Monday, December 22nd, 2014...3:18 pm

A Comparison Between Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell

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Kline and Motherwell

Franz Kline – Nijinsky
Robert Motherwell – Elegy to the Spanish Republic

Abstract Expressionism, largely an American artistic movement, boasts many artists of varying aesthetics who, ultimately, champion the use of non-representational forms in their artwork, along with other unique and trend-setting artistic practices. Franz Kline’s Nijinsky (1950) and Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1950) may differ in their application of color, shape, artistic process, and subject matter, but both works of art exemplify the category of Abstract Expressionism, as they champion non-representation and formalist themes.

In order to best introduce the works, an understanding of the basic look of the canvas is important. Kline’s Nijinksy is a 46.5 by 35.5 inch painting, utilizing enamel as its painting medium. Though not grandiose in scale like many of the canvases in the Abstract Expressionist repertoire, the use of enamel, an industrial material, fits in superbly with the media usage of the painters in this movement. Motherwell’s Elegy painting boasts an 80 by 100.25 inch scale, much larger than Kline’s work, and utilizes magna as its painting medium. The new paint, created by Leonard Bocour in the post-war period, magna was cheaper to use on the large-scale paintings that many of the Abstract Expressionists wanted to create.[1]

Perhaps the first characteristic that a viewer identifies in the pieces by Kline and Motherwell is the limited use of color. Black and white fills the canvas, only to be ever so slightly interrupted by an individual splash of brown, almost interpreted as a mistake or out of place. The usage of these drastic opposites, though, differs greatly, and the artists had different purposes in mind for using them. Kline’s idea of the color usage follows a more formalist approach, while Motherwell uses the colors for symbolic aims. The great contrast that the colors black and white create is due to their “independence as elemental forces,”[2] and by bringing the two together, Kline is able to ignite and elicit strong reaction from his viewer through the colors’ tension. He also was very aware of how the black and white reacted with the natural or artificial light of the gallery space. The light by which he painted at night enhanced the contrast between the colors, and “the even distribution of light on the painting wall was commensurate with Kline’s allover focus.”[3] In other words, Kline was keeping Clement Greenberg’s formalist principles in mind, “alloverness” being one of the three elements that qualify an abstract work of art as successful.

While Motherwell had some practical, pragmatic intentions in mind while choosing his colors – black and white are the most easily reproducible colors in publications – his main focus was on the symbolic characteristics of the colors. He saw innate contradictions in black and white, as black, though symbolizing death, was created by the “light and fluffy [soot]… from charred bones or horns,”[4] the very stuff of organic life. Black “is the lightest pigment in actual weight.”[5] He also saw black as a color that perfectly encapsulated the feeling of duende, or the lamentation sung by Spanish singers and religious Spaniards during holy weeks.[6] The pigment white, on the other hand, a color that represents purity, is made by lead and other materials that do not originate from life and organic matter, and is extremely toxic and dangerous to use.[7]

The shapes depicted by the two artists range from organically formed ovals to expansive rectangular bands to open rectangles, and ultimately even include natural squiggles that don’t fit into any particular shape-like category. The main geometric figure that appears in Kline’s Nijinsky is the square or rectangle. Similarly to his belief that the combination of black and white elicited human emotion, Kline believed that the square, likewise, served as a representation of the human being. He believed that by changing the width of the square’s lines, and by pushing the rectangular form as far as it could go without losing its geometric qualities, he could encapsulate different human emotions.[8] Motherwell also believed in being able to enhance the viewer’s emotion through his shapes. The repetition of the ovals and rectangular bands harken to primitive cave drawings, and accentuate the repetitive act of lamentation.[9] He also emphasized that the shapes were meant to create a feeling of rhythm within the viewer.[10]

