Franz Kline Life and Art Periods

"The final test of a painting, theirs, mine, any other, is: does the painter's emotion come across?"

SYNOPSIS

American Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline is best known for large black and white paintings bearing abstract motifs set down with strident confidence. He started out as a realist with a fluent style that he perfected during an academic training that encouraged him to admire Old Masters such as Rembrandt. But after settling in New York and meeting Willem de Kooning, he began to evolve his signature abstract approach. By the end of his life he had achieved immense international recognition, and his unusual approach to gestural abstraction was beginning to influence the ideas of many Minimalists.

KEY IDEAS

Franz Kline is most famous for his black and white abstractions, which have been likened variously to New York's cityscape, the landscape of his childhood home in rural Pennsylvania, and Japanese calligraphy.
The poet and curator Frank O'Hara saw Kline as the quintessential 'action painter', and Kline's black and white paintings certainly helped establish gestural abstraction as an important tendency within Abstract Expressionism. Yet Kline saw his method less as a means to express himself than as a way to create a physical engagement with the viewer.
The powerful forms of his motifs, and their impression of velocity, were intended to translate into an experience of structure and presence which the viewer could almost palpably feel.
Kline's reluctance to attribute hidden meanings to his pictures was important in recommending his work to a later generation of Minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd and Richard Serra.
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FRANZ KLINE BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Franz Kline was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a small coal-mining community that offered few opportunities for artistic development. His childhood was marred by a complicated relationship with his parents. His father, a saloon keeper, committed suicide in 1917, when Kline was only seven years old. His mother later remarried and sent her son to an institution for fatherless boys, which the artist referred to as "the orphanage."

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Early training

Determined to make his own way, Kline worked as a cartoonist for his high school newspaper and managed to escape his small town to attend Boston University's School of Art, between 1931 and 1935. Boston offered him a wealth of opportunities: not only did his instructors help familiarize him with modern art, but he also learnt much from the city's private and public collections. After leaving, he studied briefly at the Art Students League in New York. He then went to England where he enrolled in the Heatherly's School of Art in London. It was there that he met his future wife, Elizabeth V. Parsons, a former ballet dancer who was working as an artist's model at the school. She returned with Kline to New York in 1938 but would later suffer a mental breakdown and spend time in mental institutions.

Mature Period

Franz Kline Biography

The first few years back in New York proved difficult for Kline. He was forced to take odd jobs: he painted murals in bars and sold illustrations to magazines. At this point, his work was shaped by his love of Old Masters such as Rembrandt, but in 1943 he met Willem de Kooning and began to frequent the Cedar Bar, where he met Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston. Around 1947, under the influence of de Kooning, he also began to abandon figuration and experiment on a large scale with a gestural, abstract technique. He had already began to explore an austere black and white palette in a series of ink on paper sketches, but now he brought the technique to canvases and employed house-painting brushes to create broad strokes of black criss-crossing white canvases. In part he was inspired by de Kooning's black and white paintings of 1946-49, and - although the story is apocryphal - it is said that de Kooning also inspired him to scale up the work, after he encouraged him to examine it using an enlarger. "A four by five inch black drawing of a rocking chair," Kline recalled, "...loomed in gigantic black strokes which eradicated any image, the strokes expanding as entities in themselves, unrelated to any entity but that of their own existence." The pictures, which resulted from this revelation, were first exhibited at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York in 1950, a show that established Kline's reputation.

Critics have long debated whether Kline's black and white paintings were inspired by Japanese calligraphy. The suggestion first surfaced in reviews of his breakthrough show of 1950. However, the artist denied it, claiming that his inspirations came from unconscious sources. When asked to explain the meaning of his work, he refused, saying that he wanted the viewers to feel the effects of the composition unhindered by suggestion. Instead, he emphasized the non-symbolic character of the work, and what he called "painting experience." He was supported in this by critics such as Clement Greenberg, who focused on the importance of abstract form in art, and sidelined discussions of sources or content. Kline also put a distance between himself and contemporaries such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, whose art expressed an urge to transcendence. And, although his gestural approach might seem to place him close to de Kooning, Kline was less interested in wild expression than in the isolated gesture itself.

