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Franz Kline: An Abstractionist Approach of Exploring Sub Conscious

Abhishek Dixit 

Franz Kline’s origins lay in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a town that revolved around coal mining and provided little chance for creative nurturing. As a prominent figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement after World War II, he established himself as a talented American artist. Due to a challenging association with his guardians, his formative years were marred. Franz Kline was such a skilled painter that he could have dedicated his whole life to exploring the intricacies of the hidden mind. Kline experienced a great deal of suffering in his formative years. Franz’s father passed away when he was just a young child, and subsequently, his mother left him at an orphanage and remarried soon after. Subsequently, Franz’s spouse experienced frequent episodes of mental illness and had to stay in mental healthcare facilities on numerous occasions. In the 1940s, with the world in a state of existential unrest, Kline’s personal challenges uniquely positioned him as a fitting advocate for the emerging notions of subconscious and mystical enlightenment within the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Franz Kline. Courtesy: Wikipedia

From 1931 to 1935, Kline pursued his studies at Boston University before attending the Heatherley School of Art in London from 1937 to 1938. He ultimately made New York City his home in 1938. In his early days, he painted in a style that blended Cubism with social realism, portraying real-life subjects. In 1949, he came to the realization that his black-and-white sketches could be transformed into powerful, abstract pieces when he saw them magnified by a projector. Without delay, he started to cultivate a distinctive and individualized version of Abstract Expressionism, which involves producing abstract designs that reflect the artist’s mental and emotional states through a spontaneous process.

White Forms, 1955. Courtesy: MoMA

Like many artists of his time, Kline first received instruction in the traditional style of painting, which emphasized the realistic depiction of human figures. In his initial pieces, he demonstrated an exceptional understanding of formal methods and a remarkable flair for sketching. He began to focus on abstraction after becoming close with artists affiliated with the New York School, including notable figures like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Hans Hoffman, and Philip Guston. With their sway, Kline sharpened his concentration by delving into the characteristics of brush movements in expansive action-oriented paintings that embraced a minimalist colour palette of black and white. Though his earlier pieces leaned towards the figurative, a perusal of works such as Puppet in the Paint Box still evinces traces of the brushstrokes and unbridled command of composition and colour that would ultimately stamp his abstract style as iconic.

Painting number 2, 1954. Courtesy: MoMA

In a remarkably brief span of time, he became proficient in the new technique and created exceptional works like Nijinsky (Petrushka). He utilized affordable paints available in the market and utilized big painter’s brushes to develop organized networks of black-painted bars on white backgrounds. These bars were crude in texture but had a regulated appearance. Additionally, he created favourable shapes from both the black markings and the white areas. Works of art like Mahoning (1956) are typical of enormous proportions, creating an overall impression of grandeur and mightiness. Kline incorporated shades into his artworks during the latter part of the 1950s. Prior to his demise, his artistic output took a novel course featuring massive, well-proportioned structures characterized by their strikingly straightforward and refined design.

Kline’s association with Abstract Expressionism came later in comparison to his contemporaries, as he persisted with a style featuring figurative elements reminiscent of American Scene artists until the late 1940s. At that point, his attention was directed towards formal matters, and his relationship with Willem de Kooning assisted in facilitating this shift. In an attempt to venture away from the use of symbolic depiction, Kline utilized a Bell-Opticon enlarger, located in de Kooning’s studio, to project his diminutive drawings onto a substantial scale. This inventive technique led to the emergence of abstract art. He gained recognition for his abstract artwork in the late 1950s, which quickly propelled him to success. Extensive monochromatic art pieces depict lively and compelling movements, with broad strokes of paint stretching over the surface of the canvas. Despite being completely abstract, many people still see figurative resemblances in these works, such as landscapes, urban scenes of industry, trees, or other subjects. Kline admitted the persistence of symbolic representation in his work, saying that he perceives some shapes as representing something concrete, and is content if they eventually transform into a clear image. 

In-text plate from 21 Etchings and Poems, Franz Kline with Frank O’Hara, 1960

Courtesy: MoMA

In 1956, Kline once again incorporated hues into his works. It is possible that the vividly coloured small artwork called Black Reflections is connected to a previous piece that was in black and white. The seemingly impulsive and dramatic brushstrokes in Kline’s work are actually the result of deep consideration and calculation. The deliberate and thoughtful strokes of thick and thin paint result from deep contemplation. He frequently gained ideas for extensive artworks from minor sketches, and he also persisted in investigating fundamental components of his creations even long after their initial realization. The main black form in this instance bears a resemblance to the black and white untitled artwork from 1954, as it is a mirrored likeness of the shape present in that painting.

Despite being affiliated with the original Abstract Expressionist painters from the New York School, Kline’s collection diverges from theirs in a distinct and crucial manner, yet they remain friends to this day. Although many Abstract Expressionists focused on exploring their own emotions and subconscious in order to create deeply personal works with hidden meanings, Kline instead chose to emphasize the formal aspects of painting, including paint, brushstrokes, composition, and colour.

Le Gros, 1961. Courtesy: MoMA

For a considerable amount of time, critics have discussed the potential influence of Japanese calligraphy on Kline’s black and white paintings. Initially proposed in critiques of his groundbreaking 1950 production was the recommendation. The artist rejected the notion and instead asserted that his creative ideas emanated from the depths of his subconscious mind. When questioned about the significance of his creation, he declined to articulate it, expressing his desire for the spectators to experience the impact of the arrangement without any influence. The emphasis was placed by him on the non-representational nature of the artwork and the significance of the “painting experience”. Critics like Clement Greenberg backed this idea by stressing the importance of abstract form in art over the discourse around its sources or content. Kline set himself apart from his peers, namely Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, whose artwork conveyed a desire for surpassing limitations. Despite his gestural technique possibly making him appear similar to de Kooning, Kline had a greater focus on the individual gesture itself rather than expressing wild emotions.

Untitled (Study for Mahoning II), 1960. Courtesy: MoMA

He utilized the gestural painting approach created by other Abstract Expressionists and adapted it to forge his own unique and dynamic physical style. Kline’s iconic action paintings did not contain any mysticism or concealed message. Additionally, Kline’s artistic arrangements were not impulsive and intuitive like Pollock’s creations, but were preconceived and often meticulously outlined on pages from outdated telephone directories.

Kline’s approach was not focused on interpreting or examining the substance of his creations. Instead, he urged people to engage with the physical forms and patterns directly, without seeking significance or interpretation, and appreciate the aesthetic properties of the artwork. The focus of these creations was solely on the unique visual appeal of his distinctive brushwork and the empty space surrounding it. Kline believed that by recognizing the formal qualities of the artwork, one could fully grasp its emotional power, emphasizing its significance over everything else. His unique personal aesthetic acted as a connection between the Abstract Expressionists’ mysticism and the Minimalists’ formal approach.

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