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Le Gros, 1961
An American Exception
by Will Hubbard
The great American art critic Clement Greenberg always included Franz Kline on his list of “American-Type” painters. However, Kline’s membership in this group was not self-evident in the early 1950s when the artist had only just begun producing his striking oversized pictures rendered primarily in thick black lines and complimentary white polygons.
On the contrary, reviews of Kline’s first two one-man shows at midtown Manhattan’s Charles Egan Gallery tended almost uniformly to claim, for better or for worse, that the paintings were, in the words of one critic, “magnified improvisations of the signs and symbols found in Chinese and Japanese writing and painting.”
The calligraphic quality of Kline’s early mature work required Greenberg—at the time attempting to declaim Abstract Expressionism the first purely American pictorial art—to reinterpret Kline in a way that did not simply transfer laurels from Europe to Asia, but rather located the startling effect of Kline’s black lines in something essentially American.
Given that many of Kline’s early sketches were done with black ink on rice paper—the very materials used by classical Chinese painters and calligraphers for centuries—this identification would prove to be an uphill battle.
Compounding the futility of denying Kline’s Eastern influence was the fact that many of his early large-scale canvasses present ideographs in the most elemental sense—symbols that offer both lexical and representational meaning. Cardinal (1950), for example, cannot be viewed as purely gestural abstraction for two very important reasons.
First, the painting’s various black strokes can, if viewed from certain angles, come to resemble the very figure of a bird that the title indicates.
More clear, and more interesting perhaps, is that fact that every letter of the word ‘cardinal’ can be deciphered easily within the various cross-hatches of Kline’s painting.
By 1962, Kline himself began distancing himself from the ideographic quality of some of his early canvasses, stating that “in the first place [Eastern] calligraphy is writing, and I’m not writing.” But in Cardinal, and in several other early black and white works, Kline’s inky shapes on traditional white backgrounds had lexical meaning that went beyond both the purely gestural/emotional suggestion of Pollock’s splatter paintings and the value-muffled metaphysics of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Dark over Light)
Many critics agreed with Greenberg’s view of the progression from Cubism to more abstract modes as a “loosening up [of] the relatively delimited illusion of shallow depth”—that is, a move toward surface and the process by which surface is altered to create meaning that is both depth-less and non-representational.
But even cursory attention to Kline’s post-1952 canvasses reveals that these qualities of non-illusion and surface-ness do not aptly characterize Kline as a painter.
Four Square, 1953
Four Square (1953), for example, may on first glance resemble a straightforward arrangement of four black columns on a white background. Upon closer examination, however, we notice Kline’s very curious use of white paint in a positive role, and in various places in the painting—most importantly along the black/white borders—it is difficult if not impossible to determine which hue has been painted first.
The result is an unmistakable illusion—the picture consists not of four black bands upon a white background, but rather three irregular white objects arranged on a black background.
Because we cannot tell which description of the painting is correct—black on white or white on black—an uncanny effect prevails that obscures both our interpretation of the painted objects and also the very process by which Kline conceived the work.
Jackson Pollock, Enchanted Forest, 1947
A fruitful contrast can be drawn to Pollock’s black and white splatter paintings—1947’s Enchanted Forest, for example—in which both the painting’s objects and the process by which Pollock conceived them are immediately apparent. It is difficult to say of Pollock that he uses a color or hue of paint positively or negatively, as one round of splatter seems to cover but not engage directly with previous or subsequent rounds; it is easier to trace a chronology of color application represented by the successive layers of colors lain out on top of one another.
Though Enchanted Forest lacks visual depth, it presents a chronological depth that is the very definition of Greenberg’s foregrounded, non-illusionistic, “American-Type” approach.
As Kline’s style continued to mature in the latter part of the decade, the illusionistic qualities that put him at odds with Greenberg’s definition of Abstract Expressionism only intensified. Perhaps most interesting in this respect is Cupola, a painting Kline conceived in 1958, which resembles a matrix of receding and projecting shapes. Positive uses of white tend to background adjacent black shapes, while elsewhere these same black shapes used positively background instances of white. The overall effect is, unlike Pollock’s clear chronological process, a highly illusionistic image that boasts an almost holographic depth.
Unfortunately, Greenberg’s seeming monopoly on Abstract Expressionist criticism, combined with his stubborn unwillingness to interpret Kline as an exception to the rule of “surface”, has caused the complexities of Kline’s black and white paintings to be largely ignored.
It is one thing to stand in front of an enormous Kline—as one might a Rothko or Newman—expecting and perhaps feeling a ‘metaphysical’ connection to the shapes staring down from the ‘flat’ surface. It is quite another to look closely at the subtle layering of a Kline and experience the uncanny presence of the black and white shapes as they move at you and away.
portrait of the artist as a young boy
GIVE WH SOME GOOD VIBRATIONS
“God Only Knows” – The Beach Boys (mp3)
“The Little Girl I Once Knew (45 version)” – The Beach Boys (mp3)
“Hang On To Your Ego (Alternate Version)” – The Beach Boys (mp3)
“Heroes and Villains (Alternate Version)” – The Beach Boys (mp3)
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Molly explored the fifties TV angle.
We gave you a lil’ mixtape.
When you’re with me, I’m free.
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