Late Period and Death

Franz Kline Photo

By 1955 Kline was experimenting with color once again - using planes painted in different hues to evoke a more complex sense of space. His style also became looser, and by the early 1960s, in works such as Red Painting (1961), some of his pictures were almost monochromatic. By this stage, Kline's reputation was secure as a leading Abstract Expressionist. He was exhibiting continuously both in the U.S.A. and abroad, and was selected to show at the Venice Biennale in 1960, along with Hans Hofmann, Philip Guston and Theodore Roszac. In 1961, his works were also included in "American Vanguard", an exhibition organized by the United States Information Agency, and which toured countries throughout Europe. Such exhibitions have since come to be seen as an important facet of the American government's efforts to advance itself as a guardian of free expression in the midst of the Cold War. He died unexpectedly of heart failure on May 13, 1962, aged only fifty-two.

LEGACY

Although Kline's death received much attention in the press, his fame declined in subsequent years and his work was not seriously revisited until the art market boom of the late 1980s. However, a new generation of Minimalists found much of interest in his work. They rejected the heroics of his gestures, and their aura of lofty nobility, but they were attracted by the way the viewer could feel energized by the architectonic forms of his motifs. What to some critics seemed like references to architecture then became almost real built surfaces in the work of artists like Donald Judd and Richard Serra.

Original content written by Ivan Savvine
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FRANZ KLINE QUOTES

"If you're a painter, you're not alone. There's no way to be alone."

"The nature of anguish is translated into different forms."

"You instinctively like what you can't do."

"It's a wonderful thing to be in love with The Square."

"You paint the way you have to in order to give. That's life itself, and someone will look and say it is the product of knowing, but it has nothing to do with knowing, it has to do with giving."

"I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important."

Franz Kline

Franz Kline Influences

Interactive chart with Franz Kline's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis was an American artist who played a key role in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Davis' "Jazz Art" (because it was considered a visual manifestation of jazz music) was highly experimental. He was one of the youngest artists represented at the 1913 Armory Show and for years taught at the Art Students League of New York.

Modern Art Information Stuart Davis
John Graham
John Graham
John Graham was a Russian-born American painter and a key figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Never adopting a singular style in his own art, Graham tutored many young abstract artists on the tenets of Cubism and Surrealism, of which he was an expert. Willem de Kooning credited Graham as the person who discovered Jackson Pollock.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Graham
David Smith
David Smith
David Smith was an American artist who combined Surrealism and formal abstraction in his sculptures. His early works, small and with a craft-like aesthetic, give way later on to giant constructions of welded and burnished steel.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information David Smith
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Harold Rosenberg
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was an American art historian, collector, and the first director of The Museum of Modern Art. Barr was very influential in MoMA's early years, arranging seminal exhibitions of works by Van Gogh, Léger, the Post-Impressionists and the Cubists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Japanese Calligraphy
Japanese Calligraphy
Traditional Japanese calligraphy, which involves sumi ink text or characters written onto rice paper, has influenced many Western and Japanese artists in modern times. Some have incorporated calligraphy-like marks in their work, while others have been influenced by the Zen ideals of spontaneity and simplicity that the practice entails.

Modern Art Information Japanese Calligraphy
Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly is an American artist whose large-scale paintings incorporate writing, scrawls, and graffiti on their surfaces. He combines the gestural quality of Abstract Expressionism with a contemporary interest in language and registers of meaning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cy Twombly
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Donald Judd
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Andy Warhol
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jasper Johns
Richard Serra
Richard Serra
Richard Serra is an American Process and Minimalist artist. His sculptures have ranged from hurled drips of molten lead to gigantic steel pieces installed in public places.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Richard Serra
Robert Creeley
Robert Creeley
Robert Creeley was an American poet and original member of the Black Mountain poets during the mid-twentieth century. Creeley wrote in what some critics cubbed a "free verse" style, wherein traditional poetic codes and rhythms were largely disregarded. He was the New York Poet Laureate from 1989 to 1991.

Modern Art Information Robert Creeley
Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg was an American poet and writer commonly associated with the mid-twentieth-century Beat poets. A compatriot of writers like Kerouac, Cassady and Burroughs, Ginsberg's most famous work is the 1956 poem "Howl," which he wrote while living in Berkeley, California.

Modern Art Information Allen Ginsberg
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Mark Rothko
Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth was a twentieth-century American artist known for his rural landscapes and figure studies. His realist style is characterized by its compositional balance, high definition, and keen evocation of textural details.

