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The Painting Techniques of Franz Kline

Franz Kline, a famous artist, loved using house paint for his creations. Despite his gallerist's efforts to replace it with fine art paint, Kline stuck to his preference. He transitioned from figurative drawings to abstract art after a transformative experience with a projector. His painting "Chief" showcases his unique style, using black and white in an iterative process. Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Voiceover: Around 1960, when Franz Kline had started selling some paintings, making some money, he had been working almost exclusively with house paint. Now, Sidney Janis, his gallerist, didn't like that idea so much, perhaps because he was looking for fine art prices, not hardware store prices. What he did one night, was to break into Kline's studio, take all of the house paint and replace it with Winsor Newton fine art grade paints. The next day Kline came in and said, "What is all this?" Took it out of there. Went back to the hardware store. Got some more house paint and went back to work. Why was Kline so enamored with house paint? Because it's cheap. Because it's kind of crass. Because it's kind of consumerist. Because it's not fine art. All of those are on the table. How about the material itself? Let's take a look in the studio. Looking at the paint in the can, it looks quite different from artist quality paint. It's very, very fluid. It dries to a very, very hard very, very flat and high glossy surface. Things that were all very seductive to Kline, in addition to the viscosity of paint that could be pulled across the canvas with a brush with this paint, because it is such a low viscosity paint. (jazz music) Looking at Franz Kline's painting called "Chief" from 1950. You might be surprised to learn that just two years prior to the making of this painting, Kline spent most of his time in the studio making figurative drawings and paintings of things like furniture, chairs for example. Around that time, Kline visited his friend Willem De Kooning. De Kooning invited Kline to show him a new toy, a projector. Something that could enlarge a drawing or photograph many, many times, up to the scale of, say, a wall. Kline, at that time, was drawing these chairs, if you will, on the pages of a phonebook. When he projected these onto the wall, he realized that they're so large that no longer could you see the chair. In fact, you couldn't even read the numbers and letters of the phonebook page. Instead, he abstracted black on white, or in that case yellow in the phonebook, abstracted images out of his source material, again drawings and the numbers and letters in a phonebook. What Kline saw was something that looked a little bit like this. It was a transformative moment for Kline. He realized that the abstract language that he wanted to pursue was based on that figure on ground, or in this case, black on white. (jazz music) When Kline decided that he was going to become an abstract painter it did not mean that he was done with drawing. In fact, this painting, which looks very spontaneous, looks like it perhaps could have been done in just half an hour, maybe even less, actually was the result of careful studies. Kline made abstract sketches and then quite carefully transferred those sketches onto this large scale painting, again with fast dripping enamel paint. (jazz music) It's still one layer more complicated because this is not simply black on white. This is actually black on white, but then white back on top of the black, black back on top of the white again. It's an iterative process. Giving and going, if you will, between these two colors. One step further, we're not talking about just one color white. If we look here, we have kind of a cool, crisp looking white. If we look here, we find a much warmer white color. Paintings like this are often referred to as action paintings, because we can almost imagine the painter as a kind of dancer whose movements in front of the canvas are recorded in time and space. (jazz music)