It was with unparalleled gestural velocity and structural elegance that Franz Kline executed a singular oeuvre of supremely powerful canvases rendered in the stark yet eloquent polarity of his favored bichromatic palette. Flanders, painted in 1961 at the very apex of Kline’s most revered stylistic period, is brilliantly demonstrative of the artist’s sophisticated brand of Action Painting, evoking the compositional equilibrium that has become such an indelibly significant aspect of his artistic legacy through the vigorous swathes of rich black and crisp white that delineate its surface. As such, the present work is exemplary of the rich connotations inherent in the artist’s most renowned paintings, all rooted in the plasticity of the paint and the purity of his unadulterated coloristic counterpoints. 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 Flanders. This monolithic painting, the study for which is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, comprises a visceral onslaught of Kline’s inimitable aesthetic, and, as clear testament to its import, was included in the retrospective of the artist's career held in 1994-1995 at the Menil Collection in Houston, and travelling to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Moreover, Flanders has held a privileged position within the illustrious collection of the Bergreen Family for over forty-five years, since it was acquired from Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York in 1968. Kline’s autograph pictorial language was founded on the dynamic juxtaposition of the two essential and basic chromatic components that have come to describe his legacy, and Flanders, as an archetypal example of its creator’s enduring aesthetic influence, ultimately celebrates the inherent tension between these simultaneously interdependent and autonomous opposites.
The tracery of broad strokes that demarcate the architectonic structure of Flanders 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. The vibrant energy of Flanders 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 post-war years of the mid-Twentieth 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 the same year that he executed Flanders, “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) Like de Kooning’s 1955 painting Interchange, Flanders is infused with a vitality that implies the rhythms of the streets of cosmopolitan life; the dramatically angular arrangement of the present work, with the central upward vertical surge of pigment bisected and interrupted by an equally dominant horizontal, is redolent of the grid-like urban landscape of New York City. Flanders thus refers both metaphorically and figuratively to the infrastructure of the city, as the framework of horizontals and verticals create at once a scaffolding to support the power of Kline’s paintbrush and a bustling intersection of painterly bravura. 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. As the semi-representational imagery of his earlier career was relinquished and the artist liberated line from likeness, the forthright black geometry of his visual lexicon gained a strength and presence as individual and impactful as Pollock’s drip, Newman’s zip, and Rothko’s stacks of ethereal hues.
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 Flanders. 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 as evinced by the tectonic elegance of Flanders. 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 section that spans the canvas’s vast expanse, Flanders 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 Flanders 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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