Beyond Black and White

Franz Kline's abstractions weave together powerful, yet often subtle contrasts

The late composer John Cage told the story in ``Silence'' of how Franz Kline (1910-62) invited his mother to a show of his black-and-white abstract paintings in the early 1950s. After surveying the work, she told him, ``Franz, I might have known you'd find the easy way.''

Which just goes to show mothers don't know everything.

The current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art of Kline's work from the last decade of his life, titled ``Franz Kline: Black & White, 1950-1961,'' is easy only in the sense that Kline is operating at the top of his form.

Although he was the last of the Abstract Expressionists to find his classic style, Kline was a pioneer like his peers Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still.

These 28 black-and-white paintings and 17 works on paper are as groundbreaking in their way as Pollock's galaxies of swirling paint and de Kooning's welter of brush strokes.

Kline seems to combine elements from his two friends' styles. ``Pittston'' (1958) fuses de Kooning's broad slashing strokes with Pollock's dynamic ``alloverness,'' in which the paint seems to streak off the edges of the canvas.

Other influences are evident in an early work like ``Ninth Street'' (1951). Here, the glyphs form an illegible calligraphy, like Bradley Walker Tomlin's runic lines. Still's influence shines through in Kline's lyrical ``Abstraction'' (c. 1950-51), where the swishes and sweeps of Kline's house painter's brush fail to conceal glints of gold paint.

``If you're a painter, you're not alone,'' Franz Kline once said. He meant that each painter was a vital link in the continuum of art. One sees hints of his kinship to earlier painters in the Western tradition like J.M.W. Turner. In ``Untitled'' (1954), speeding vectors of black paint seem to zoom across the white field of paint like the blurred train in Turner's 1844 painting ``Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway.''

The analogy is not so far-fetched when one considers how Kline, whose stepfather was a railroad foreman, loved trains, bridges, and fast cars like his black Thunderbird and Ferrari. ``Lehigh'' (1956), named after his high school in the coal-mining region of eastern Pennsylvania, is a jumble of irregular black bands that seem, like oil, to jet from subterranean depths in a gusher of force.

Kline's wife, Elizabeth, said he was ``a composite of contradictions.'' This yoking of opposites is what comes across most vividly in his paintings. Not just the dramatic contrast of black versus white, but conceptual counter-currents like order and chaos. In ``Black Sienna'' (1960), an amorphous wedge floats above a frantic mishmash of lines reminiscent of Adolph Gottlieb's ``burst'' paintings. The top of this Kline canvas seems stable as a Gregorian chant, while the bottom zigzags like be-bop.

A clear illustration of Kline's subversive tendencies is ``Painting No. 11'' (1951) - a gridlike arrangement of black lines resembling a stick-figure table. Not for nothing was Kline's early work compared to ``melted Mondrians.'' Geometry represented logic and control for Piet Mondrian. Kline, by contrast, delights in throwing it out of whack.

In ``Wotan'' (1950), the top bar of a bare black square juts beyond the corner, breaking the symmetry. In Kline's mature work, tight linear organization is undermined by smudges of white paint that erode, efface, and knock boundary lines askew.

As Kline put it, ``ways of disorganizing can be a form of organization, you know.''

Kline is at his best when his fractured structure is most evident - when the black webbing unravels on thick white paint that acts as a contentious, positive force rather than merely a void. When he loses this underpinning, as in ``Requiem'' (1958), the work loses momentum. In this painting, the structure is swallowed up in a miasma of black and gray, like black smoke spewing from a pile of burning tires.

``Untitled'' (1957) demonstrates the collision of horizontal bands with thrusting diagonals that splinter the geometric order. ``Mahoning'' consists of black lines like pilings of a pier stretching over an icy lake. Its zest comes from the latent impression of crackup.

Although he claimed to eschew symbolism in his abstractions, Kline's paintings are an apt metaphor for the jittery postwar world. They capture the power, speed, and brutality of the modern city. They also express the contending forces of expansion and entropy.

Edgy, hypnotic, and brilliant as the artist who produced them, the works demonstrate the truth of Kline's claim that ``if you meant it enough when you did it, it will mean that much.''

* The Franz Kline exhibit will be at the Whitney Museum until March 12, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, March 25 - June 4.

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