Franz Kline (1910-1962), American painter, was one of the foremost abstract expressionists. His best-known works are large calligraphic paintings.

Franz Kline was born to an immigrant family living in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Following high school, Kline studied art at Boston University from 1931 to 1935, then spent a year at an art school in London. Upon his return to the United States, he worked for a brief period as a designer for a department store in Buffalo, N.Y. Then he moved to New York City, where in 1939 his work was "discovered" at an outdoor exhibition in Washington Square. He worked in 1940 for a scenic designer.

Kline developed into a significant artist during the 1940s. This growth was partially determined by his move from subject-oriented to nonrepresentational canvases. Sheridan Square (1940) suggests Kline's affinity with the treatment of cityscape found in works by painters in the group known as "The Eight" (sometimes called the Ashcan school), although Kline already shows considerable freedom in his application of pigment. His paintings of the mid-1940s include numerous landscapes of the Pennsylvania countryside.

Two works of 1946, Self-portrait Sketch and Studio Interior, are transitional pieces showing Kline's experimentation with a more direct, expressionist palette. The contrast between lights and darks is heightened, and greater liberties are taken in the degree of abstraction. Also in 1946 Kline took a further step toward abstraction in The Dancer. Here the subject is reduced to a series of abstract planar shapes suggestive of cubism. By 1947 Kline had achieved a true freedom from subject matter and was pushing large, curving black lines across the picture space.

In 1950 Kline had his first one-man show in New York. In his monumental Chief (1950) only the title suggests its connection with the train to which it refers. Instead, Kline seems to have embodied an expressive visual analog for the power and intensity associated with the subject. Although Kline's paintings look spontaneous, his black-and-white compositions are controlled and thoughtful presences that carefully merge positive and negative space to the picture plane.

Kline restricted himself to black and white for several years, and these paintings are distinguished by the differences that a line suggests when it is varied in attitude, thickness, or amount of pigment used. Thus, The Bridge (1955), although restrictive in palette, is distinctive in message because of its vertical orientation, the variation of line, and the playing off of dripped portions against white ground with black-and-black overlays. The variations on these charged gestures widened in the late 1950s, as Kline included other colors—dark greens, blues, purples, and reds. Orange and Black Wall (1959) shows clearly how the spatial relationships are affected by the introduction of color. No longer held to the picture plane, the figure and background relationships intertwine and merge with each other. Yet his introduction of color did not rule out a return to black and white. Riverbed and Caboose (both 1961) have the black-and-white theme.

Kline taught at Black Mountain College (1952), Pratt Institute (1953), and the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (1954). He died on May 13, 1962.

Further Reading on Franz Kline

One of the most useful books on Kline for biography and illustrations is John Gordon, Franz Kline, 1910-1962 (1969). More critical interpretations of Kline's paintings can be found in Robert Goldwater's "Introduction" to the catalog for the Kline exhibition held at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery (New York) in March 1967, and in the illuminating essay by Jules Langsner entitled "Franz Kline, Calligraphy and Information Theory" included in the catalog of the Dwan Gallery (Los Angeles) exhibition of Kline's work held in March 1963.

Additional Biography Sources

Gaugh, Harry F., Franz Kline: Cincinnati Art Museum, New York: Abbeville Press, 1996?, 1985.