Black and White World

Even as Kline's paintings suggest a choreography of movements across the surface, they also allow plenty of noise. For Kline was independently devoted to the development of a contemporary black-and-white painting that has no intervening middle tones. It is an art of opposite weights and absolute contrast. Standing amid Kline's abstractions of bridges and half-constructed or demolished skyscrapers, who cannot be moved by his sense of push and thrust? One artist spoke of Kline's great black bars as having the tension of a taut bow, or a ready catapult.

But for many viewers, Kline remains the supreme romanticist, an artist whose expansive warmth and connection to life is wholly revealed in the slashing strokes of the turbulently brushed and often labyrinthine late works. Kline's ability to manifest directly the energy inherent in the materials -- literally, the physical manipulation of painting itself -- stems from an uncluttered directness of perception. Characterized by blunted geometry and lavish density that seemingly collapse space into two dimensions, the black-and-white works fairly hit viewers full in the face.

Some paintings are sparse, open and confrontational; others, such as Mahoney II and Requiem, are more like towering walls of darkness or obstacles blocking our vision. All of them seem to arrive with the speed of a collision, ending either in a weighty, head-on blow or in configurations that resemble tangled shards of debris. Indeed, one's first reaction to the show as a whole may be to its extreme rawness, which is caused by Kline's explosive paint handling. Each gesture seems to have two qualities simultaneously: it's rough and muscular, yet it is precisely intended and specifically structural. Gesture creates a scarious surface that is both sensuous and disturbing, impetuous and emotional, calculated and astute.

And Kline's line -- there's nothing quite like it, which is why viewers see all things in it. The dark strokes tower, bevel, loop and dart. But most of the time they span; thus the perception of them as bridges and roads. Moreover, Kline had the rare ability to maintain the energy and inventive integrity of a drawing in an enlarged image, and vice versa. Curiously, the small works on paper are as strong as the huge paintings, a rare mastery in a period concerned with the power of the mega-visual. As in the intimate drawings of Paul Klee, the gesture, with its display of pure form, carries the message.

But while the gesture may suggest sources of Oriental calligraphy to some, Kline's line actually evolved from his own drawing process. Like consonants and vowels, black and white perform specific tasks. Two blacks in the same passage are distinct and different, producing a shade rather than a third color. Throughout, the blacks and whites look considered rather than impulsive. The lines corroborate the surface tautness, much as their angles reaffirm the angles of the perimeter. Carried over in the human scale and the invitation to close viewing and envelopment is the sense these paintings give of being seen. Each gesture, each nuance and final decision, was an episode in a dialogue with the canvas -- a dialogue in which the eye faced and took in the visible facts of paint and canvas and the spatial readings built into them. As such, they are close to a figurative tradition. Not, obviously, in terms of subject or compositional hierarchies, but in terms of spaces filled with seen forms. We are conscious of Kline constantly locating himself -- and ourselves -- within a grid in which a lifeline crosses, so to speak, with the traditions of art. If anything, Kline's paintings take hold of us because they acknowledge that the body is intact, whole, energetic, responsive, alive.

This exhibition makes a case for Kline's black-and-white abstractions as seminal influences for entire generations of artists. For Kline, the traditional criteria of wholeness and balance have meaning only as qualities at work in the face of opposite forces -- fragmentation, collapse, chaos. It's precisely this quality of desperation that gives Kline's work its continued resonance and attracts younger generations of artists some four decades later. Like their predecessors, they seem inspired, even awed, by an artist who aimed to recreate the very terms of vision.

"Franz Kline: Black and White" will show through November 27 at The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400.

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