When the exhibition Franz Kline: Coal and Steel opens this week at the Allentown Art Museum's Scheller gallery, it will offer guests a rare view of a local artist who grew to international fame.
Kline (1910-1962) spent much of his teenage years living on Ninth Street in Lehighton and graduated from Lehighton High School in 1931. He is best known for his black and white abstract work and played a major role in the American Abstract Expressionist movement, influencing countless artists throughout the world.
While Kline is best known for his large, bold abstract works, this exhibit will showcase some of his earlier works that were directly influenced by his time in Pennsylvania.
"This display tells the whole story about Kline. The art public knows the big black and white paintings, but that's only part of his story," said Dr. Robert S. Mattison, guest curator for the exhibition and the Marshall R. Metzgar Professor of Art History at Lafayette College.
"This display takes someone who is an internationally admired figure and shows their regional connection to American history and coal country. To a certain extent, it's a rewriting of history to look at him in a very different way."
Of course, no Kline exhibition would be complete without examples of his large-scale abstract works. The museum has borrowed Turin (1960) from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. At nearly 8 feet wide, it is by far the largest piece at the Allentown museum's exhibition.
"It's amazing. It fills one fairly large wall," said Mattison. "It's a beautiful culminating piece, how all of these ideas and influences led to these heroically scaled pieces. It really set the art world on its ear at the time."
Mattison spent more than three years building the exhibition and nearly two decades imagining the best ways to present Kline's lifetime of work. He established connections with private collectors who owned Kline's earliest works, gradually piecing together the history of Kline's inspiration and his ties to the area.
"Most of these are works that have not been ever shown, or rarely shown," said Mattison. "We're showing a lot of smaller works."
The exhibition will include never before seen pencil and ink drawings that Kline used to visually explore the area and experiment with his craft.
"That experimental work isn't shown much in Kline exhibitions," he added. "Most of those exhibitions focus on the big black and white paintings that were done in the 1950s and onward. This display is really showing the way that his art progressed, the way that his early works from Pennsylvania and from when he was first living in New York, how all of this fits into those later paintings."
Kline's early works often include dark, industrial landscapes with a gritty, surreal quality. Many prominently feature trains; his stepfather worked on the Lehigh Valley Railroad in Lehighton.
"The words used to describe his work are typically 'powerful' and 'iconic,'" said Chris Potash, the manager of public relations at the Allentown Art Museum. He noted that while our region is now known for its rolling hills and beautiful landscape, visitors can still capture the area's grittiness while driving past a stripping pit or culm pile.
"Just looking at the damage that was done by man," Potash said. "It's an awesome feeling. That's the kind of feeling that many people who look at Kline's work have. It's a beauty, but it's a rugged and almost harsh beauty, very connected with the industrial landscape."
The time in which Kline lived in Carbon County also helped to define his world view, said Mattison. As he was reaching adulthood, much of the area's thriving businesses coal and the railroad were entering the stages of decline.
"He often painted powerful industrial machinery that is just about to end its useful life. He painted steam trains that were just about to be replaced by diesel and electric trains," he said. "It's very much part of this industrial age of America, showing both the physical power of these machines but also the sense of decay and change."
The Kline exhibition will include several lectures and gallery talks, including a conversation with Irving Sandler on Oct. 7 at 1 p.m.
"He is the premier historian of abstract expressionism. He knew Kline and he knew most of the other artists of that era, and is still a very active writer about the arts," said Mattison. "He is a piece of history. It's a great chance for people to hear him speak."
Mattison will offer a gallery talk Nov. 7 and an illustrated slide lecture on Dec. 16.
Throughout the exhibition's run, an educational display will be offered in the Art Ways gallery, an interactive gallery geared toward children and families. The gallery will feature railroad and coal mining artifacts, signage from Lehighton and other local railroad stations, and a life-size fiberglass mule designed as tribute to Kline.
The majority of the artifacts are on loan from Dale Freudenberger's private collection; Freudenberger is a coordinator of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. The mule, "Franz Kline Muler," is on loan from the borough of Lehighton.
Mattison encouraged local residents to consider making the short drive to Allentown to see Kline's work and our area's influence on the abstract artist.
"Kline's experiences in Northeastern Pennsylvania were essential to the development of his art. It's here in the Lehigh Valley but it's really about your area," he said. "We want to think of this area as united, and the more we can do to help each other is really great."
A black and white-themed preview party will be held on Saturday to celebrate the opening of the exhibit and neighboring exhibition, Walker Evans and the American Social Landscape Photographers. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (610) 432-4333, ext. 129.
Franz Kline: Coal and Steel will be on display from Oct. 7 through Jan. 13, 2013. The museum is located at 31 North Fifth St. in Allentown.