Artist Franz Kline: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

In this lesson, learn about Franz Kline, an American painter who helped define the abstract expressionist movement with his large gestural works. Then, take a short quiz to test your knowledge.

Kline's Beginnings

Have you ever wondered what the defining moment in your life or your career might be? For American painter Franz Kline, it came when a fellow artist put one of his sketches onto a projector screen. From that moment forward, Kline's style was defined and the American art world was changed forever.

Kline was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1910. He lost his father early in life; and, when his mother remarried, he was sent to an orphanage. He studied art in high school and college, attending an art program at Boston University from 1931-1935. He briefly studied at the Art Students League of New York, a school founded by artists dissatisfied with the formal training offered at traditional colleges and universities. He went to London's Heatherly's School of Art to receive further art training from 1936-38. He returned to New York City in 1939, where he was inspired by the urban environment. Kline began making sketches and paintings that were meant to focus on the energy of the city. He started out as a representational painter, attempting to paint like the Dutch masters of the 17th century. Many of his early works also include large-scale murals.

Once Kline met Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock in the early 1940s, his style began to change. He focused on line and used techniques almost like the ones a calligrapher uses to create artistic handwriting. The goal of his new technique, known as gestural painting, was to create works with forms that have a palpable presence on the canvas, works that keep the eye moving and let the viewer imagine how the artist was moving while painting the forms. This technique, sometimes also called action painting or gestural abstraction, was meant to create energy and show the emotion of the painter. Action painting was an extension of the avant-garde movement of the early 20th century, which was a rebellion against traditional, academic ways of making art.

Development of Kline's Style

Kline's gestural painting technique falls within the larger movement known as abstract expressionism. In fact, Kline's paintings really help to define the abstract expressionist movement due to his technique of using bold brushstrokes of paint that sweep over the canvas, but in a controlled way. His fellow abstract expressionists included Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning. Abstract expressionism, in general, is emotionally-driven painting that utilizes large canvases and emphasizes line and gesture. It emerged after World War II as a means for artists to express their fears and emotions in the Cold War era. Much of the art of abstract expressionism is created by painters throwing paint at the canvas to express feelings and not intellectual ideas. These paintings are not meant to be interpreted for their content. By the mid-1940s, Kline had switched his medium of choice from oil paint on canvas to ink on paper to better express his ideas in black and white.

One of these ink drawings would define Kline's style and career for the rest of his life. Willem De Kooning used a projector to increase the size of one of Kline's drawings, which showed him the real essence of the lines in his works. He then decided he was only going to work in black and white. Kline began using regular house paint, as Jackson Pollock did; but Pollock's works are more like paint splatters than lines on the canvas. Kline created intentional lines of paint in his works. By 1950, Kline's style had completely transformed into his new way of painting.

Later Life

In 1938, Kline married Elizabeth V. Parsons, a model he had met at the Heatherly's School in London, but she spent much of her life in institutions after she had a mental breakdown. Kline had his first independent show at a gallery in New York in 1950 and was immediately accused by the critics of imitating oriental writing in his paintings because they shared the same lines as many Chinese and Japanese characters. Kline denied the allegations. He eventually started using color in his paintings again after the post-World War II turmoil seemed to dissipate. In the 1950s, Kline taught at several colleges and art schools and exhibited his works worldwide. He died of a heart condition in 1962.

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