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.
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.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events