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.
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