Franz Kline

Franz Kline

Franz Kline was an American artist, one of prominent painters of Abstract Expressionism.

Early years

Franz Joseph Kline was born on May 23, 1910 in the city of Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania. He was son of a salon-keeper ‑ Anthony, who had German roots (so it comes as no surprise he gave his son such name). Anthony committed suicide and the boy was sent to the Girard College for fatherless boys in Philadelphia when he was only 7 years old. Franz studied there in 1919 – 1925 and after that he entered Lehighton High School. He was a keen football-player, but being immobilized for certain time after accident during the player, the youngster became interested in drawing. He started his career as a cartoonist for his high school newspaper.

In 1931 Franz Kline entered Boston University’s School of Art, from which he graduated in 1935. He tried to continue his training at Boston Art Students’ League, but having little interest in vanguard movements of that time, future artist left for England in 1937, where he entered the Heatherley School of Art – a conservative institution, which met his interest in traditional art and illustration of Victorian period in particular.

Back to America

Klein returned to the USA in 1938 and around 1939 settled in New York. Although New York was one of the major centers of Abstract at that time, the painter remained indifferent to it for certain time and especially praised works of such recognized masters, like Diego Velazquez, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Francisco Goya and Eduard Manet. From them he adopted a specific manner of separate and expressive brushstrokes typical for his figurative compositions of the beginning of 1940s.

A large number of his works of that period are cityscapes, inspired by the Ashcan school, in oil (“Sheridan Square”, 1940) or graphical techniques (“MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village, N.Y.C.”, 1938 – 1939). Franz also tried to earn for living working for a set designer Cleon Throckmorton and making murals in local bars, like “Hot Jazz” (1940) for the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village. The letter, by the way, was a popular meeting place of Abstract Expressionists, like Jackson Pollok and Mark Rothko, with whom Kline would later become acquainted.

The theatrical motif was strong in his portraits, as the master depicted himself as a clown (“Red clown/ Self-portrait”, 1944) and famous Russian ballet-dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in his role of Petrouchka (“Nijinsky as Petrouchka”, 1940). The style of those works was influenced by expressionistic traditions.

He first publicly displayed his work in the Washington Square Outdoor Show in 1939 and then – four years later at the annual exhibition of National Academy of Design.

Adopting Abstract Expressionism

Anyway, it was difficult to remain aside of the newest tendencies staying in New York. Around mid 1940s Franz Kline met Willem de Kooning, whose semi-abstract compositions inspired the author on gradual rejection from figurative language. It could be already seen in “The Dancer” (1946) or “Small Seated Figure” (1947) paintings: the forms are still recognizable, but they’re already geometrized and simplified, with rough black outlining.

Since 1947 the artist practically completely shifted to the abstract language, developing a liberate, gestural handling (“Grey shapes on green”, 1948), though still some quite narrative works were painted in parallel with it (“Woman with cat”, 1948). Kline’s paintings are defined by monumentality and almost calligraphic laconism. In the mid 1940s Franz rendered a number of ink sketches – he felt the nuances of working with that material.

The master transferred the graphical aesthetics on larger formats after de Kooning acquainted him with a picture enlarger Willem used to enhance his works. Franz enlarged the ink drawing of a chair he had made on the page of a telephone book and was stricken with the result – the object vanished, turning into an abstract monochrome image. That experience prompted the author to create a series of black and white abstractions, painted with cheap commercial enamel (“Cardinal”, 1950, “Chief”, 1952). The series was exhibited for the first time in 1950 at the show, held in Charles Egan Gallery in New York.

Despite the impression of spontaneity, which Kline’s works leave at first glance, they were carefully thought-out: the artist made sketches before setting of to work on canvas. Besides, careful examination reveals that the image wasn’t simply black and white – some layers were superimposed, constructing the desired result. Anyway, the element of intuition was always present in Franz’s pieces, as he tried to depict the unconscious process, the subtlest movements of the soul (“Suspended”, 1953, “Accent Grave”, 1955). For sure, such radical changes in the painter’s manner attracted his colleagues attention. Some of them expressed rather skeptical thoughts about it, but Franz Kline like replying with his favorite Louis Armstrong’s quote: “Brother, if you don’t get it, there ain’t no way I can explain it to you”.

Kline’s method of work was close to Pollock’s – for him the aesthetical potential of material was primary (painting surface, texture etc.). In the images like “Painting No. 2” (1954) we can see the proofs of different orientation of the canvas, while it was rendered, so we can claim the painter belonged to the sphere of “action painting”.
Together with Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Adolf Gottlieb Franz Kline was one of the founders of second, post-war wave of vanguard art – Abstract Expressionism. In 1952 he, together with some of those masters, was a professor at Black Mountain College in North Caroline. Just in a year he returned to New York, where taught at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Gaining fame, the author was invited to numerous shows across the USA and participated in Biennales in Venice (1956) and São Paulo (1957)

Last period

Towards the end of 1950s Franz Kline slightly changed the vector of his searches and returned to color in his paintings (“Orange Outline”, 1955). By 1960s the palette became much brighter (“Mycenae”, 1958) and characteristic master’s black and white or pale-yellow backgrounds were replaced with colorful ones( “Blueberry Eyes”, 1960, “Scudera”, 1961).

He died in hospital in New York on May 13, 1962, just 10 days before his 52nd birthday.

His works are presented in various museums of New York (Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, Guggenheim museum), Pittsburgh (Carnegie Museum of Art ) and other collections.