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Centennial remembrance of Franz Kline

  • The most ambitious of Franz Kline's paintings in Carbon County is the mural, "Lehighton," painted in 1946, located behind the bar at American Legion Post 314 in Lehighton.
    The most ambitious of Franz Kline's paintings in Carbon County is the mural, "Lehighton," painted in 1946, located behind the bar at American Legion Post 314 in Lehighton.
Published September 13. 2010 05:00PM

One of Carbon County's most famous artists, Franz Kline, was born in 1910, and had he not passed away just shy of his 52nd birthday in 1960, he would be celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2010.

After years as a struggling artist many of those years spent in his hometown of Lehighton Kline achieved fame and fortune as an abstract expressionist painter.

Kline was born in Wilkes-Barre. When his mother remarried after his father's suicide, the family moved to S. Ninth Street in Lehighton.

Kline attended junior and senior high school in Lehighton. He played basketball, football and baseball during his school years. He captained the Indians' football team in 1929, was elected president of the Lehighton High School Art Club in his sophomore year, and contributed cartoons toward the 1931 edition of the Lehighton High School yearbook, the "Gachtin Bambil."

Recovering from knee surgery caused by a football injury, Kline turned down four athletic scholarships, and instead attended Boston University's art school. He graduated from Boston University in 1935, and then studied at Heatherly's Art School in London.

While in London, Kline met his future wife, Elizabeth Parsons, a ballet student who agreed to model for him. He returned to the U.S. in 1938 and they married and lived in New York City.

In 1943, Kline was surprised to be notified that he had won a National Academy of Design prize of $300 for his painting, "Palmerton, Pa."

Kline wrote, "Now for some real news that came to me as a complete surprise ... 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." The following year, Kline won again for his painting, "Lehigh River, Winter."

During the mid-1940s, Kline began frequenting the Cedar Bar, the epicenter of what would later be called abstract impressionism. Influenced by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, in 1949 Kline began exhibiting a new style of black and white emotion-tinged abstract painting.

"Powerful and different" is the way Joel LeBow described Kline's abstracts. In 1954, LeBow studied with Kline at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. LeBow was about 20 years old; Kline was in his mid-40s.

"I was fortunate to be in his painting classes," LeBow said. He and I got along well. He had patience for good students. I was a good student. I was a good painter. The other kids he left alone.

"He would come by and look at my work as I was painting. One day, he said, 'I need something to hang up. Can I hang up one of your paintings?' I was honored that he had taken one of my paintings, as a student working, and put it up."

When he moved to New York City, Lebow lived about four blocks from Kline's studio, and met him many times.

"I was four doors up from the Cedar Tavern, where he and de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, they all got together. Some became famous some vanished," said LeBow.

"Every once in a while, he'd come up and look at my work or he'd take me to his place. He was a dapper man always a natty dresser.

LeBow recalled that Kline's wife was in a mental institution in Islip, Long Island.

"He would go out to see her. He said it was very painful."

What are LeBow's thoughts on Kline's work?

"It always impressed me that he could create anything which is so different, that looks like no other man in the world could have done. It is rather a remarkable thing. It was very powerful and It carried a message all his own."

Becky Finsel, a biographer of Kline describes his work as, "Raw emotion meticulously expressed."

A Franz Kline exhibition is scheduled for the fall of 2012 at the Allentown Art Museum, with plans on having the show travel to locations in New York and Pennsylvania. The show will be curated by Robert Mattison of Lafayette College.

"The exhibit will be in three parts," Mattison explained, "'Kline in Pennsylvania, Kline in New York, and Kline in the studio.'

"The core experiences is the black and white paintings really come out of memory of the anthracite region. Working from the early representational pieces through the big black and white abstractions. It's not just black on a white ground," he explained.

"He would paint the black and the white almost simultaneously, working on one then the other, painting the white up around the black, not behind the black back and forth with forces working against one another."

The most ambitious of Franz Kline's paintings in Carbon County is the mural, "Lehighton," painted in 1946, which is located behind the bar at American Legion Post 314 in Lehighton.

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