Franz Kline
Biography of Abstract Expressionist Artist.

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Kline practiced gestural painting.

For other gesturalist pictures like,
those produced by Franz Kline, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Franz Kline (1910-1962)


Training and Early Years
Abstract Art
Spontaneous Painting Based on Preparatory Sketches
Last Years

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Best Artists of All Time.

For more artists like
Franz Kline, see:
20th Century Painters.

For the main aesthetic issues
see: Art Definition, Meaning.


One of the most individualistic exponents of Abstract Expressionism, the Anglo-German American Kline is best known for his large-scale black and white abstract paintings, occasionally reminiscent of calligraphy. Starting out as a conventional representational painter, he turned to abstract art in his late 30s, partly under the influence of the great gesturalist Willem de Kooning (1904-97). Kline's stark but highly personal pictures made him something of a heroic figure within the New York School of modern art, and along with De Kooning he pioneered much of the rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism. Later he included colour in his painting, but most of his work is monochrome. His most famous works include Chief (1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York), White Forms (1955, MoMA), Mahoning (1956, Whitney Museum of American Art), Black Reflections (1959, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Orange and Black Wall (1959, Thyssen Collection, Amsterdam). Ranked by art critics alongside the greatest gestural abstract painters of the 1950s, such as Robert Motherwell (1915-91), Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74) and De Kooning, he remains an icon of American art.


Training and Early Years

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he enrolled at Boston University but from 1931 to 1935 took art classes on the side at the Boston Art Students League. In 1935, Kline set off for Paris but stayed in London instead and from 1936 to 1938 studied at Heatherley's School of Art. Returning to America in 1939, he settled permanently in New York. Kline's early work consisted mostly of representational art, namely urban landscapes, views of Pennsylvania coal mining areas, murals and portraits. Fortunately he was given a number of commissions by Dr. Theodore J. Edlich, Jr., and I. David Orr, who bought many other paintings from him. During the 1930s he received a number of National Academy of Design awards.



Abstract Art

In 1943, Kline met Willem de Kooning and this friendship was instrumental in his conversion to abstract art, as were his studio experiments with a Bell-Opticon enlarger, and his interest in Japanese art. These three factors led to the development of his signature style of abstract expressionist painting, characterized by energetic gestural brushstrokes of quick-drying black and white enamel, and applied with house-painters' brushes up to eight inches wide. This style, known as action painting, gave complete freedom to the painter's creative impulses, and made the act of painting more important than the work itself. Kline had his first one-man exhibition at the Egan Gallery, New York, in 1950, and quickly achieved recognition as a major figure in the emerging New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Although noted for his black-and-white canvases, he reintroduced colour into his pictures from the mid-1950s onwards.

Spontaneous Painting Based on Preparatory Sketches

Kline's work may appear instinctive or impulsive in its dramatic, spontaneous brushstrokes, but actually it carefully considered. The sweeping strokes and rapid brushwork of both impastoed and diluted paint are the result of considerable thought, and include numerous figural references to a variety of imagery including bridges, tunnels and coal-mining equipment, as well as calligraphy. Indeed, like many modern artists, famed for their spontaneity, Kline's spontaneous gesturalism was frequently based on well-practiced draft sketches. In particular, he incorporated ideas and motifs from small studies into his large compositions, and would repeat certain elements in his paintings, sometimes years later. (For a different style of gesturalism, see: Jackson Pollock's paintings 1940-56).

Last Years

During his final decade, he participated in several important international exhibitions, including the 1956 and 1960 Venice Biennales and the 1957 Sao Paulo Bienal, and was awarded a number of major prizes. He died in 1962 from rheumatic heart failure. The Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, DC held a retrospective of his work later the same year.

Paintings by Franz Kline can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout America.

• For biographical details of other important American modern artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For the development of the arts, see: History of Art.
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