Vigorously executed across an immense canvas, the energy of Franz Kline’s Green Cross builds into an urgent and arresting paradigm of Abstract Expressionism, culminating in a visual declaration of gestural force. A commanding masterpiece from one of the Twentieth Century’s most celebrated artists, Green Cross sits at the pinnacle of Kline’s most revered period, having been completed in the critical year of 1956. The present work is archetypal of Kline’s powerful and sophisticated brand of action painting, and is furthermore remarkable for its use of color and exquisite provenance, having resided in the collection of The Baltimore Museum of Art since 1993. Kline’s colored abstractions have come to be considered especially unique within the artist’s oeuvre, with many comparable works treasured in internationally renowned museums, including The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.
Within the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, Kline quickly established an individual visual idiom marked by dominant strokes applied with energy and spontaneity. The inspirational catalyst of Kline's 1950s abstract paintings were his drawings sketched on the pages of a telephone book, initial drafts that he would return to when executing his larger paintings on canvas. A draftsman at heart, Kline rigorously focused on structure, whether in the force of broad individual strokes or the refined balance of layering various strata of paint atop one another, all within the confines of a single canvas such as Green Cross. Broad brushstrokes of deep forest and emerald greens cleave the white expanse of the canvas, separating the ground into four quadrants. The strong diagonal cant at the upper right hand corner of this cross forces the viewer’s eye downward and to the right, where the paint becomes less saturated, the brushwork lighter. The tracery of these thick strokes crisply articulates the structure of Green Cross as well as illustrates the narrative of the work’s execution. Kline’s signature style of architectonic compositions created from vigorously applied paint manifests the artist’s internalized response to the urban bustle of New York, a source of inspiration that remained at the very core of the Abstract Expressionist identity. The dynamic, fast-paced, and brash city was a formative undercurrent to much of the action painting that had shifted the focus of the art world from Europe to America in the mid-Twentieth Century. The scaffolding of sharp horizontal and vertical strokes surging outward evokes a grid-like urban landscape, infused with the vitality and rhythms of the city. Green Cross embodies the bustling intersection of controlled composition and painterly bravura, form and gesture, process and speed that contributed significantly to the artistic vision and innovations shared by Kline’s contemporaries. Of these spectacular paintings, Robert Goldwater writes: “The true scale of these canvases is not in their measurements, large as they are. It is instead generated from within, by an immense internal unity, a swath or a rectangle, a closed shape or a crossed one, that pushes and extends the perimeter until it has sufficient room to take its proper form, enough space to move and breathe.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Franz Kline, 1967, p. 5)
Although best known for his starkly limited palette of black and white, Kline began to introduce colors in an effort to loosen the tight structures characteristic of his bichromatic palettes. The inclusion of color in the present work underscores the maturity Kline had reached as a painter in 1956, as he needed to fully negotiate and control the structures of his black and white work before altering the chroma. 1956 also marked a significant moment in Kline's career, when his gallery representation changed; upon signing with Sidney Janis that year, Janis supplied the artist with new tube paints to replace the cheaper enamel paint previously used. It was the color of tube paint named 'De Medici Green' that Kline immediately favored, a rich viridian color that vividly slashes across the canvas. Kline’s greatest struggle was in elevating color to become as independent and structurally sufficient as his preferred blacks and whites; indeed, Leo Steinberg wrote of Kline’s challenge: “I remember his words to me – almost apologetic about having produced yet another show of mostly black paintings. ‘I’m always trying to bring color into my paintings, but it keeps slipping away and so here I am with another black show.’” (Leo Steinberg quoted in Exh. Cat., Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum (and travelling), The Vital Gesture: Franz Kline in Retrospect, 1985, p. 132) Yet the present work illustrates Kline’s triumph in translating his black and white works successfully into stunning compositions of color, having been specifically described by Harry Gaugh as “one of Kline’s strongest color paintings.” (Harry Gaugh, in Exh. Cat., Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum (and travelling), The Vital Gesture: Franz Kline in Retrospect, 1985, p. 132) Based on a black and white study, Green Cross is not merely a one-step enlargement of the drawing, but rather a fully formed work in its own right. Although predominantly green, Kline feathered the edges of the longest arm of the cross with shades of white and a slight mauve-gray, balancing the tight contraction of energy at the junction of these two axes.
Kline’s Abstract Expressionist paradigm sprang forth at the turn of the 1950s, concurrent with the artistic investigations peers such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were also pursuing. The fame of these heroic artists can all be traced in part to their ability to have shattered the enveloping influences of art history and instead pushed the practice of painting toward an unprecedented abstraction. Like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, Kline favored a direct and unimpeded experience; in his 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.” (The artist cited in Katherine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1962, p. 144) Painting was, for Kline, an experience of his innermost energy and being, an arena in which to act and a record of his performance. Kline worked and reworked the composition in scumbles of paint, shifting edges back and forth until he arrived at satisfactory final form. Like Pollock, Kline heightened the ability of line to become subject matter; like Rothko, he celebrated the potential and mutability of color. Green Cross remains as an iconic example of Kline’s oeuvre and embodies the gestural painting that characterizes the very best of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism.
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