BORN IN WILKES-BARRE, PENNSYLVANIA, FRANZ KLINE (May 23, 1910 – May 13, 1962) is one of the most recognized artists of the Abstract Expressionist Art movement of the 40s and 50s in America. His bold, monochromatic and graphic canvases are easily recognized for their calligraphic, almost simple, intensity. His distinct works separated him from his contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning and he has been revered for his singularity since the 1950s.

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Kline’s upbringing was far from ideal in the small coal-mining community where he was born. His father committed suicide when the artist was 7 years old and his mother remarried, sending her son to Gerard College, a school for fatherless boys. Kline later referred to the institution as the “orphanage”. In high school, he worked as a cartoonist for the school newspaper, where his skills as an artist began to flourish and in the early 30’s, Kline later moved to Boston and attended Boston University’s School of Art. The exposure to modern art that Franz Kline received in Boston through help from his instructors as well as by visiting private and public collections, would later become evident in the artist’s unique style. For a brief time, Kline studied at Art Students League of New York and later moved to London and enrolled in Heatherly’s School of Art. It was in England where Kline met his future wife, Elizabeth Parsons, who was a ballet dancer and model at the art school. They moved back to the United States together but sadly, Elizabeth would suffer from mental breakdowns and spent much time in mental institutions.

The transition back to life in the United States would prove to be difficult for Kline, where he picked up odd jobs painting murals in the styles Rembrandt and other old masters. Additionally for income, the artist worked as a designer in a department store as well as a scenic designer. One of Kline’s works, Hot Jazz, was a mural he painted for a bar in New York.

A fortuitous meeting with artist Willem de Kooning would prove to be one of the greatest influences in Kline’s career, where he would later abandon figurative painting for an abstract, gestural style he would later become known for. De Kooning’s suggestion to project large images onto a wall using a Bell-Opticon projector would prove to be monumental in Kline’s career, propelling the artist into the world of the abstract. The Cedar Bar was a meeting place for artists such as Jackson Pollock and Kline would soon surround himself with other creatives of the budding Abstract Expressionist art movement. His large canvases began to emerge as he had previously dabbled with ink on newspaper in broad, calligraphic strokes. While the artists is perhaps best known for his black and white works, a closer examination of the canvases, painted in crude house paint, will begin to illuminate the depth and layering of his art.

Franz Kline’s style was difficult to interpret. It seemed deceptively spontaneous, when in fact the artist often toiled over numerous studies before committing the image to canvas. His thick and often erratic brushstrokes are oftentimes subtle, though at first glance they appear not to be. Kline rendered countless sketches on newsprint and pages from telephone books, exploring the image considerably while they appeared to be made on a momentary whim. The genius, it appears, is in the simplicity.

Kline’s reputation as a talented and bold artist began to be recognized in an exhibition of his works in Charles Egen Gallery in 1950. The mutual influences from de Kooning are deep rooted in Kline’s artworks including a large-scale series of rudimentary rocking chair paintings. While the inspiration for Kline’s black and white images are debatable, the artist denied any ties with Japanese calligraphy, stating instead that the inspiration for the works came from the unconscious. He would not ascribe meaning to the artworks, preferring instead that viewers experience the works on their own and attach their own meanings to them. Franz Kline encouraged the “painting experience” and insisted that the works were not symbolic, further supported by critic Clement Greenberg, who believed the focus should be on the importance of the abstract form, not the content behind it.

Color once again was introduced into Kline’s works in the mid-1950’s, where he created loose painted planes in several different hues. Firmly secured as one of the most significant Abstract Expressionists, Kline’s works were exhibited in the United States as well as Venice Biennale in 1960 which included artists such as Theodore Roszac, Philip Guston and Hans Hofmann. Later in 1961, Franz Kline’s artworks were included in an exhibition by the United States Information Agency, known as “American Vanguard”. This touring exhibit exposed more Europeans to his works, further solidifying him as a powerhouse in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Sadly, Franz Kline died suddenly of a rheumatic heart disease on May 3, 1952.

The artist’s popularity declined for a few decades until it was reinvigorated in the 1980’s. In 2012 an auction record was broken through the sale of an untitled 1957 black and white 10 foot wide canvas, which sold at Christie’s for $36 million. The previous auction record for Franz Kline’s work was six times less and from 2005, for a piece entitled “Crow Dancer” (1958), which sold for $6.4 million.