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$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
sold for $9,990,000
Estate of the artist (#ZP61)
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc., New York
Mr. and Mrs. Richard Hodgson (acquired from the above in 1968)
Sotheby’s, New York, May 13, 2003, lot 25
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, New Paintings by Franz Kline, March 7 – April 2, 1960, no. 3 (illustrated)
New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc., Franz Kline 1910-1962, March 1967, no. 12 (illustrated, p. 23)
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Franz Kline Retrospective, October 1 – November 24, 1968, no. 72, pl. 57 (illustrated, p. 60)
David Anfam, Dore Ashton, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, eds, Franz Kline (1910-1962), Torino, 2004, p. 324
Fielding Dawson, "An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline,"1967, in Art in America 1945 - 1970, 2014, p. 283
Embodying the extraordinary compositional balance of energy and restraint that catapulted Franz Kline to critical acclaim, Sawyer is the paradigm of the Abstract Expressionist artist's pictorial idiom. Like an immense architectural structure seen up close, Sawyer towers over the viewer with its all-absorbing, heroic scale. Kline's signature black gestures, etched as deeply into the landscape of post-war art as Jackson Pollock's “drips” or Barnett Newman’s “zips”, are here thrust across the vast canvas to form a grid-like structure. Painted in 1959 at the peak of Kline’s career, the painting exemplifies the artist’s seminal move toward color just three years prior. Subtle but dominated by black and white, the work is enlivened by gesturally painted impastoed passages of cream, ochre, peach, chalky whites and greys that infuse the composition with a soft, atmospheric tone. This gives rise to a sensation of infinite, limitless space, while simultaneously pushing the immense black form forward towards the viewer. In 1960, the same year Kline represented the United States at the 30th Venice Biennale, Sawyer was debuted in Kline’s solo exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, alongside some of the artist’s now most esteemed masterpieces, including Black, White and Gray, 1959, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dahlia, 1959, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Orange and Black Wall, 1959, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Orleans, 1959, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The works exhibited here stand as remarkable examples of the bravura of Kline's late oeuvre, which tragically ended with his premature death just two years later in 1962. It is testament to Sawyer’s significance within Kline’s oeuvre that it was celebrated in the artist’s first posthumous institutional retrospective exhibition in the United States at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1968-1969.
In its sweeping gestures, Sawyer powerfully speaks to the liberation of line that Kline achieved with his black and white paintings nearly a decade earlier. It was in 1950 that Kline, radically shifting from the small scale and semi-representational nature of his earlier work, achieved his mature style. According to none other than Elaine de Kooning, Kline famously arrived at his artistic breakthrough upon seeing the magnified proportions of his figurative brush drawings projected on a Bell-Opticon projector in Willem de Kooning’s studio. Towering nearly seven feet tall, Sawyer epitomizes the radical distillation of line and monumental magnification that had almost instantaneously catapulted Kline into the limelight of the then still emerging group of Abstract Expressionist artists encompassing Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, amongst others. Motherwell commemorated this pictorial innovation shortly after Kline’s death, noting “Kline’s great black bars have the tension of a taut bow, or a ready catapult. And his sense of scale, that sine qua non of good painting, is marvelously precise” (Robert Motherwell, “Homage to Franz Kline”, August 17, 1962, in Franz Kline. The Color Abstractions, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1979, p. 43). With paintings such as Sawyer, Kline amplified the intimacy of drawing on a monumental scale in order to, as Albert Bomie argued, “expand his sense of himself in the world – to sing at the top of his voice rather than speak in a hoarse whisper” (Albert Bomie, Franz Kline. The Early Works as Signals, exh. cat., State University of New York, Binghamton, 1977, p. 20).
An American flâneur
While the grid-like structure in Sawyer points to such non-referential precedents as Kazimir Malevich’s grid and Josef Albers’ square, Kline’s paintings are firmly rooted in his lived experience. Born in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining country in 1910, Kline moved to New York City in 1938 after studying in Boston and London. It was here that Kline became fascinated with the city's virile power as embodied in its towering skyscrapers, roaring automobiles and freighters and the industrial riverside structures in lower Manhattan. Though Kline rejected any claims to symbolism or literalism, his powerful abstractions are the distillation of the known and recognizable. As Kline himself acknowledged of the referential associations his beams conjured, “I think that if you use long lines, they become — what could they be? The only thing that they could be is either highways or architecture or bridges” (Franz Kline, quoted in David Sylvester, “Franz Kline 1910-1962”, in Living Arts, no. 1, 1963, p. 7). Kline’s refined abstractions of the urban environment speak to the lasting influence of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s drawings of riverfront life in London in the early 1900s, which had already informed his early sketches of New York’s bridges and barges in the 1940s, as well as to Kline’s creative dialogue with his friend and photographer, Aaron Siskind. Whether evoking the architectonic tension of the modern metropolis, his native coal country or persons in his life, Kline’s crashing painterly paeans translate his individual experiences of the rapidly changing world around him into more existential meditations on modernity.
