Happy Birthday Franz Kline
Franz Kline was a member of the second Abstract Expressionist generation. His warm and likeable personality made him popular; though memoirs of the time recall him as a hard drinker, he was not an ‘ugly’ drunk like Jackson Pollock and (on some occasions) Willem de Kooning. A leading figure at the Cedar Bar, the Abstract Expressionists’ downtown hangout in New York, he was also a companion of the literary beats, especially of Jack Kerouac.
Kline was born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania in 1910, the second of four children. His parents were both immigrants – his father, a saloon keeper, came from Hamburg and his mother from Cornwall. In 1917 his father committed suicide, and his mother remarried three years later. From 1919 to 1925 Kline attended Girard College, Philadelphia, an institution for fatherless boys which he afterwards referred to as ‘an orphanage’. In retrospect, he also lengthened his stay there to ‘eleven years’, which hints that it may have been a traumatic experience. After his mother withdrew him from Girard, Kline attended Lehighton High School. Though not a big man, he was athletic and was Captain of Varsity Football in 1929. While at high school, he had an accident in football practice which immobilized him for a while, and this was when he developed an interest in drawing and decided to become a cartoonist and illustrator.
In 1931 he left home and went to Boston to begin his training. He studied first at the Boston University School of Education and later at the Boston Art Students’ League. At this time Kline, a handsome and vain young man, was attracted by everything which seemed upperclass and English, so it was natural that in 1935 he should decide to go to England to study art. He crossed the Atlantic in 1935, and in 1936 enrolled at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art in London. This was a thoroughly conservative, old fashioned institution, and it suited Kline perfectly as he was not at that time interested in anything avant garde but was, on the contrary, fascinated by the work of the great Victorian illustrators, such as Phil May.
He did a great deal of life drawing in London, and it was at Heatherley’s that he met his future wife, Elizabeth Vincent Parsons, a dancer who had worked with the Sadlers’ Wells Ballet Company (later the Royal Ballet) and with the Ballet Rambert, and who modelled for classes at the school. Her family was upper middle class, and Kline’s identification with all things English reached the point where he wanted to adopt British citizenship. However, to achieve this he would have had to remain in Britain for eight years without permission to work. This was impossible, so he returned to America in 1938. Elizabeth followed him, and they were married shortly after her arrival. Kline then spent a brief period in Buffalo as a display designer for a women’s clothing store before settling in New York, where he was to live for the rest of his life.
He began his career in the New York art world at the bottom of the ladder, showing his work at the Washington Square Outdoor Show in 1939. During this period he was producing competent urban views, usually of New York, with an Expressionist tinge. He painted murals in bars, and also worked briefly with the well known set designer Cleon Throckmorton, who employed a large number of assistants and often provided useful contacts for them. In 1943 and 1944 he showed successfully at the annual exhibitions put on by the conservative National Academy of Design, winning one of the major prizes in 1943.
This was also the year in which he met Willem de Kooning, who was to exercize a great influence over his art. It was De Kooning who in 1949 borrowed a Bell Opticon projector to enlarge some of his own drawings. Offered the use of it, Kline took a small drawing of a favourite chair and projected this on to canvas on such a large scale that it completely overlapped the edges. He was fascinated to note that the design, in these circumstances, became completely abstract.
Its effect on him was the more powerful because he had already begun to experiment with abstraction some three years earlier. The transition from figuration to abstraction was a curious one, demonstrated through a series of heads based on a photograph of the dancer Nijinsky in the role of Petroushka. Kline identified with clowns. In 1938 he wrote to his wife: ‘I have always felt that I am like a clown, and thinking that life might work out as a tragedy, a clown’s tragedy.’ The Nijinsky paintings also have strong elements of self portraiture.
There may also have been another, very personal factor connected with Kline’s move into abstraction, and this was the illness of his wife. She suffered repeated attacks of depression and schizophrenia, perhaps exacerbated by their lack of money and nomadic, unstable life. Between his arrival in New York in 1938 and 1957 Kline moved house no less than fourteen times, including at least three evictions because he was unable to pay the rent. In 1946, Elizabeth Kline entered Central Islip State Hospital for six months, and in 1948 she returned to hospital and remained there for twelve years, being finally discharged in 1960. Her husband visited her, often at long intervals, but from the time of her second hospitalization the marriage was effectively over. Kline, handsome, outgoing and charming, was not slow to find consolation elsewhere, and became especially attractive to women when he started at long last to enjoy success.
Kline’s experiments with the Bell Opticon projector had finally convinced him that he ought to abandon representation altogether. In 1950 he had his first one-man exhibition, made up entirely of paintings in his new manner. It took place at the Egan Gallery, then the usual showcase of the ‘downtown’ group of Abstract Expressionists. His calligraphic images in black and white were well received, and after a second show in the same space in 1951, Kline’s reputation grew very rapidly.
He was included in a number of key exhibitions in the 1950s: various Whitney Annuals, starting in 1952; Twelve American Painters and Sculptors at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955; the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1957, and the key anthology show New American Painting, which toured Europe in 1958-59. The Museum of Modern Art acquired Chief, one of his most impressive paintings, in 1952 – the underlying image is a streamlined locomotive (Kline’s stepfather was a railway employee). The Whitney Museum bought Mahoning in 1955. Prices for Kline’s work escalated rapidly, especially after he moved to the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1956. For the first time, he had plenty of money.
He was not to enjoy this prosperity for very long. in 1961 Kline fell ill and entered Johns Hopkins Hospital for tests which revealed long standing rheumatic heart trouble, with more recent and dangerous deterioration of the heart muscle. He was put on a strict diet and told to curb his lifestyle, but his illness was incurable. He died in hospital in New York in May 1962.
Kline’s talk ranged over many subjects – his favourite English illustrators, the lives of Baron Gros and Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gericault‘s way of depicting horses, old silver and pewter, the finer points of vintage cars. Many people remembered being amused by his accurate imitations of the actor Wallace Beery. However, the core personality remained difficult to identify. His attitudes towards art were basically those of the Abstract Expressionists, mingled with some loosely existentialist ideas. Kline frequently spoke of a painting as a ‘situation’, and of the first strokes of paint on canvas as ‘the beginning of the situation’. When painting, he said, he tried to rid his mind of everything else and ‘attack it completely from that situation’. The real criterion was the feeling a given work conveyed: ‘The final test of a painting, theirs [that of artists he admired, such as Daumier], mine, or any other, is: does the painter’s emotion come across?