Art: Pa. bones beneath New York works

Kline's earlier paintings, such as "Pennsylvania Landscape," from 1948-49, showed dark, moody, suggestively expressionist tendencies.
Kline's earlier paintings, such as "Pennsylvania Landscape," from 1948-49, showed dark, moody, suggestively expressionist tendencies.

Evidence of his early life in coal country is in Franz Kline's later art if you look for it.

Posted: November 11, 2012

During the glory years of the New York School, Franz Kline developed an abstract painting language that was so distinctive it's immediately identifiable, and so strongly linked to him that no other artist could dare imitate it.

Just as Jackson Pollock is known for drips and loops of colored pigment, Kline constructed his pictures with bold, intersecting black bars and curves on a white ground. His 1960 oil Turin, part of a revealing Kline exhibition at the Allentown Art Museum, is quintessential.

Yet before Kline moved into the vigorously reductive style of Turin, he was a markedly different artist, one rarely seen in public collections. He painted scenes from his home territory, the Lehigh Valley coal country, and later from the Manhattan neighborhoods he lived in.

Robert S. Mattison, professor of art history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., has long believed that Kline's later abstractions didn't suddenly crystallize out of the ether, but are connected to his years growing up in the anthracite region.

After years of research and tracking down early work, Mattison has guest-curated an exhibition, "Franz Kline: Coal and Steel," which he hopes proves this thesis, that the roots of the iconic later paintings can be found in the soot-stained industrial infrastructure of Carbon and Luzerne Counties.

Even a quick scan of the show's checklist of 64 works, half paintings and half drawings, suggests he's right. Kline moved to New York in 1938, yet continued to paint such hometown subjects such as PA Street Scene (Pennsylvania Mining Town) well into the 1940s.

In fact, in 1946, American Legion Post 314 in Lehighton commissioned him to paint a 14-foot-wide mural of the town. It's still there, and is represented in the exhibition by a photographic reproduction.

Kline had legitimate coal-town credentials. He was born in Wilkes-Barre in 1910 and grew up there and in Lehighton. After his father died of a self-inflicted gunshot in 1917, he lived and studied for eight years at Girard College, Philadelphia's school for fatherless boys.

He returned to Lehighton with his mother's marriage to a railyard foreman for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. Consequently, he thoroughly absorbed mine and railroad culture, along with an industrial landscape that turned black and white in winter.

That might sound like a conveniently pat explanation for why Kline's art went monochrome in the 1950s, but after seeing the early paintings, and especially the drawings, that Mattison has assembled, I'm inclined to see a plausible connection.

One ink drawing in particular, of a locomotive from the mid-1940s, reveals Kline's proclivity for bold, schematic mark-making. He frequently drew in ink, sometimes with a brush, usually laying down thick, energetic strokes. Furthermore, the early work indicates he wasn't so much interested in recording daily life as he was in architecture and the structural qualities of landscape - buildings, bridges, railroad tracks, and such. People are usually absent or inconspicuous.

This is apparent not only in his Pennsylvania scenes but in New York pictures of a Ninth Avenue elevated railroad station, of a Chinatown building facade, and of tenement buildings. In each case, thrusting structural vectors dominate the composition.

Although Kline studied art in London during 1937-38, there isn't a trace in his early work of European influences. It's resolutely American in outlook and subject matter, although markedly different in spirit from the more homespun American Scene painting popular in the 1930s.

Not only did he continue to produce mining and railroad images into the late 1940s, his landscapes and street scenes tend to be dark, moody, and suggestively expressionist. We find these tendencies in pictures such as Chief (Train) of 1942, PA Street Scene (Pennsylvania Mining Town) of 1947, and the acidulous Pennsylvania Landscape of 1948-49.

In the late 1940s and early '50s, his realism became progressively more abstract, a process revealed most clearly in his drawings and small paintings on paper.

Some of the gestural abstractions use color, but eventually, Kline settled into the black-on-white scheme powerfully exemplified by Turin, lent by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

That painting excepted, "Coal and Steel" is an aggregation of small and easel-scale works, augmented for atmosphere with photographs and videos of mining and trains by people such as George Harvan and O. Winston Link.

One can watch Kline work his way from modest beginnings in which he reacted to his surroundings to what became the last major innovation of Abstract Expressionism.

As in the case of Jackson Pollock, a contemporary, Kline's career was cut short just as it reached its peak. He died in May 1962 of heart disease, a few days short of his 52d birthday.

Mattison worked on this exhibition and its revelatory catalog for years; he should be gratified that his assiduous research has produced such a splendid illumination of a little-appreciated aspect of Kline's art.

The Shadow of Walker Evans.. The famed photographer also found some of his most evocative subjects in coal and steel towns, such as Bethlehem during the Depression.

In a gallery adjacent to the Kline show, the museum has installed a group of images by Evans and 15 photographers who followed his example of responding to the social landscape. The photographs are lent by Lehigh Valley collectors David and Christine Sestak.

This is an all-star contingent; besides Evans, photographers represented include Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz, Danny Lyon, Louis Faurer, Larry Fink, and Judith Joy Ross.

The exhibition is hung thematically, in categories such as automobile culture, vernacular architecture, and street scenes. In a sense, the other photographers play off Evans, who produced innovative documentary pictures in Bethlehem, Easton, and the surrounding area in late 1935.

Bethlehem Houses and Steel Mill, with its clusters of smokestacks and utility poles, is the Evans image around which the show pivots. It's a vista Kline would have recognized instantly; in formal terms, it's also an image that reflects the values of his mature black-and-white abstractions.

Though the connection between the two exhibitions is tenuous, they complement each other perfectly. "Walker Evans and the American Social Landscape Photographers" offers the added virtue of beautiful and insightful snippets of daily existence.


Art: Bred by Coal

"Franz Kline: Coal and Steel" and "Walker Evans and the American Social Landscape Photographers" continue at the Allentown Art Museum, 31 N. Fifth St., through Jan. 13. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, noon to 4 Sundays. Admission is $12 general; $10 for seniors, students, and children six and older. 610-432-4333 or www.allentownartmuseum.org.


Contact Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

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