Though the relationship of titles to paintings in Kline’s oeuvre are never quite clear-cut, Sawyer arguably recalls an episode that occurred in the artist’s studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Kline had purchased a house in this Cape Cod seaside village at the beginning of 1959 and it was here that works such as Provincetown II and Sawyer were painted in preparation for his solo show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in the following year. Renowned for its sparse natural beauty, Provincetown had attracted a number of Abstract Expressionists including Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock, who rented the same cottage that would be Kline’s studio in 1944. According to Fielding Dawson, a former student of Kline’s at Black Mountain College, the formal resolution of Sawyer was achieved when a door in Kline's new Provincetown studio caught the artist's attention. Whereas Kline had previously been reworking the canvas without, frustratingly, achieving the desired composition, “midstream he changed his picture, painted a vertical, rather squarish rectangle, later called it Sawyer” (Fielding Dawson, An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline, 1967, in Art in America 1945-70, 2014, p. 283). “Sawyer” was in fact the name of the carpenter who had built the door and with whom Kline developed a friendship. Though Dawson notes that this episode occurred in 1960, it undoubtedly refers to the present work’s creation as it is the only known painting with this title, and the related work on paper Sawyer Garden Barber was also created in 1959. Giving both a sense of pictorial depth and infinite space, Sawyer presents the viewer with an after-image of sorts — one that is anchored in abstraction, but simultaneously evokes, albeit ambiguously, the realm of the known. It is almost as though Sawyer distills Kline’s experience of contemplating the door in his studio anew; its architectural outlines distilled into elementary forms as though seen through eyes re-adjusting to the bright Cape Cod daylight filtering into the light-suffused studio.
Painter in Action
As with Kline’s greatest works, Sawyer pulsates with a palpable rawness and immediacy that suggests it to be the intuitive, quick and unrevised result of the artist’s full body movement. Yet, as Dawson’s previously mentioned anecdote underlines, Sawyer is in fact the culmination of a typically laborious process of continuous re-vision that recalls the painting method of Kline's fellow artist and close friend Willem de Kooning. “Some of the pictures I work on a long time and they look as if I knocked them out,” Kline acknowledged only to point out that, "The immediacy can be accomplished in a picture that’s been worked on for a long time just as well as if it’s been rapidly” (Franz Kline, quoted in David Sylvester, “Franz Kline”, 1960, in Interviews with American Artists, New Haven, 2001, p. 71). Though Kline’s great diagonals were seldom the result of a single inspirational impulse and often instead painted with small brushstrokes based on sketches and drawings across several sessions, they nevertheless expressed the ultimate attainment of an inner vision. As Kline explained in 1957, “If I feel a painting I’m working on doesn’t have imagery or emotion, I paint it out and work over it until it does” (Franz Kline, quoted in Franz Kline 1910-62, exh. cat., Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin, 2004, p. 110).
Painting in Technicolor
“It was Kline’s unique gift,” as Elaine de Kooning so poignantly observed in 1962, "to be able to translate the character and the speed of a one-inch flick of the wrist to a brushstroke magnified a hundred times. (Who else but Tintoretto has been able to manage this gesture?) All nuances of tone, sensitivity of contour, allusions to other art are engulfed in his black and white insignia, as final as a jump from the top floor of a skyscraper” (Elaine de Kooning, quoted in Franz Kline 1910-62, exh. cat., Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin, 2004, p. 345). Sawyer epitomizes how Kline’s embrace of color as a compositional element starting around 1956 heightened the sensation of utter monumentality and amplified the expressive force of his distilled slashes and slabs. Though Kline had already explored the potential of color sporadically earlier in his career with works such as Yellow Square in 1952, this uninterrupted return to color was a radical move for an artist whose signature black and white style was widely acclaimed as the ultimate formal embodiment of his abstract endeavors.
Sawyer exemplifies Kline's particular interest in the subtle qualities of sand, ochre and gray hues. While there are passages of black pigment that collide sharply with the lighter passages, Kline here has allowed for diffused areas to arise where white, black and colored impasto mix together as he continuously slathered layer upon layer of paint atop each other with varying degrees of intensity. The feathered strokes loosen the composition and infuse it with a poetic ambiance, while the ochre, peach and cream-colored passages push the black grid-like form forward. At the same time, the subtle variances of hues within the black structure itself illustrate Kline’s expressed admiration for the great masters of chiaroscuro such as Velazquez, Tintoretto, Rembrandt and Goya.
Whereas in 1956 Kline commented to art critic Leo Steinberg “I'm always trying to bring color into my paintings, but it keeps slipping away”, by 1959, the year Sawyer was created, he had arrived at an undisputed confidence in the tectonic co-efficiency of color in his compositions (Franz Kline, quoted in Harry F. Gaugh, Franz Kline, New York, 1985, p. 132). Looking back, Elaine de Kooning wrote of Kline’s triumph, “Then, as he kept struggling…his color made its breakthrough and entered the dynamism of his imagery as an equal actor. The stage was set, the new action had started” (Elaine de Kooning, quoted in Franz Kline Memorial Exhibition, exh. cat., Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, D. C., 1962, p. 18). Here was a painter at the peak of his creativity, ready to build on the pictorial innovations ushered in with works such as Sawyer — only to be tragically cut short in his ambitions by a premature and sudden death due to heart failure in 1962, at only 51 years of age. More than 50 years later, Sawyer still offers an awe-inspiring phenomenological experience, one that transcends the literalness of in its inception and becomes a more fundamental meditation on the precarious human condition in a fast-paced and ever-changing world.
$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
sold for $9,990,000
New York Auction 16 November 2017