Abstract Expressionist paintings can be deceiving. Many in the general public only see a few lines on a canvas and then assume that producing non-representational art can’t be all that hard. Franz Kline’s work is often included in discussions of the relative difficulty of producing abstract art. His most famous paintings consist of a few bold, black brush strokes on a white background, and their simplicity belies the depth of expression of the moods and life experiences that inspired them.
Franz was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a small, somewhat bleak coal-mining town. His parents were modest people. His father, a barkeeper, committed suicide when Franz was only seven. His mother eventually remarried, but still sent sent Franz to an institution for fatherless boys. He attended the Boston School of Art, eventually moving on to The Heatherley School of Art in London England. It’s here that Franz met his future wife, Elizabeth Parsons.
Facing Many Challenges
After moving back to London, his first few years in New York were rather difficult. His wife Elizabeth eventually suffered a mental breakdown and ended up spending time in institutions trying to get help. Work was not easy to come by either, on the heels of the Depression and with war looming in Europe, so Franz was forced to take on odd jobs painting murals in restaurants, and went back to his roots by selling illustrations to magazines.
It wasn’t until the mid to late 40’s after spending time with the likes of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Phillip Guston that he started to move away from realism and into the world of abstract art. Originally Kline started out doing sketches in black and white on paper. Eventually, he brought his medium to a much larger scale, and incorporated house painting brushes to create his works.
A Journey Through Artistic Styles
In many ways, Kline’s artistic journey is a template of the entire procession of styles that eventually produced Abstract Expressionism. First came illustration, but with exaggerated themes. Then comes a representational, fine art period, which in Kline’s case was exemplified by his proto-abstract paintings that fit in with Ashcan School painters like George Bellows. Kline kept pushing past realism in any form, however, and eventually began to produce bold, black and white canvases that were pure fusions of calligraphic strokes and powerful allusions to the snow and coal of his youth.
Kline’s unique style of black-white creations is what made his art become more and more popular. What makes Kline’s black and white works so special is that they don’t just consist of black and white strokes, many have described them as violent or aggressive, black brushstrokes on simple white canvases. The two color elements are essential to each other’s existence.
“I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important.” – Franz Kline
His technique was well thought out and rather than focusing on the white areas of the canvas as “negative space”, he painted it in an alternating order with equal consideration. Kline would often paint replicates of his work on post card-sized pieces of newspaper, re-working each gesture until he could achieve what he believed to be a perfect balance.
Back to Color
Towards the end of his career, Kline eventually moved away from black and white and began experimenting with color. Not only did his palette change, but the strokes became less obvious, causing some of his later pieces to seem more monochromatic than anything else. His work was eventually commissioned by the US government during the Cold War in an effort to portray the United States as a land of free expression.
At the age of 52, Franz died rather unexpectedly from heart failure. After his passing, his work remained mostly unnoticed until the 1980’s, when the stock market boom in the United States attracted buyers who were looking for ways to invest in art. Kline’s work became some of the hottest canvases on the auction block, with one piece fetching an astonishing $36 million.
Life in the City From Another Angle
Los Angeles abstract artist Diana Hobson conveys the same kind of insight into life in the city with her work That’s New York. It’s more exuberant than Kline’s black and white work, but the large, block areas of black, steel, and verdigris hint at a city that’s always poised between decay and rebirth. The vibrant red, gold, and blue shapes show the dazzling, energetic life that makes the city an electrifying urban oasis instead of a canyon of steel and stone.
Both Franz Kline and Los Angeles abstract artist Diana Hobson work hard on their canvases to give the impression of a natural and immediate reaction to life as they find it. In order to get the full benefit from viewing these important abstract artists’ works, it’s important for observers to understand exactly how difficult it is to make it look so easy.
Meryon, by Franz Kline, courtesy of the Tate Gallery in New York City, New York.
That’s New York, by Diana Hobson, used with permission of the artist.