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On view

The Bridge

Artist: Franz Kline (American, 1910 - 1962)

Date: 1955
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 80 x 52 3/4in. (203.2 x 134cm)
Framed: 82 x 54 1/2in. (208.3 x 138.4cm)
Signed: Verso, upper right: 'Franz Kline'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 56.40
Label Text
In 1951, Franz Kline commented about his distinctive bold paintings: "I kept simplifying the forms in black and white and breaking down the structure into essential elements. Eventually it came to this." He also emphasized that he did not paint black on white, but black with white. His paintings are a careful balance of space and weight, of light and form.

Like many modernist painters, Kline painted the essence of what he saw rather than the thing itself. A life-long city dweller, he was inspired by the atmosphere of urban industry and architecture. In 1958 he told poet Frank O'Hara, "half the world wants to be like Thoreau at Walden worrying about the noise of the traffic on the way to Boston; the other half use up their lives being part of that noise. I like the second half." Kline lived in New York from 1939 until he died in 1962 and The Bridge is one of his most direct evocations of his reflections on his surroundings.

Text Entries

First exhibited in Franz Kline’s  one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in March 1956, The Bridge is a major example of the artist’s fully developed black-and-white style. At the same time it is one of his first attempts to incorporate color—a warm, earth brown—into a large-scale abstraction. In this light the painting and its title acquire a metaphorical overtone. By the mid-1950s Kline sought to extend his well-known, monumental black-and- white idiom into color. The Utica painting stands, then, as a “bridge” between both modes.

While the picture’s initial impact is largely generated by the looming configuration, close looking reveals a markedly rich surface and a repartee of black, white, and brown. Kline sets up an interplay not only among the three “colors,” but between areas of sized unpainted canvas and the range of whites and blacks. A thinly painted zone, such as the upper left corner, fluctuates when seen against more thickly painted whites elsewhere, some scumbled with black toward gray while others are brushed on more heavily. Indeed, direct correspondence between white strokes or areas and their counterparts in black are prevalent throughout. Moreover, it is significant that few white areas in The Bridge are opaque. Black drips and runs, as well as more substantially painted black details, are visible beneath the white overpainting. This, along with a comparable layering of blacks and the use of brown creates a sharply felt planar tension. Of particular note is the way a wide light brown stroke near center left locks into the black configuration. Pulling white along with it, this muscular stroke amplifies the dynamic horizontal thrust spanning the painting’s midsection and, just as emphatically, opens the lower left quadrant spatially.

In little time The Bridge affirms its strong sculptural presence. Perhaps Kline’s homage to the indomitable Neo-gothic towers of the Brooklyn Bridge—a New York landmark he admired—this painting also becomes in historical context a counterpart to aspects of American sculpture of the late 1940s and 1950s. The resiliency and tensile strength of the composition, both expanding and contracting plastically, bring to mind David Smith’s sculpture of forged and welded metal.

Since high-school days in Lehighton, Pennsylvania (1927-31), Kline had been drawn to bridges and their realization of structural stress. He included Lehighton’s Central Railroad Bridge as a prominent feature in a mural commissioned in 1946 for the town’s American Legion Post.(1) And a 1959—60 black-and-white canvas with blue/green underpainting, Lehigh V Span (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), is Kline’s abstract reiteration of thrusts and counterthrusts which he felt correspond to those in the Lehighton bridge.(2) While less specific in pictorial equivalence, the Utica painting offers provocative figural associations. Kline’s major abstractions rarely conjure up a single visual metaphor, and The Bridge may ultimately be as much displaced being as solid structure.

The Bridge was one often Klines in the landmark exhibition 12 Americans, which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956. Organized by Dorothy Miller as a group of simultaneous one-person shows, it also included works by James Brooks, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, and Seymour Lipton. This was Kline’s first important exhibition at a New York museum.

 

Notes

1. Illustrated in Harry F. Gaugh, The Vital Gesture: Franz Kline, (Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum and Abbeville Press, New York, 1985), fig. 55.

2. Ibid., fig. 119.

 

Copyright
© The Franz Kline Estate / licensed by ARS, New York, NY