Lot 189
  • 189

Franz Kline

700,000 - 1,000,000 USD
1,025,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Franz Kline
  • Untitled
  • oil on canvas


Estate of the Artist
Elizabeth Kline, New York
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York
Sotheby's, New York, November 11, 1988, lot 123
Sidney Singer, Mamaroneck, New York
Christie's, New York, May 9, 2000, lot 543
Krugier-Ditesheim Art Contemporain, Geneva
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2010

Catalogue Note

Abstract Expressionism stands as one of the pre-eminent and most influential art movements of the 20th century, marking the 1950s as a watershed decade of innovation in which New York became the center of the art world. When Franz Kline joined de Kooning, Rothko and Pollock in the forefront of the movement, he was identified as the master of black and white Abstract Expressionism, using the two colors as counterpoints in compositions of gestural velocity and collision. Kline’s reduction of palette was indeed instrumental in the development of his individual style, as it allowed him to more fully explore form through line and brushstroke, seeking to define space and movement in an abstract idiom, yet Kline never intended to permanently and completely banish other colors from his palette and instead continuously explored how to reincorporate color structurally into his self-sufficient compositions. In 1956, Leo Steinberg recalled Kline commenting at his Sidney Janis exhibition, "I’m always trying to bring color into my paintings, but it keeps slipping away.” (Harry F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, New York, 1985, p. 132) Kline amply answered this challenge from the late 1950s up to his death in 1962 with paintings that either fluidly infused traces of color into black and white compositions, or gloried in color’s predominance, such as in the present Untitled from circa 1961. In her essay for the catalogue of a 1962 memorial exhibition of his work, Elaine de Kooning wrote of Kline’s triumph. “Then, as he kept struggling, interweaving black and white with weighty blues, oranges, reds, his color made its breakthrough and entered the dynamism of his imagery as an equal actor. The stage was set, the new action had started.” (Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., Gallery of Modern Art, Franz Kline Memorial Exhibition, 1962, p. 18)

From 1959-1961, Kline produced exuberant compositions of bold and vibrant color that exhibit all the sense of architectonic structure and muscular brushwork that proclaimed Kline as an artist who reveled in the plasticity of paint and the power of gesture. Kline was close friends with another giant of the time, Willem de Kooning, who was a chief catalyst in Kline’s embrace of abstraction.  In turn, when they shared a house in Bridgehampton in 1954, Kline’s use of large, broad brushes and muscular compositions clearly influenced the work of de Kooning in the late 1950s, when both artists were painting monumental and colorful abstracted landscapes. The elegant and confident dynamism of Untitled was a quality de Kooning greatly admired in Kline’s work, as he unerringly alternated contrasting colors and opposing forms to achieve a taut, unified composition, improvised through a strong instinct for equivalent paint areas. As early as 1947, Kline explored the potential of color as a participant rather than an adjunct to abstraction through the use of collage. De Kooning and Kline both used torn paper collages to experiment with fragmented geometric compositions, seeking both the thrill of chance in unexpected juxtapositions and the discipline of balance in a new idiom of abstraction. As Harry F. Gaugh noted, Kline’s collages also focused on color as a structural coefficient with black, which confirm “his mastery of color’s tectonic properties by assigning it to relatively large and loosely brushed planes.” (Ibid., p. 136)  By the late 1950s, the work of both artists employed forceful color strategies, in which large color forms push forward toward the picture plane and convey a strong sense of nature and light.

Nearly all of Kline’s greatest abstractions contain a singular presence and the massive, impressive orange structure in Untitled is a classic example. In his black and white paintings, Kline used the calligraphic and geometric framework of verticals and horizontals to create rectangular scaffolding on which to construct his compositions. In Untitled, we witness Kline’s newly won freedom to create a structural core from the potency of color as form. Full of vibrancy, the orange and reds of this canvas can be challenging colors to master, but Kline demonstrated a willingness to grapple with its presence in paintings such as the present work (circa 1961), as well as Dahlia (1959) and Red Painting (1961), both in the Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and Orange and Black Wall (1959) in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Kline adds to the buoyancy of the architectonic orange form in Untitled with a complimentary bright swath of yellow on the right side and patches of rich, deep red penetrating through the orange overlayer.  

In discussing the last years of Kline’s career, April Kingsley commented, “most importantly, [Kline] had also been able to reintroduce color on a large scale. Starting in 1952 with Yellow Square and continuing sporadically with paintings like Green Cross (1956), he simply substituted color for black. But he also began to work more and more color against the black until ultimately he was able to eliminate black altogether and to construct the picture entirely in chords of color. In these paintings, Kline’s palette has a raw, nerve-jangling edge to it that is often full of surprises. Kline’s color, in which purples and reds, yellows, oranges and greens clash for dominance, isn’t like anyone else’s. Kline loved Matisse, but his color doesn’t have the sparkling Mediterranean limpidity of the French master. Instead, some of New York City’s grime, the gritty matter with which its inhabitants are constantly showered and which seemed to have solidified in Kline’s blacks, clings to his colors" (April Kingsley, The Turning Point: the Abstract Expressionists and the Transformation of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 297).