Black and White World

Franz Kline liked beer at the Cedar Bar and English tea in the studio. He could play the dandy or the clown, talk about rugs, vintage cars, Gericault's horses and baseball. He loved jazz and Wagner. He was a confirmed New Yorker, but had roots in the gritty coal country of Pennsylvania. He was endowed with a sense of humor, but also possessed one of the most acute painting intelligences of the modern art world. He also believed all artists are lonely.

Along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Kline helped create the first monumental American style of international importance: abstract expressionism. But Kline distinguished himself from his peers by doing no surrealist fantasy and no social commentary. Rather, he was interested in a thing's being itself -- simply so, and at its full extent.

Kline died in 1962 at age 51; he was still in his prime, having gone through 20 years of apprenticeship and struggle from cartoonist/illustrator to Greenwich Village sketch artist and genre painter to action painter par excellence. Yet sometime around 1950 he arrived finally, and abruptly, at his classic black-and-white distillation. Whatever blew the lid off -- a timely combination of wham-bang paint handling, an off-contour quickening of line that presented gesture itself as subject, the suggestion of de Kooning that Kline employ an opaque projector to enlarge a tiny drawing of a chair -- Kline's mature efflorescence marked a giant shift from incidental perception to a wide-open view. The scaled-up focus on masses and speeds gave Kline his world, to the surface of which he fitted space and light, power and emotion. As one critic noted years ago, Kline didn't withdraw into that world, but brought it forward into the observable part around him, to let it be, according to Kline, "part of the noise."

Now, for the first time, Kline's black-and-white abstractions -- some 35 paintings and 15 works on paper in which constructed forms, changing velocity of gestures and abrupt transition from dark to light show his responses to the restlessness of city life -- have been brought together in an exhibit at the Menil. Seeing these works en masse is an invaluable experience. In his lifetime, Kline always showed the black and whites intermixed with his color paintings, as if to cancel out the differences. Yet his color abstractions are not particularly visible in public collections, and many museums seem to feel that one black-and-white Kline is adequate for all of Kline.

Fortunately, this exhibition provides an opportunity to see Kline's true range and magnitude, his largeness of spirit and seriousness -- even his melancholy. Significantly, the Kline that emerges is often different from the artist we think we know. Part of this slippage has to do with his work's mutability factor. Unconcerned with permanency, Kline used non-durable house paints for many of his large paintings, as well as telephone book pages and fugitive inks for a number of his drawings and collages. As a result, surfaces have cracked, whites yellowed and bonded layers pulled apart.

Some paintings, once intensely black, have aged with a flat, hazy appearance. Yet much of the present impact of works such as Painting No. 11 comes from those very shifts in the saturation of black-and-white pigments, which create a resemblance to aged limestone. Kline's works are painting experiences in which the discovery of the dynamic character of boundaries often verges on precariousness. Perhaps his paintings lead material lives that exceed our certainties of them.

But if Kline appeared to be operating near the edge of acceptable conventions, his instantly recognizable style also invited stereotyping. One could easily imagine that Kline, like Pollock and de Kooning, painted as if his life depended upon it, with no time to revise or ruminate. Surely, all three lived by risk. Each was committed to energy as expressive content and each worked, between revisions, with extraordinary speed.

Yet there are essential differences between Kline on the one hand and Pollock and de Kooning on the other, which the exhibition helps to clarify. Up until the mid-'50s, Pollock and de Kooning created a surface-wide, indeterminate matrix in which lines sink, lose focus, disappear and then reemerge unscathed. Conversely, Kline is always deliberately, instinctively clear, even to the extent of suggesting an object-like contour in each painting. There's a sense of seeing a black thing, a specific presence, while at the same time reading each large, expressive stroke as a self-sufficient gesture. Kline's talent for congealing massive and dramatic wholes out of compelling parts separates his work from other abstract expressionists. An abiding clarity also applied to titles, which run to the names of specific people, places and things (Elizabeth, Lehigh, Slate Cross). It denotes, as well, a particular artistic ancestry that places the works within a baroque-constructivist temperament, something akin to "melted" Mondrians. Looking at works such as Wotan or Painting No. 2, one understands immediately how the precise and reductive works of Mondrian or Malevich must have affected Kline. Even so, the coordinates of Kline's world emerge as contradictory impulses. They clash and cancel out, creating something more ambivalent. There is hardly a single painting in the exhibition that fails to imply an attack upon a latent idea of order, nor is there one whose equilibrium is not jeopardized.

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