Then, as [Franz Kline] 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.
Elaine de Kooning
The Triumph of Colour
An exuberantly eloquent composition of fervent vibrant hues, Untitled by Franz Kline is an exquisite piece that marks a pivotal period in which the artist re-introduced colour into the renowned black-and-white style that had previously dominated his unique brand of abstraction. The high-spirited planes of violet, red and yellow radiate an evocative vitality of conception and vigour of execution that speaks volumes in spite of the intimate dimensions of the work. The immediacy, bravado and poignancy of expression in Kline’s small coloured canvases from this period speak volumes, leading critic Harry Gaugh to declare, on the occasion of Franz Kline: The Color Abstractions organized by The Phillips Collection in 1979, in which the present work was exhibited: “The […] small works in this exhibition often prove just as impressive – and at times as outspoken – as the large paintings where bravado might be expected. The psychical range of these small works, likewise, is as unlimited as that of the larger ones” (Harry Gaugh, Exh. Cat. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC, Franz Kline: The Color Abstractions, 1979, p. 22).
Abstract Expressionism stands as one of the most pre-eminent and 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, 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. Yet Kline never intended to permanently and completely banish color from his palette and instead continuously explored how to reincorporate it into his 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 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.
In fact, Kline was a devoted and committed colourist throughout his life, reputedly having colour on his palette even when working on his stark black and white paintings. As early as 1947, Kline explored the potential of colour as a participant rather than an adjunct to abstraction through the use of collage. Together with de Kooning, Kline 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 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”. By the late 1950s, Kline’s chromatic abstractions embody extraordinary compositional balance of energy, testament to the artist’s painterly eloquence in shaping and structuring colour. Again quoting Gaugh: “One of Kline’s achievements in colour abstraction was a structural cohesion of plane, mass, and directional thrust […] in small works too. He also bonded the corporeality of black to the mutability of colour […] he broadened the emotional and gestural meaning of colour by articulating it in a planar way with regard for surface, and occasionally, volumetric substantiality” (Ibid, Gaugh, 1979, p. 23).
Regarding Kline’s unique and distinctive use of colour, critic and historian April Kingsley observed that: “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 does’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 seem to have solidified and in Kline’s blacks, clings to his color” (A. Kingsley, “The Turning Point,” C. Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Franz Kline: 1910 - 1962, Exh. Cat., Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin, 2004, p. 390). Executed in 1958 at the peak of Kline’s career, Untitled with its taut, unified composition exemplifies Kline’s seminal return to colour; as Elaine de Kooning wrote of the artist’s triumph: “Then, as he kept struggling, interweaving black and white with weighty blues, oranges, reds, his colour 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).