Lot 19
  • 19

Franz Kline

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 USD
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Franz Kline
  • Elizabeth
  • Signed Franz Kline and dated '58 on the reverse
  • Oil on canvas
  • 67 by 72 in.
  • 170.2 by 182.9 cm
  • Painted in 1958. Please note that in the print catalogue for this sale, this lot appears as number 19T.


Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (acquired from the artist in 1958)

Helmut Wohl, Connecticut

Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Scully, New Haven, Connecticut

Newspace Gallery, Los Angeles 

Acquired from the above by A. Alfred Taubman in December 1977 


New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Franz Kline, May 1958, no. 30, illustrated

Houston, Menil Collection; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art & Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Franz Kline: Black & White 1950 - 1961, September 8, 1994 - June 4, 1995, no. 51, illustrated in color in the catalogue


"Paris, New York," Arts Yearbook, 1959, no. 3, illustrated

New Paintings by Franz Kline (exhibition catalogue), Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, 1960, fig. 30, illustrated (in installation at Sidney Janis Gallery, May 1958)

Harry F. Gaugh, The Vital Gesture: Franz Kline, New York, 1985, pl. 110, illustrated p. 113

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, "Considering Franz Kline's Paintings: (Dis)organizing and (De)centering Emotion," Franz Kline 1910-1962 (exhibition catalogue), Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin, 2005, illustrated p. 68


Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at (212) 606-7254 for the condition report for this lot.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

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. Elizabeth, painted in 1958 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. A stunning portrait of intimacy, Elizabeth is named for Kline’s wife, the ballet dancer Elizabeth Parsons, who, like the famous Russian dancer Nijinsky, suffered from schizophrenia. As such, the painting is exemplary of the rich connotations inherent in the artist’s most renowned works, all rooted in the plasticity of the paint and the purity of his unadulterated coloristic counterpoints in conjunction with absolute subjectivity and personal experience. Dominated by a suspended diagonal configuration, Elizabeth recalls the painter’s association between his abstract line and other, more figural expressions of artistic movement—titles of other paintings with activated diagonal structures pay homage to artists that Kline admired, such as dancers Nijinsky and Merce Cunningham, and jazz clarinetist Barney Bigard. Here, the kinetic gestures of Kline’s brush evoke a figure’s movement in space, which is further amplified with personal meaning by the artist’s invocation of Elizabeth’s short career as a ballet dancer. As Harry F. Gaugh writes of the painting: “An abstraction with suggestions of the stage or even landscape, the painting also becomes Kline’s tribute to his wife as artiste manquée” (The Vital Gesture: Franz Kline, New York, 1985, p. 112). Illustrated alongside a love poem by Frank O’Hara in a well-known edition of photogravure prints by the artist, Elizabeth reverberates with a unique affection and moving tenderness.

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 1958 one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, this monolithic painting comprises a visceral onslaught of Kline’s inimitable aesthetic. As clear testament to its import, the work was included in the retrospective of the artist's career held in 1994-1995 at the Menil Collection in Houston, which subsequently travelled to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. 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 exhibition catalogue, 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. 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 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” (exhibition catalogue, 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, 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.