Franz Kline

Franz Kline, Chief, 1950
Chief, 1950, (via Wikimedia Commons)

Franz Kline’s celebrated black and white canvases came about as a result of his experiments with an optical projector.  He discovered that by looking at his drawings through the projector, he could see only dramatic shapes that were completely separate from the every-day object he had drawn.

Early Years

Franz Kline was born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania in 1910, the second of four children. His parents were both immigrants - his father came from Hamburg and his mother from Cornwall. Kline attended Girard College, Philadelphia and Lehighton High School.   He developed his interest in drawing when he was confined to bed following a football injury and he decided to become an illustrator and cartoonist.

From 1931 he studied first at the Boston University School of Education and later at the Boston Art Students' League.  Keen to explore his Englishness, he went to London in 1935 to study at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Vincent Parsons, a ballet dancer who modelled for life drawing classes at the school.  Kline returned to America in 1938 and he and Elizabeth were married and set up home in New York.

New York

Kline’s work during this period consisted mainly of New York urban landscapes and he earned a living doing work for set designers and painting murals in bars and restaurants.  He got to know Willem de Kooning and other abstract expressionists in the early 1940s and was a familiar figure at the Cedar Bar.

It was de Kooning who introduced him to the Bell Opticon projector and suggested he experiment with it.  Looking at his own sketches of every-day objects through the projector, Kline discovered that, when enlarged, they became completely abstracted.    Already interested in abstraction, this was a powerful discovery for him and he decided to abandon representational art altogether.


The large black and white canvases Kline produced at this time have huge dramatic impact.  Seemingly spontaneous, they are actually based on carefully constructed drawings he made prior to commencing a painting, drawings often made on pages torn from a telephone directory.   They are evocative of the industrial landscape he would have been familiar with as a boy – mining structures, bridges, railroads, engines.

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Zinc Doors, Franz Kline
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Final Years

He had his first one-man exhibition featuring paintings in this new style at the Egan Gallery in 1950.  It was very well received and his reputation grew steadily from there.  By 1956 he was financially successful.  Although he is best-known for these black and white canvases, he started using color in his paintings again during the late 1950s.

Sadly,Kline did not enjoy his success for long.  He became ill with a rheumatic heart condition in 1961 and died in hospital in New York in  May 1962. 

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