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Franz Kline and painting revealed at Palmerton Area Heritage Center

  • SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS A reproduction of Franz Kline's "Palmerton, Pa." 1941 painting is on display at the Palmerton Area Heritage Center in celebration of the artist's 100th anniversary of his birthday.
    SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS A reproduction of Franz Kline's "Palmerton, Pa." 1941 painting is on display at the Palmerton Area Heritage Center in celebration of the artist's 100th anniversary of his birthday.
Published June 08. 2010 05:00PM

Recently a covered painting was shrouded in mystery in the window of the Palmerton Area Heritage Center, 410 Delaware Ave.

People were asked to read the clues presented and then try to guess who the painter was.

On Sunday, May 23, the 100th anniversary of the painter's birth, the painting and artist were revealed.

Franz Kline painted "Palmerton, Pa" in 1941.

Peter Kern, president of the Palmerton Area Council Carbon County Chamber of Commerce, commissioned a special reproduction of the painting in oil on canvas. Kern chose this painting to be reproduced "because it has the closest significance to Palmerton, Carbon County, the mountain and the gap."

It was mounted and framed by Palmerton Frame and Gallery. It will hang in the Heritage Center probably until the end of summer, honoring one of the area's own famous sons.

For who would have imagined, in 1931 in the depths of the Great Depression, that a young man graduating from Lehighton High School, would have his paintings become part of the permanent exhibits of the Museum of Modern Art, the Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum, and dozens of other important collections throughout the world?

Who would have imagined that his mural, commissioned in 1946 by the Lehighton American Legion, would become an important piece of American art?

Who would have imagined that 80 years later examples of his abstract expressionism would command prices of five million dollars at art auction?

Franz Kline was born in Wilkes-Barre, May 23, 1910. Following the death of his father in 1917, Kline's mother relocated to Lehighton where he received his education and where he first demonstrated his artistic talents. He created linoleum cuts for the school newspaper and made paintings on the walls of the Graver Swimming Pool bath houses. The 14-foot by 6-foot mural that is prominently displayed in the American Legion dining area was painted as residents sat and watched. Kline mixed his oils with beer-for "stabilization," so he said.

While in Lehighton, the Klines resided in a home at Ninth and Alum. Franz had a brother, Fred, a sister Louise, and another brother Jack, who became a school teacher in Slatington. He also had a stepbrother, Arlington and a stepsister, LaTour, whose reminiscences of her brother Franz became part of Lehighton lore.

Franz Kline was remembered by those who knew him as a colorful individual who courted a female teacher in his high school years. He did a stint with the WPA during the depression, traveled to England where he took art classes, and at one point even applied for British citizenship (he later reconsidered.)

In the 1930s and into 1940s, he became a part of the Boston-New York art scene, but he never forgot his roots in the Pennsylvania coal country. Many of his most important abstract paintings bear the titles "Hazleton," "Thorpe," and Mahoning," the latter which was featured in 1998 on a United States postage stamp in his honor.

"Palmerton, Pa" was a painting of great importance to Kline because it won him the 1943 S.J. Wallace Truman Prize at the National Academy of Design and brought him his first "big" public recognition. The Truman Prize was awarded to artist under 35 years of age.

Kline wrote home, "Now for some real news that came to me as a complete surprise ... I entered two canvases for the annual National Academy art show ... they usually take only one. This year to my surprise they accepted and are exhibiting the two. And for one of them, I have received a $300 prize ...

"The winning picture was a large painting from memory of Palmerton, Pa ... The composition is slightly abstract and the mood seems to receive many compliments.

"I tell you I was never so surprised in my life ... I'll try to get you The New York Times write-up ..."

The painting is a composite of images ... not sketches on Kline's last trip home, but aged in memories ... the painting's mood is a ... daydream not of the problematic future but the generous past." (From "The Vital Gesture: Franz Kline" by Harry F. Gaugh, Abbeville Press 1985.)

The original now hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Following a series of heart attacks, Kline died in 1962 in New York City just short of his fifty-second birthday. As is the case with many artists, the appreciation in value and demand for his works came after his death. During his lifetime, it wasn't unusual for him to be evicted from his studio apartment for non-payment of rent.

"Kline's art does not suit everyone's taste. But it is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the most significant American artists of the twentieth century and he is certainly worthy of the distinction of being an important part of Carbon County history," says Kern.

He invites everyone to visit the Heritage Center to view the painting and learn more about Kline.

The Center's hours are: Wednesdays 1-4:30 p.m.; Thursdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Fridays 12-6 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

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