Macro: Kline’s “Orange and Black Wall”

Orange and Black Wall is grand, graphic, and fun. I happen to like it a lot. I saw it in a room full of modern art, and thought, “oooh! I like it.” It doesn’t make me think about current social issues or wonder about a different far off historic culture. I don’t think it changed the course of art history. I just like looking at it.

Orange and Black Wall by Franz Kline

At 12 feet long and over 5 feet high, this painting by Franz Kline isn’t as big as a billboard, but it certainly commands attention. It is bold: no pastels, no subtle blending, just big, broad strokes of pure color. I imagine trying to make such a long brushstroke requires almost gymnastic talent. How do you make a stroke that long without stepping on it? Maybe he did… I stood in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and imagined the artist as an acrobatic painter, tumbling his way across the canvas. It kinda made me want to dance. (I decided to spare the museum docent monitoring the room from my clutzy antics.)

detail of Orange and Black Wall by Franz KlineWhen I got closer to look for footprints, to see if Mr. Kline had indeed stepped on his work while making it, I didn’t find any shoe treads. There was a lot of texture, though. The standard house paint Kline used is cracking like an old master painting, but this is fairly new art, from 1959. There are globs in the paint and lines from the brush he used and places where the paint is built up thick, a technique called impasto.   And where the cracks on the Mona Lisa distract me from DaVinci’s work, the uneven surface on this abstract painting just enriches it for me. It makes me want to see it from up close and far away. It makes me spend more time with it.

Since getting a camera with a macro setting in 2006, I have taken far too many extreme close-ups of textures: leaves, dirt, cracks in sidewalks. I’ve thought about picking my favorites, printing them, and framing them, but I’m not sure my husband finds magnified asphalt to be compelling art for the dining room. Looking at Kline’s Wall, I get to enjoy texture as “fine art” with more brillant color than my amateur photos of tree bark. Allow me to demonstrate:

See? Wasn’t that pleasant? Don’t worry, you don’t have to agree, but I especially love the layering of color. What looks like black from afar is really green and yellow and black and blue playing peekaboo. If I cover my eyes, you won’t be able to see me. If I paint this white, you won’t see the color, except that you know I’m not gone. You know the color is there. These hands don’t fool you.

detail of Orange and Black Wall by Franz KlineHow do you paint something like this? Why would an artist decide—“I’m going to make a mostly black and white painting, but first I’ll paint the canvas orange and red and green and blue and yellow and pink.” Did Kline paint a color feast for the eyes and then change his mind? Probably not. Franz Kline, an abstract expressionist, went through a phase beginning in the late 1940s where he painted using only black and white. He would take telephone books, and paint on the pages, making huge stacks of little practice paintings. Then, he would choose one that seemed, well, I don’t know really, successful? Appealing? Anyhow, he would pick his favorite, and recreate it on a full sized canvas. He did this for years with just black and white.

Then, a decade later, he started to use color again. Despite having so much black slashing through the image, Orange and Black Wall doesn’t feel heavy, somber, or angry to me. It feels vibrant. And I like it.

Does Orange and Black Wall make you want to dance, or walk away? What art do you like?

MoMA in New York made this video to demonstrate Franz Kline’s painting technique.

Seem familiar but can’t place it? Kline’s art was used on the cover of this Brubeck Quartet album.


One thought on “Macro: Kline’s “Orange and Black Wall”

  1. Thank you Elysia for your musings over this piece and including the video on his techniques. Abstract art can at times for me feel without forethought… and quite clearly with Kline that was not the case. I love the information about process and choosing house paints. How interesting!
    I have, like yourself, find the macro of materials fascinating. I believe there is always more that what our human eye can see. Natural or man made… there is another “layer” to the story. Kline’s huge work presented in macro was such fun! I would love to see postings of your extreme close ups also.
    Because of this post I am interested to see more by Kline. What a treat! Both discovering a new artist and in a new way.


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