While renowned artist Franz Kline lived in Lehighton more than 80 years ago, many of the local images that inspired his work remain intact. It was the visual impact of anthracite country that first inspired Kline to paint bold, stark lines across a canvas and capture the area's sense of both beauty and decay.
More recently, these same scenes inspired art professor Dr. Robert S. Mattison to create a Kline exhibition at the Allentown Art Museum. Franz Kline: Coal and Steel will showcase Kline's earliest works alongside his most well-known pieces, creating a timeline that demonstrates his influence on the art world and the influence that our area had on Kline.
"I came to Lafayette College to teach about 20 years ago, and one of the first things I did was drive up to anthracite country," said Mattison, the Marshall R. Metzgar Professor of Art History at Lafayette. "I was struck by how much the area reminded me of Kline paintings. That's how the idea germinated. This exhibition has been three years of work, but the idea goes back several decades."
Mattison spoke of viewing local coal breakers and culm piles for the first time, and knowing that he needed to share our area's impact with the art world.
"Kline was internationally known, but there has been very little attention paid to the Pennsylvania connection," he said. "Often the literature will say that he came from rugged Pennsylvania and that's about it. One can really trace the heritage and trace his ideas as they develop, out of Pennsylvania scenes, out of New York scenes."
Some of Kline's earliest works in the exhibit include pencil and ink drawings of our area and urban New York, which were the start of his exploration into abstract art. Many harness the area's rugged beauty, industrial force, and the decay of the local coal industry during the 1930s and 40s.
"100 million tons of coal were being mined when Kline was 7 years old, but by the time he was 40 the entire industry had collapsed. He was able to see the enormous power behind this industry, but also its fragility. That sense really played out into his art," said Mattison.
"Lehighton did better than most area towns during the depression, but he must have seen areas around him that had really been hit hard: Mines shut down and abandoned buildings, people out of work. It greatly influenced his world view."
While Kline lived in Lehighton for only a short period of time during high school, he returned to the area often to visit family. These visits continued to influence his work as he began experimenting with massive black and white canvases, the pieces he is best known for today. While his abstract paintings are not direct representations of the area's bridges, mine shafts, or coal breaker buildings, they are inspired by the emotions and visual memories instilled in Kline during his time in the area, noted Mattison.
"The people who knew him said that he would talk endlessly about coal country and what it was like, the mines and the miners, and talk about the names of the cities. So many of his paintings are named after coal areas," he said. Names of works referencing this area include Mahoning (1956, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Hazelton (1957, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), Thorpe (1954, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), and Bethlehem (1959-60, Saint Louis Museum of Art).
"The titles are almost a type of code for the feelings that are behind those paintings."