Franz Kline

By Matt Carey-Williams, London   


A Franz Kline brushstroke is like a racehorse at full speed. His fluid, dynamic marks positively gallop across his canvas, simultaneously epitomising the energy and vitality of his abstract gesture, whilst still affording a scaffolding of structure and meaning. Kline arrived at his mature meditations of black on white in the late 1940’s. He was inspired by the de Koonings who suggested he break through something of a creative lull by experimenting with a Bell-Optican projector.

Amplified details of objects were projected on to his studio wall and Kline painted over them in these daring, brutal strokes of black. He never looked back and only a handful of his paintings would ever again embrace colour. By focusing on such an arrant display of startling tonal contrast, Kline was empowered as a painter to properly explore motion in a very condensed, even visceral manner. And that ‘motion’, of course, was noted both physically and psychologically; both aesthetically and conceptually. Meryon from 1960-61 is a very late painting by the artist and is now in the Tate Modern.

Muscular, chunky, calligraphic verticals soar upwards, suggesting an architectural thrust. Meryon represents something of a homophonic pun; Kline here refers to the French printmaker Charles Meryon, who famously made etchings of medieval Paris and its newly sprawling architecture (I cannot help but see Notre Dame in this painting). He also alludes to the Pennsylvanian town of Merion — home to the extraordinary Impressionist and modern art collection of Albert C. Barnes — which was a fast-growing urban centre and provided a swanky, chi-chi contrast to his own humble town of birth, Wilkes-Barre, which was but a couple of hours away.

Meryon is thus an anthem for enterprising construction — both present and past — yet still its signification slides in and out of several pockets of meaning. Content becomes process; process becomes object; object becomes concept. Concept is the content, no matter how concrete and materialistic the painting feels.

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Above: Franz Kline (American, 1910-1962): Meryon, 1960-61. Oil on canvas, 235.9 x 195.6 cm. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London