Modern Art Information Andrew Wyeth
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Rembrandt
Rembrandt
Known throughout history simply as Rembrandt, the seventeenth-century Dutch artist is among the premier master painters in Western civilization. Working during the time historians have dubbed the Dutch Golden Age (or the Dutch Baroque period), Rembrandt's art was characterized by his sweeping Biblical narratives, stunning attention to detail, and masterful use of chiaroscuro, the painterly application of light and shadow. In this respect, he remains one of the most influential painters of all time.

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Frank O'Hara
Frank O'Hara
Frank O'Hara was a central figure of the New York School of Poetry. He was also an art critic and curator, and worked at the Museum of Modern Art.

Modern Art Information Frank O'Hara
Art Students League of New York
Art Students League of New York
The League is an artist-founded institution that arose in the post-Civil War years, when many art students became dissatisfied with the lack of quality instruction in the basics of portraiture, sculpture and composition offered by New York art schools. During the Depression years, many young artists who would eventually define the Abstract Expressionist movement spent their formative years studying and teaching at the League.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Art Students League of New York
Philip Guston
Philip Guston
Initially associated with the New York School of abstract art, Guston famously abandoned pure abstraction in the 1950s and turned to figurative art and quasi-abstract cartoon imagery. His later work, for which he is best known, was a major influence on the development of Neo-Expressionism in the U.S.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Philip Guston
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Barnett Newman
Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s, he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Hans Hofmann
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Painting No. 7
Painting No. 7

Title: Painting No. 7 (1952)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Unlike his friends Pollock and de Kooning, Kline never experimented with figurative elements in his mature work. Painting No.7 is a fine example of his black and white pictures. The rigid geometry of broad black lines defines the composition, perhaps manifesting his reconsideration of the iconic paintings of squares by Kazimir Malevich.


Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Chief
Chief

Title: Chief (1950)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Critics' comments on the pictures included in Kline's breakthrough show of 1950 set the pattern for later reviews with their variety of analogies. Chief was the name of a locomotive Kline remembered from his childhood, and it's possible to read the image as a sensory reminiscence of its power, sound and steaming engine. Some also believed that the artist's obsession with black was connected to his childhood spent in a coal-mining community dominated by heavy industry. Many have since noted, however, that the forms in these early abstractions seem to have evolved from Kline's drawings of his wife Elizabeth. He made numerous sketches of her sitting in a rocking chair in the years when she began to succumb to mental illness; the circular forms in Chief bear comparison with the blank circles representing her face in the drawings.


Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Four Square
Four Square

Title: Four Square (1956)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Four Square is another example of Kline's experimentation with angular compositions. Although apparently structured in its compositional rigidness, Four Square is a fine example of his gestural approach to painting. The viewer is led to ponder the canvas, seeing as either a close-up of a linguistic symbol or, perhaps, a set of open windows. In this work Kline is also attempting to construct a three-dimensional abstract composition, whereas most of the Abstract Expressionists preferred the two- dimensional treatment of the pictorial surface. Kline achieves the visual effect of depth through energetic juxtapositions of vertical and horizontal lines and their diagonal overlapping.


Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Meryon
Meryon

Title: Meryon (1960)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Meryon has a strong architectonic sense in its composition. The inspiration was possibly an engraving of a clock tower by the nineteenth-century French artist Charles Meryon. Again, Kline represents not the object itself, but his vision of it. Seemingly spontaneous in its arrangement, this composition was conceived through a number of preliminary studies, shedding a new light on the nature of his gestural technique.


Oil on canvas - Tate Gallery, London

Black Reflection
Black Reflection

Title: Black Reflection (1956)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Black Reflection is an example of Kline's early attempts at introducing color back into his works. The treatment of color in this composition could be related to the contemporary paintings of Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann. The focal point of this picture is the black shape that Kline previously employed in the Untitled composition of 1954. This fact further attests to the careful consideration the Action Painting artists devoted to the pictorial forms in their compositions.


Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Probst I
Probst I

Title: Probst I (1960)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Probst I refers to Jack Probst, a fellow artist who lived near Kline in Greenwich Village. At first glance, this composition is typical of his black and white work. However, more colors are present on this canvas. There are dabs of yellow and pale salmon that illuminate the massiveness of black twisted shapes, creating warm luminous effects. Probst I is an example of Kline's late work where he returned to employing a wider palette.


Oil on canvas - The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Bibliography
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