Franz Kline at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Franz Kline, Nijinsky (1950), enamel on canvas, 45-1/2″ x 34-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Forty-odd years since the triumph of American painting (to borrow Irving Sandler’s stirring phrase), Abstract Expressionism has been going through something of a reappraisal. Within the past few months there have been significant gallery and museum exhibitions devoted to artists linked with what is probably the most influential movement in twentieth-century American art. What is interesting about the cumulative impact of these shows is not that they constitute a critical re-evaluation—far from it. Rather, they serve as a confirmation of New York’s one-time artistic pre-eminence. Such ego-boosting seems inevitable, and is it any wonder? The art world, having become accustomed to a cultural fatigue fueled by novelty and narcissism, may well be pining for—dare it be said?—art of substance.

But is Abstract Expressionism necessarily the best place to find it? The event of the season has been the retrospective of paintings by Willem de Kooning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. De Kooning is probably the last touchstone for a variety of artists who have little else in common, and his status as a painter approaches legend. However, viewers resistant to art-world machinations and hyperbole (a crowd whose number is, apparently, quite limited) found the exhibit to be a sobering experience. If the retrospective confirmed de Kooning’s genius in his paintings of the Forties and early Fifties, then the rest of the exhibition documented a depressing slide into self-parody. If de Kooning, arguably the finest proponent of Abstract Expressionism, has proved to be merely mortal, then what does this say about the mythos built up around the movement as a whole?

These issues are bound to be raised again with Franz Kline: Black & White, 1950– 1961. Its focus is the paintings for which Kline is best known, the gestural black-and-white abstractions of his mature period (he died in 1962). Recent exhibitions devoted to a specific aspect of an artist’s work have resulted in some glorious moments—Pioneering Cubism and Matisse in Morocco spring instantly to mind. Kline, however, is not Picasso or Matisse, nor does he approach de Kooning at his best. If de Kooning has proved to be mortal, then it might be said that Black & White reveals Kline to be only more so.

Indeed, Black & White only reinforces Kline’s one-dimensionality as an artist. His black-and-white paintings would, perhaps, benefit from a full-scale retrospective, one including the early realist work and later color abstractions. As it is, however, Black & White lacks grounding. It treats its subject with a gravity that strains the credibility of the work. The exhibition solemnly trots out one masterpiece after another, as if Kline’s paintings had some sort of religious significance. For some people they do. The crowds I attended the exhibition with seemed positively cowed by the work. Who can argue with paintings that leave so little room for dialogue?

Black & White is an elegantly installed exhibition. It’s also a little boring. One feels that its uniformity is due as much to a certain kind of interior decoration as to the work’s limitations. Ideally, a museum exhibition should concentrate on an artist’s strengths, showing us why the work is (or is felt to be) worth spending time with. Black & White, however, doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about Kline’s work, nor, one suspects, does it intend to. It coasts on received wisdom. The irony is that the Whitney—an institution that prides itself on being on the “cutting edge”—should play host to an exhibition that, in so many ways, upholds the status quo. (On the other hand, it is this status quo upon which the museum’s recent political tomfoolery rests: perhaps the folks at the Whitney know what they’re doing after all.)

Upon entering Black & White, one is wowed by the brawniness of Kline’s paintings; their immediate force is undeniable, indeed almost bullying. (In the catalogue essay, David Anfam writes that Kline’s paintings “hit the viewer full in the face.” True enough, but the question remains: Who wants to be hit in the face by a painting?) Upon closer inspection, however, Kline’s paintings don’t hold up. His compositions may be powerful, but his paint handling has little juice. His brushstrokes are over-insistent and his surfaces are dull when they’re not finicky. While it may sound facetious to claim that Kline didn’t make much use of color in these paintings, his use of black and white is unimaginative, programmatic; comparisons to de Kooning’s black-and-white abstractions are devastating. Reading in the catalogue, one isn’t surprised to learn that Kline was indifferent to the colors he used in the paintings—it’s there to scan in the work. When his colors do have some variety, it’s due to his infamous use of shabby materials. Yellowing paint, it would seem, forgives artists if not house painters.

Although Kline saw his use of white as a sign of his painterly acumen, it is, on the whole, problematic. He refuted any comparisons of his work to calligraphy because he (in his own words) “painted out areas of black with my whites.” This is a feeble definition of painting. For the most part, Kline didn’t really paint with white, he edited with it. His use of white functions as a sort of erasure that has more in common with drawing than with painting. As such, Kline’s white carries nominal pictorial heft; it certainly doesn’t carry as color or space. And his editing—using white to fuzz the edges of black brushstrokes, for instance—is fussy. For action painting it can be downright persnickety.

It is in Kline’s earliest paintings that his blacks and whites interact in a dynamic manner. In both Nijinsky (1950) and Ninth Street (1951), Kline opens up the space of the paintings by allowing his line a flexibility that his later work is without. Here his white has pictorial presence, pushing up from behind the black line and indicating depth; both paintings breathe. (One suspects de Kooning’s influence.) But this dynamism is, on the whole, missing from the exhibition. As one tracks the years that Black & White focuses on, Kline’s paintings become increasingly automatic; Black Sienna (1960), for instance, is almost painful to look at because of its lethargy. And when the paintings aren’t pro forma, their gestural busy-work seems borne of frustration: How could anyone mistake the wet-into-wet smearing of Requiem (1958) for painting?

Clement Greenberg wrote that Kline’s paintings were “tautness quintessential,” and looking at the hulking form propped slightly off-center in Painting No. 1 (1954), one knows exactly what he meant. Kline’s paintings are sturdy contraptions: he had a knack for sectioning off each canvas in such a way that his lines vigorously clamp the painting’s surface and hold the ground on which they are situated. There is an architectonic stability to Kline’s paintings that maintains its integrity even when it threatens collapse —this is his great strength. Anfam dismisses Greenberg’s description by citing the “magnificently ragged” Painting No. 2 (1954), as if Kline were incapable of a failed painting. (It also makes one wonder whether dismissing Greenberg has ever been so fashionable.) Even so, Kline’s compositional gift was graphic, not painterly. Leafing through the catalogue—one of the most stylish I’ve ever seen—one is taken aback by how good the work can look in reproduction. Indeed, the catalogue kept leading me back to the paintings for a second look. But glossy surfaces are only a front for dead ones, and the paintings disappoint.

Those who think Kline’s use of “American-scale” canvases definitive may well ask themselves why his small drawings constitute his best work. Done in a hastily calligraphic style, the drawings have a verve to them that the paintings can only intimate. Kline may have disparaged comparisons of his work to calligraphy, but the drawings work precisely because they are calligraphic: here his line has vigor, activating the pictorial ground. Kline used his drawings as studies for his larger works-on-canvas, but was unable to make the transition to painting convincingly. Indeed, the drawings have a freshness that makes one realize how perfunctory the paintings can be.

Seen in context, Kline’s paintings can look consequential. If memory serves correctly, the Whitney once had an installation of its permanent collection wherein they smartly played a Kline painting off a Mark di Suvero sculpture. But, seen en masse, Kline’s work (like a lot of Abstract Expressionist painting) is impressively tiresome. His reputation, like that of de Kooning, operates largely on myth. (Does anybody really look at these paintings anymore?) Unlike de Kooning, however, Kline was an artist of meager talents, a minor artist working in a major mode. Undoubtedly, “Black & White” will receive a predictable chorus of critical huzzahs. But that will say more about a need for cultural icons than it will about the complexities of art.

© 1995 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 1995 edition of The New Criterion.

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