Last week, I went to Franz Kline: Coal & Steel. Abstract Expressionism is one of my favorite types of painting. Generally, I think of this movement being based around New York. But Franz Kline (1910-1962) was from Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Mahoning by Franz Kline, 1956. Oil and paper collage on canvas. 80 x 100 in. (203.2 x 254 cm). Image courtesy of The Franz Kline Estate via The Whitney Museum.
Kline was best know for his large scale minimalist paintings. The canvases were black and white, with large gestural brush strokes. I always imagined the works were influenced by Asian art – particularly Japanese calligraphy.
I also assumed that Kline was influenced by other abstract painters. However, curator Dr. Robert S. Mattison argues that these black and white paintings were influenced by Kline’s memories of Pennsylvania. Considering that Kline’s hometown of Wilkes-Barre was in the heart of coal country, I see this connection immediately.
Untitled by Franz Kline, 1957. Image courtesy of The Franz Kline Estate via the New York Times.
The large canvases have a gritty feeling. The stark contrast between the white and black give the idea of something being dirtied. Coal mining produces a layer of soot that covers everything. Mining towns in Pennsylvania were covered in layers of coal dust, and many miners died from black lung diseased (caused by breathing in large quantities of coal dust).
Architectural and industrial references can also be seen in this large abstract paintings. Kline studied as a draughtsman in London in the late 1930s. Knowing this, you can start to see simplified lines of buildings and other man-made landscapes. Above, I see a bridge running from left to right, supported by large pillars and support beams. This connection to architecture is further strengthened by examples of Kline’s earlier representation work.
Pennsylvania Landscape by Franz Kline, 1948. Image courtesy of The Morning Call.
Before Kline joined the Abstract Expressionist group that congregated in New York, he painted landscapes from Northeastern Pennsylvania. I grew up not far from this area, and these scenes are so familiar. Small towns, built with wood and steel, in a picturesque landscape. The natural environment is dotted with signs of man: telephone poles, cables, train tracks, and bridges. There are so many small towns, just like the picture above. They housed steel, coal, and textile workers. I’m not sure what these towns were like in Kline’s day, but they still echo a similar feeling. They’re isolated, a bit neglected, and now even poorer as the major industries that supported the towns have been outsourced.
Chatham Square by Franz Kline, 1948. Image courtesy of Wikipaintings.
Childhood memories definitely impact what you’re drawn to in the future. Even the painting of Chatham Square above looks like it could be a small town in Pennsylvania. An entrance to a factory or covered walkway leading to a train. It has the same sort of composition as so many “townscapes” in Pennsylvania, even though it was painting in New York.
The vertical orange shapes that make up the covered staircase and crisscrossed gray trellis underneath the bridge were painted so carefully. They seem to be replicated in more abstract forms in this later Untitled painting by Kline:
Untitled by Franz Kline, 1953. Image courtesy of Wikipaintings.
Chief Train by Franz Kline, 1942. Image courtesy of The Allentown Art Museum via Art & Coin TV
There seems to be a strong connection to all of Kline’s work, even though his style changed. Chief Train (above) shows a locomotive. Le Gros (below) seems to be a closeup for the train track, no?
Le Gros by Franz Kline, 1961. Image courtesy of Flickr