Franz Kline was an important figure in the abstract expressionist movement, also known as the New York school. This diverse group of artists, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, produced large-scale abstractions that helped establish New York as the center of contemporary art after World War II. Kline is best known for his powerful black-and-white abstractions in which the vigorous brushwork seems to embody the energy and gestures created in the act of painting.
Born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1910, Kline attended Boston University and Heatherly's School of Art in London before settling in New York in 1938. He initially worked in a realist style, attempting to capture the energy of city life. In the mid-1940s, he developed an interest in the expressive possibilities of abstraction and began to reduce and simplify the elements of his earlier, colorful figurative style. Around 1948 Kline enlarged some black-and-white drawings through a projector, and the expressive power of the magnified shapes and brushstrokes confirmed his intent to follow a purely abstract style.
More than other abstract expressionists, Kline is identified with the exploration of a monochrome palette. In his signature style, bold forms that have been likened to Chinese calligraphy suggest conflict between opposing forces. The thrusting black-and-white planes can evoke complex meanings, from allusions to the human condition to the force of industrial forms, such as girders of steel bridges. Kline's numerous refinements and overpaintings, as well as his compositional studies for his large paintings, reveal the thought behind the seemingly spontaneous character of his work. Kline reintroduced color in his painting in 1955, initially in accents and later in large segments. Tragically, he died shortly before his fifty-second birthday.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]