Biography of Franz Kline

American painter Franz Kline in his studio
American painter Franz Kline in his studio. Photo by John Cohen

Franz Kline's life story reads like a movie plot: Young artist starts out with high hopes, spends years struggling without success, eventually finds a style, becomes an "overnight sensation" and dies too soon.

Kline was best known for his role as an "action painter" of abstract expressionism, a movement that was popular in New York during the 1940s and 1950s and introduced the world to artists including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Early Life

Kline was born on May 23, 1910 Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. As the cartoonist for his high school newspaper, Kline was a good enough student to leave coal-mining country and attend Boston University. With budding artistic ambition, he went  to study at the Art Students League, and then Heatherly Art School in London. In 1938, he returned to the U.S. with his British wife and settled in New York City.

Art Career

It seemed New York really didn't care much that Kline had talent back in England and was ready to take on the world. He struggled for years as a figurative artist, doing portraits for two loyal patrons that won him a modest reputation. He also painted city scenes and landscapes, and occasionally resorted to painting barroom murals to pay the rent money.

In the mid 1940s, he met de Kooning and Pollock, and began to explore his own growing interest in trying new styles of painting.

Kline had been noodling around with black and white for years, creating small brush drawings and projecting them onto the wall of his studio. Now he got rather serious about creating the projected images using just his arm, brush and mental imagery. The pictures that began to emerge were given a solo exhibition in New York in 1950.

As a result of the show, Franz became an established name in the art world and his large, black and white compositions—likened to grids, or Oriental calligraphy—achieved notoriety.

With his reputation as a leading abstract expressionist secured, Kline concentrated on turning out his new passion. His new work had short, seemingly meaningless names, such as Painting (sometimes followed by a number), New York, Rust or the old stand-by Untitled.

He spent his last years trying to introduce color back into the mix, but was cut down in his prime by heart failure. Kline died on May 13, 1962 in New York City. He couldn't explain what his paintings meant, but Kline left the art world with the understanding that explanation of his art was not its intended purpose. His paintings were supposed to make one feel, not comprehend.

Important Works

  • Chief, 1950
  • Painting, 1952
  • Painting Number 2, 1954
  • White Forms, 1955
  • Untitled, 1955
  • Lehigh V Span, 1960
  • Le Gros, 1961

Famous Quote

"The final test of a painting, theirs, mine, any other, is: does the painter's emotion come across?"