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Friday, September 26, 2014

Franz Kline

Untitled, 1957, Franz Kline
Franz Kline, Self-portrait
If you've ever scratched your head wondering about the incredible, multi-million-dollar prices Christie's Auction House, and others have brought forth for paintings less than a hundred years old, here's another one for your itchy head. Last year, Christie's sold a ten-foot-wide white canvas with giant black brushstrokes, which they expected to bring between $20-million and $30-million. That figure seemed incredibly optimistic in that previously, the artist' best price at auction had been $6.4-million. It wasn't. The untitled painting (above) actually brought $36-million, which means, when the unidentified buyer finished paying Christie's premium, the cost was something like $40.4-million. The work was by the 1950-60s Abstract Expressionist of the New York School, Franz Kline (right).

Palladio, 1961, Franz Kline
Crow Dancer, 1958, Franz Kline, the previous
record holder at auction--$6.4-million
Elite critics refer to Franz Kline as "an artist's artist." I suppose they're right. His work is difficult to like and easy to hate. People have long looked at it in disgust and then labeled the entire Abstract Expressionist movement of the late 1940s and for the next fifteen years as little more than art fraud. They are aghast that anyone would buy it, much less spend record amounts of money for what would appear to them to have been an "accident on canvas." Basically such people simply prove the critics right, Kline's work is such that perhaps only an artist could love it. Having said that, let me also say that, though I'm an artist, I don't "love" Franz Kline. I can, on the other hand, appreciate who he was, and what he did. I am, however, a little embarrassed to admit that for years I had Mark Rothko and Franz Kline confused, attributing in my mind their works to the wrong artist, or simply lumping both their creative efforts into first one or the other's body of works, depending upon which name came to mind at a given moment.
Opustena, ca. 1961, Franz Kline.
Shortly before his death, figural work was starting to become popular again.

Magenta, Black, and Green,
1947, Mark Rothko

For those who might be as confused as I was, let me try to help. Rothko was a color field painter (left). Kline was an action painter, cut from the same cloth as Jackson Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Phillip Guston, and others even less "household" in their names. Color field painters include such names as Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Morris Lewis, Hans Hoffman, and Helen Frankenthaler. The two styles look nothing alike but inasmuch as they both look nothing like any identifiable content (being non-representational) it's easy to see how some people might lump them all together or, at best, like myself, get them confused in their minds. All those listed above, by the way, today bring between six and eight figures at auction. So, if money has an impact as to your art appreciation, pay attention.

Untitled, 1955, Franz Kline
(The original white background has yellowed with age).
Franz Kline is the quintessential "my kid could do that" artist. Ironically most of us would have beat the dickens out of our kids if they'd rendered such works of art on the living room wall. People, the work of all these artists is, for lack of a better term, "museum art." Almost without exception it's huge in scale, ideal for a museum gallery the size of and eight-car garage, but not likely to fit "over the couch." However, the people paying six to eight figures for such home decor essentially live in museums, homes bigger than some museums, in fact, often with living rooms bigger than some art galleries. Although I'd proudly hang any of their works in my own home, Kline would not be easy to live with. Kline is what I'd term a "slash and burn" painter, his bold, black on white canvases as refreshing as a slap in the face with alcohol-laden aftershave, but nonetheless, a slap in the face.

Meditating on Rothko--the Mark Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas.
A 1950s Kline phone book
preliminary study.
Jackson Pollock's work is exquisitely beautiful, especially up close and far back. Rothko is quiet, meditative, he even has his own chapel (above) in Houston, Texas. Kline, on the other hand, is like watching a barroom brawl when you're way too drunk to participate. His work appears haphazard. Each painting gives the impression of having taken fifteen minutes, and projecting the mental image of his turning them out at a rate of fifteen a day. In fact, Kline's work is so well thought out, for each painting, he often made hundreds of "dry" runs utilizing the pages of old telephone books (right), back in the days before smartphones. In fact, Willem de Kooning is said to have introduced Kline too his mature style (he wasn't always an abstractionist) by encouraging him to use an opaque projector, projecting a representational sketch onto a canvas, but doing so with the image out of focus, then boldly painting in the dark areas. His self-portrait (top, right) was created in that manner, though the image was likely more in than out of focus.

Untitled, 1957, Franz Kline

Zinc Yellow, 1959, Franz Kline. The title
suggests a yearning for reunification with color.
Kline was part of the 1950 graduating class of the New York School, the first and most authentic wave Abstract Expressionist painters comprising most of the "who's who" listed above. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1910, the man was forty years old before he "made it" as an artist. And of course, his work did not start selling for $40-million during his lifetime (he died in 1962 of heart disease). In fact, of all the "class of 1950," his work, along with that of Clyfford Still, was among the last to begin selling for exorbitant prices. It took some fifty years for that to happen. Even though the artist "made his mark" abusing white canvases by slopping around blacks (I know, that sounds racist, but it's not meant that way), the final years of his life he struggled to once more embrace color. The problem was, in doing so, his work looked much like dozens (perhaps hundreds) of other New York School painters, the only difference being the name scrawled on the back.

Franz Kline hits the runway as an inspiration for Tim Coppens', 2013 fall collection

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