Tuesday, 26 July 2011


NOTE: I recently found this piece in my files. I'd written it early in 1995, as you'll see, and it appears I sent it in ms form to the New Statesman. This may have been the piece which prompted the response 'I like it but I can only use pieces I've commissioned', to which I replied 'well, why not commission it?' which prompted a hang-up. That editor will remain nameless, but it's not an unfamiliar occurance. My memory says the DeKooning show was the one that had the biggest impact on me of these three, but that was probably because I was already convinced by Kline, and probably felt re-establishing him in the pantheon with Pollock, Rothko, and now DeKooning was important. There is a theory that it was DeKooning who got Kline interested in using an enlarger, but that doesn't really change things one way or the other. So here it is, as written 16 years ago...

The New York School is hot again, just when it seemed about to become old hat. Following the Whitechapel's Franz Kline retrospective last summer, the Tate is hosting the massive 90th birthday Willem De Kooning show, which comes to London from New York's Metropolitan Museum. Back in New York, just before that show closed, a powerful Kline exhibition opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art; it closes on 12 March.

In New York, the De Kooning received curiously mixed reviews. The criticisms were largely due to the didactic nature of the show; it was presented chronologically, and as such documented the intellectual development of de Kooning's work alongside his stylistic progress, making clear the way he grasped the logical basis of the process of painting, the way he was able to blend the advances of the New York School into the more analytical approach he had already adopted. For an audience used to seeing lots of de Kooning, over a period of some 50 years, this somehow seemed to reduce his stature. But to a London audience, somewhat less familiar, the Tate show should reinforce his position as both a great painter and a major force in the leading art movement of the post-War century.

If we think of Jackson Pollack as the muscular force of the New York School then perhaps de Kooning was its intellectual center. The Tate's show makes clear the way de Kooning was able to take his "woman" paintings, full of Jungian symbolism, and combine them with the powerful 50s work which seems almost like Kline, but in colour. He achieved a synthesis in the 60s, by which time Pollock and Kline were already gone, which took him to a new level, and then amazingly he was able to continue pushing himself into new areas, at first as if by logical progression, and later as if by pure instinct.

And if Pollack were the muscle and de Kooning the mind of Abstract Expressionism, perhaps Rothko was its soul, but then Franz Kline was surely its heart, the one who searched for a way of transferring his feeling directly onto canvas, and having discovered that means, pushed it for all it was worth. The Kline retrospective at the Whitechapel was instructive, showing the conscious pace of development in his style, suggesting ways in which that development might have continued had he not died in 1962. But the Whitney's show, organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, is different. It is, simply, six rooms filled with Kline at his artistic peak...a few early 50s works to show the directions he was heading, and then a cannon-blast of mostly large-scale Kline which nearly overpowers the viewer.

To many casual viewers, seeing one Kline is the same as seeing them all. The fallacy of that position becomes evident immediately at the Whitney. When I say that Kline is an emotional painter, I don't mean it in the sense of DeKooning, or even Rothko, where you can see the nature of the work expressing emotions. I mean that he was able to transmit his feeling directly to the canvas, that his feelings are equal to the reality of the paint; a Kline painting is not an expression of emotion, it is emotion itself, reflected in the spontaneous nature of the individual act of making the particular painting itself..

Elaine de Kooning stopped just short of this realisation in her description of Kline's brush strokes, which " expanded as entities in themselves, unrelated to any reality but that of their own existence." While this makes a good theoretical basis for modern painting, the brilliance of Kline's work is that those brush strokes are, obviously, also related to the reality of his own existence--and that is what he is putting onto the canvas. The thing, that is, is real in itself. This feeling is present in the poetry and music of the post-war era: the open field poetry experiments of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, the be-bop jazz of Charlie Parker and his followers. There is even an affinity with the photography of film noir movies. It is an expression of the reality of emotion, through the apprehension of real things.

The Whitney exhibition contains a revealing set of small oils on paper from the collection of Cy Twombly, in which Kline seems to have realised his vision. We see from the early outlines on the pages of old phone books, and in the 'Study for Black and White #1' (1952) that Kline has found his form of expression, and from that point he produces work of such individual power that to see them grouped here, and realise their cumulative impact is literally amazing. The ways in which Kline experiments with motion 'August Day' (1957--at the top of this post), portraiture 'Elizabeth' (1958), structure 'Mahoning II' (1961) or raw feeling: 'Requiem' (1958--above on the right) belie the notion of his being a one-trick pony. And though we think of him in black and white, when he died he was working frequently with colour; compare 'Henry II'(1959-60--on the left) with DeKooning's work at the time (the 1966 painting from the 'Woman' series above it on the left) and ask who was influencing whom.

Kline reflected the raw energy of New York in the post-War period, with his background in gritty, coal-mining Pennsylvania he was able to see the power in the landscape of urban construction. He also strikes me as expressing more clearly than any American painter since Hopper the essential loneliness of the American soul. In his lifetime, Kline was always considered one of the major figures of Abstract Expressionism, yet since then he seems to have been relegated to something of an afterthought. It could be because he was just starting to reach his artistic peak when he died; you could argue Pollock and Rothko both had reached theirs when their lives ended. I suspect his death from heart failure lacked the dramatic impact of Pollock's car crash, or Rothko's suicide. The British reaction to the Whitechapel show was somewhat lukewarm, concentrating on the mechanics of Kline's work; the pages from the telephone book with the calligraphic brush strokes on them. Yet with that show, and especially the one at the Whitney, he should be restored to his place as one of the great painters of the Twentieth Century.

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