An interesting similarity between the two artists’ use of shapes is that both have been described as containing sculptural qualities. The heavy brushwork and painting quality that Kline brings to his works creates “sculpturally solid shapes.”[11] Motherwell’s Elegy has been described as architectural – sculptural to the nth degree. Carmean describes the ovals and rectangles as “frieze-like,”[12] while the canvas’ large-scale and large shapes elicit images of “overwhelming megalithic structures.”[13] Even Motherwell has pointed out the similarities between his works and architectural masterpieces.[14]

Aesthetic qualities are not the only method of analyzing a piece of Abstract Expressionist art. Process is an important component to take into account, especially when thinking about Harold Rosenberg’s definition of the movement. Though both Nijinsky and Elegy seem to be painted in a similarly spontaneous manner, this assumption cannot be further from the truth. While main Abstract Expressionist artists were action painters, their performance being as important as the final product, Kline does not follow this trend. His works were well planned out, and he was able to know, in a general sense, what his canvas would look like before completion. He constantly referred to sketches and references while creating his larger works.[15] He also used a Bell-Opticon projector in order to amplify his smaller sketches in order to study and trace basic forms.[16]

Motherwell’s process in painting Elegy followed the more traditional methods of the Abstract Expressionists. He used automatism, or the spontaneous movement of his brush, a technique stemming from the practices of the surrealist artists. The best examples of his spontaneous brushwork can be spotted at the edges of his irregular, oval shapes, where the viewer can see the unplanned, black strokes against the stark white background.[17]

Throughout art history artists have been paying homage to and have been finding inspiration from those that came before, and this is no different for the Abstract Expressionists. Kline and Motherwell exhibit a wealth of inspiration from their contemporaries as well as those from prior generations. Kline’s strongest influence is Willem de Kooning, an artist with whom he was very close during his artistic career. Stepping foot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Modern Art gallery, the similarities between de Kooning’s black and white paintings and Kline’s Nijinksy are immediately apparent. Kline’s affinity to the shape of the square can also be seen as the influence of De Stijl painter Piet Mondrian.[18] Motherwell’s inspiration, specifically for his Elegy paintings, exhibits itself more in his subject matter rather than in his aesthetic style. A lot of connections are to be found between his paintings and the poetry of Federico García Lorca. Not only are some of his titles taken from lines in Lorca’s poetry,[19] but the theory of duende and its connection to the usage of black is also greatly influenced by Lorca’s works.[20] Though considering Picasso’s Guernica a failure, due to the fact that it was too politically charged, Motherwell nonetheless sees his Elegy as somewhat of a descendent of Picasso’s large, black and white painting dedicated to Spanish lament.

It isn’t difficult to understand that there are obvious differences in the meaning and subject matter of Kline and Motherwell’s paintings. While their purposes differ, they share the ability to exhibit multiple readings as well as the possibility of “incorrect” interpretations. Kline’s 1950 abstract rendition of Nijinsky was one of many paintings in which he used the Russian dancer as his subject. He was specifically drawn to the character Petrouchka, a clown-like personage that Nijinsky was famously known to play in Stravinsky’s ballet. Most of his paintings of the dancer are figurative, though often nearing abstraction at times – Nijinsky (1947) being a perfect example of this in-between. The connection that Kline felt to the character of Petrouchka the clown can be seen in the way he identified [them] “as eccentric entertainers… burdened by society’s demand that their masks be always in place.”[21] He related to this experience, and therefore continually depicted clowns in his works. His 1950 version of Nijinsky, however, greatly departs from his more figurative drawings of the past. It was in this year that the great dancer died. Gaugh describes his abstract work as one in which “the image of the clown crowned by his fool’s hat is gone.”[22] The dancer, the artist, was now dead, and along with him, the character of Petrouchka that Kline held so close to his heart. “All that really survives is Kline’s deep feeling for Nijinsky,”[23] which emerges in the color contrast – heightening human emotion – and in his square and rectangular forms – mimicking and eliciting further human feeling.

