Franz Kline, a key figure of abstract expressionism and well known for his black and white paintings, made a powerful contribution to the avant-garde movement. Born in Pennsylvania in 1910, Kline developed an interest in illustration during high school and continued his education as a draftsman at Boston University from 1931 to 1935. He continued his studies in London, returning to the United States in 1939. Kline moved to New York, where his career was made. His early mastery of drawing, including caricature, attuned him to the abstract essence of line. Working in oil, Kline’s style developed from figurative and representational works to emblematic and calligraphic compositions where forms became rapidly brushed marks. The ambiance of New York inspired Kline; his sketches, oils, and murals painted in 1940 for the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village (a popular meeting place for the Abstract Expressionists) reveal his interest in seeking a pictorial equivalent to the dynamic rhythms of the city in fast, energetic, broad brushstrokes.
A close observer of the painting of Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, in 1946 Kline began to generalize his subjects, creating compositions that emphasized calligraphic line. Studies in ink on paper reinforced the artist’s taste for a palette reduced to black and white. When his friend de Kooning enlarged these sketches with the aid of a Bell-Opticon projector in 1948, it allowed Kline to see the strokes blown-up into powerful abstract gestures. This affirmed his awareness of the dramatic and expressive potential of the sketch—but one designed in a monumental scale. Using a limited palette of black in thick, rugged lines painted with large housepainter’s brushes on white ground, Kline arrived at his signature style in 1950. In this same year, Kline secured his first one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, displaying works with massive black brushstrokes in bold bands and wedges, dominating the large white canvases. While some critics believed Kline’s black grid patterns were magnified improvisations of signs and symbols found in oriental calligraphy, the artist denied any influence of the Orient in the development of his abstractions and emphasized his fascination with the urban beauty of New York. While Kline is identified primarily with his black and white works, he was a distinctive colorist as well; the black and white post-war years gave way to explorations in color. Kline’s works played a major part in defining abstract expressionism, and the success of his mature style influenced many second-generation abstract expressionists.
During the 1950s Kline taught at a number of institutions including Black Mountain College in North Carolina and The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In 1958 he was included in The Museum of Modern Art’s major exhibition, ‘The New American Painting,’ which toured eight European cities. His work is part of significant public and private collections in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan. While Kline’s tragically premature death from a rheumatic heart condition in 1962 left the direction of his artistic vision uncertain, he remains an acknowledged master of abstract expressionism.