its execution, as well as the speed and vigor of the artist’s practice. Kline’s signature style of thick, broad 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. Yet, paintings such as Untitled celebrate 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. By reducing his palette to black and white in the paintings of the 1950s, Kline rigorously focused on structure and paint application, whether in the force of an individual stroke as in the central form of Untitled or in the sophistication of layering of black over white or white within black. Kline’s autograph pictorial language was founded on the dynamic juxtaposition of black and white and on the welding of these opposites to bring out the inherent tension between simultaneously dependent and autonomous opposites.

The inspirational catalyst of Kline’s 1950s abstract paintings were his numerous ink drawings made on pages from a telephone book, to which he would later return to select the ones he felt would work best as paintings.  A draftsman to the core, Kline's early figurative work and later abstractions were both greatly influenced by his drawings. The earliest black and white paintings were composed of sharp angles intersected by geometric shapes to create lyrical areas of voided space and massive form. Varying dramatic extremes of mark-making affirmed the predominance of formal structure over color.  In 1950, Kline was given his first solo show by Charles Egan at the Egan Gallery in New York City at which eleven black and white paintings were exhibited and the success of the show affirmed Kline's arrival at the most triumphant period of his career.  Kline truly reveled in the plasticity of paint and the power of gesture and as he continued to paint in black and white the works became increasingly geometric – defined by a framework of horizontals and verticals, angles and suspended shapes, that created a formidable scaffolding to support the power of the paintings.

Until his early death in 1962 at the age of 51, Kline advanced this principally monochromatic genre of Abstract Expressionism, rooted in the gestural application of paint yet also imbued with rich connotations. In a 1975 article on Franz Kline's later painting, Harry Gaugh noted, "his mature abstractions are filled with subtleties, soft-spoken variations on the themes of passion, gentility, resignation, conflict, celebration, solitude and many others, all eagerly romantic.  Kline's big black-and-white style has its heroic side, but it is intimate as well." (Harry F. Gaugh, "Franz Kline's Romantic Abstraction," ArtForum, Summer 1975, p. 28) In Untitled, we can witness Kline’s mastery of his visual lexicon as the predominance of the two colors allowed him to more fully explore form through line, seeking to define pictorial space and narrative movement in an abstract idiom. Untitled belies the misleading assumption of early critics that Kline simply painted heavy black strokes over a continuous white background. Rather, the artist was in full command of his contrapuntal forces as he improvised, through a strong instinct for equivalent paint areas, to achieve a taut and unified composition in Untitled. One senses that each application of one color invited a corresponding gesture from the other.

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 seemed wholly new and original.  The process of discovering their inimitable 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 Untitled.  In Kline’s own words, “..these 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 evident in Untitled.  As semi-representational imagery was relinquished and the artist liberated line from likeness, the forthright black square, triangles and diagonals of Untitled have a strength and presence as individual and impactful as Pollock’s drip, Newman’s zip, and Rothko’s stacks of ethereal hues.