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The `Vital Gesture' of painter Franz Kline

Nestled into a series of small, chamberlike rooms painted a velvety blue at the Cincinnati Art Museum is the exhibition ``The Vital Gesture: Franz Kline in Retrospect.'' In this quiet, nearly transcendent setting, the artistic evolution of a major Abstract Expressionist is traced from the artist's early figurative works, through the sprawling black and white abstract paintings that earned him the nickname ``the black and white artist,'' to his later color abstractions. The exhibition, which closed recently here and is on tour, offers the first full retrospective since 1968 of Kline's work. Born of the artistic spontaneous combustion of New York City's Greenwich Village of the 1940s, Abstract Expressionism was the first internationally known American art movement. Kline, along with artists Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and William de Kooning, stunned the public and riveted the critics with large-scale aggressive paintings that reflected the city's raw energy and the brashness of a country emerging as a world power.

Known as the New York School, these artists lived a Bohemian life that centered on late nights at the legendary Cedar Bar, the hustle and bustle of Hudson Street, and afternoons spent discussing art and lounging in Washington Park.

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As quoted by artists Elaine de Kooning in a videotape included in the exhibition, Kline described a Bohemian as ``a person who can live where an animal would die.'' Yet, despite Kline's dour self-portrait of 1945-47, the artist was described by friends as being the most good natured and spontaneous of the group. In a lecture at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Dore Ashton, a noted art historian and former friend of Kline's, recounted how on a late-night walk home through the Village Kline had jokingly adorned the hoods of parked cars with discarded Christmas trees.

Kline's spirit seems to inhabit this uniquely installed exhibition. The small rooms resemble the size of the artist's studio, where he worked mostly at night. The dark blues of museum walls evoke the same lighting under which Kline worked methodically on his canvases. Thus the visitor views the works as Kline would have.

Beginning with the lively composition ``Hot Jazz'' (1940), the importance of motion in the artist's work is revealed. Originally painted as a mural for the Bleecker Street Tavern, the painting portrays a swaying redheaded siren encircled by the soulful members of a barroom band. Kline's economy of line and gesture in this work reflects his early ambitions to be a cartoonist.

Paintings such as ``Lehigh River, Winter'' (1944) divulge the influence of the artist's youth in the depressed coal mining region of western Pennsylvania. These landscapes are imbued with the chug and singing speed of locomotives.

In comparison, Kline's portraits of his wife, Elizabeth, from this same period, are subdued compositions instilled with a quiet anguish. Elizabeth entered a mental hospital for the first time in 1946, the prelude to a series of long hospitalizations. In Kline's work, the image of an empty rocking chair came to symbolize her absence.

In Kline's transitional works the visitor sees an artist reaching for an epiphany in his style. During the late 1940s, Kline alternated between abstraction and representation, eliminating all but the most significant lines in his work. Events such as seeing the enlargement of one of his drawings projected in de Kooning's studio confirmed his inclination to pursue black and white on a large scale.

The section of the exhibition that houses the abstract work grows temple-like as the blues grow darker and the elegant black and white compositions carry the weight of icons. There is a generic similarity to the abstractions, but each is compelling in its sense of motion and immediacy.

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In works such as ``Ravenna'' (1961) and ``Palladio'' (1961), black, girderlike forms clang into each other across a field of white with a high-speed velocity endowed by the artist's powerful brushstrokes.

In later works, the artist attempted to do with color what he had done with black and white. The exhibition concludes resoundingly with the dynamic blue ``Scudera'' (1961), the last painting the artist completed before his death at the age of 52.

``The Vital Gesture'' was organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum with guest curator Dr. Harry Gaugh, associate professor of art history at Skidmore College. The exhibition will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (April 17-June 8) and to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (June 16-Sept. 28). Because of the fragility of many of the works, an exhibition on this scale is unlikely to be repeated. This could be the last opportunity the public will have to see the lifework of an artist described by Ashton as ``a true Bohemian who fought his way into the light, his own light.''

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