Self-portraiture can also be seen in Motherwell’s Elegy painting. Along with the contrast of life and death that has been already mentioned regarding his color choice, which he himself regards as one possible subject of the painting, he also identifies with the oval shapes, filled with the energy of his spontaneous and rough brush strokes, as “personages pressed against the confining bars [of his earlier work].”[24] The Spanish Civil War is yet another of the multiple meanings imbedded into his work, as he claims that the “sense of life and death… is quite Spanish,”[25] while alluding to the fallen and conquered Spanish Republic and the rise of Francisco Franco’s fascist regime in his title.

Because both Kline and Motherwell’s paintings are abstract, they are bound to receive interpretations that fall outside of their preconceived ideas. Critics ranging from William C. Seitz to Clement Greenberg have commented on Kline’s work alluding to calligraphy and Oriental art, while others claimed that the entire meaning or purpose of his piece was to display works of calligraphy.[26] In 1962, Kline speaks directly to and denounces these interpretations. Calligraphy was never his intention, and he wanted to emphasize the shared power of his color choices, which was diminished by the calligraphic interpretation – the black isn’t any more important than the white.[27]

Motherwell’s paintings also received various interpretations that he like-wise denounced. The ovals and rectangular bars were described as phallic and representing male genitalia. Critic Robert Hobb has used this interpretation of the imagery to bring about a commentary on public versus private space as a possible subject for the work. He has also mentioned the possibility of the painting being an enlarged version of Motherwell’s signature, similar to the calligraphic interpretation of Kline’s work. Though the artist concedes that these are possible subconscious or unconscious images that came about in his automatist painting,[28] he pushes his prescribed meanings as the most important.

Nijinsky and Elegy For the Spanish Republic, with their attention to the formalist and performance aspects of Greenberg and Rosenberg’s critiques on the style, are prime examples of Abstract Expressionist art making. The paintings, as well as their creators, serve as inspiration for future artistic movements, just as their predecessors had influenced them. Kline’s sculptural quality, though breaking away from Greenberg’s formalistic “flatness” guidelines, inspired a generation of new artists, the minimalists, who saw his paintings as a springboard for their monumental minimalist sculptures.[29] Perhaps the same can be said for Motherwell’s architectural quality as well. In other spheres, though, Motherwell has exhibited a lot of influence as an art critic in addition to his personal artistic endeavors.

[1] Paul Cummings, “Oral History Interview with Leonard Bocour, 1978 June 8,” Archives of American Art, June 8, 1978.

[2] Harry F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, Ed. Nancy Grubb, (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1985) 22.

[3] Gaugh, Franz Kline, 90.

[4] Robert Saltonstall Mattison, Robert Motherwell The Formative Years, (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986) 198.

[5] Mattison, Motherwell, 199.

[6] Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell What Art Holds, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) 54.

[7] Mattison, Motherwell, 198

[8] Gaugh, Franz Kline, 96.

[9] Caws, Motherwell, 40.

[10] Mattison, Motherwell, 201.

[11] Gaugh, Franz Kline, 102.

[12] Mattison, Motherwell, 201.

[13] Mattison, Motherwell, 204.

[14] Mattison, Motherwell, 204.

[15] Gaugh, Franz Kline, 16.

[16] An American Choice: The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection, Ed. William S. Lieberman, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981) 64.

[17] Mattison, Motherwell, 199-200.

[18] Gaugh, Franz Kline, 97.

[19] Mattison, Motherwell, 203.

[20] Caws, Motherwell, 54.

[21] Gaugh, Franz Kline, 73.

[22] Gaugh, Franz Kline, 73.

[23] Gaugh, Franz Kline, 73.

[24] Mattison, Motherwell, 202.

[25] Mattison, Motherwell, 202.

[26] Gaugh, Franz Kline, 18.

[27] An American Choice 64

[28] Mattison, Motherwell, 200-201.

[29] Ivan Savvine, “Franz Kline Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works,” The Art – Your Guide to Modern Art.

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