Mahoning by Franz Kline

“I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important.” – Franz Kline

There are some paintings that make the viewer remark “What is so special about that? Anybody can do that!” At first glance, Franz Kline’s Abstract Expressionist paintings may invoke just that response. After all, what is this painting but a few black brush marks on white background? East enough for a child to do, you’d say…

In 1955 Kline said:

“Since 1949… I’ve been working mainly in black and white paint or ink on paper. Previous to this I planned painting compositions with brush and ink using figurative forms and actual objects with color. The first work in only black and white seemed related to figures, and I titled them as such. Later the results seemed to signify something – but difficult to give subject or name to, and at present I find it impossible to make a direct, verbal statement about the paintings in black and white.”

What started out as a career in illustration soon became a pioneering vision in Abstract Expressionism after Franz Kline saw enlarged images of his work on a Bell-Opticon opaque projector at Willem de Kooning’s studio. Elaine de Kooning recalled this event as happening in either 1948 or 1949. Elaine would credit Kline’s introduction to the projector as causing a “total instantaneous conversion to abstraction” by Kline and a complete change in his style in painting from figurative or semi-abstract work to full abstraction.

What makes Kline’s black and white works so special is that they don’t just consist of, some even call them violent, aggressive, black brushstrokes on white canvases. The two elements are essential to each other’s existence. Rather than focusing on the white areas as the “negative space”, he painted them in alternating order with equal consideration. Kline would judiciously create small scale studies for each of his final paintings on canvas. He would often paint them on post card-sized pieces of newspaper, working and re-working each gesture to achieve perfect balance. Then, once the composition was finished Kline projected it onto a large canvas and repeated the process, with all its intensity.

It is this visionary new language and the reduction of a palette to its basic components – black and white – that made Franz Kline’s forceful and confident paintings revolutionary, and the artist – one of the great masters of Abstract Expressionism.

This painting is in the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Did you know, that not unlike another great Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline painted with regular household paints?

Image ©Franz Kline. Image Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of Art. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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