I know nothing about visual art. So all I can do, when I find myself in a museum, is to walk briskly from room to room — ah, Miro! ah, Johns! ah, Giacometti, the world’s most expensive sculpture! — until I find something that speaks to me. As today in LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, walking briskly, until-
What spoke to me today, was half a dozen large canvasses by Franz Kline, who I don’t believe I’d heard of before. I walked through the whole gallery three or four times, each time more convinced that these were the only things there really worth looking at. Black and white abstract geometric paintings. The whole style inspired by the guy’s visit to de Kooning’s studio with some representational pencil drawings, which the master encouraged him to blow up to extreme magnification. An ah ha moment for Kline apparently. From then on these black and white paintings that could be a zeroed-in-on detail from a pencil drawing.
What you learn, when you are beginning to paint or draw, is that you have to stop seeing the thing in front of you as a familiar abstraction — a chair, a woman, an elephant — and learn instead to see what you see: the contour, the shadow, the volume, the tone. This is what Kline’s paintings do. Without representing, necessarily, any particular object, they use the language of representation. You see the process of looking without ever seeing the thing being looked at.
What I mean is there’s a visual vocabulary we use to depict three dimensional objects and spaces on a flat surface. And Kline — not uniquely, but more than most abstract expressionists — knows how to use that vocabulary even without any specific referent. So you have the sense of looking at a thing — an object, a building, a place — without the image ever resolving into anything in particular. (Like a constellation.) It challenges you, is there something in this farmhouse in the snow, in this knife or bridge or flower, that affects you visually directly, without some sentimental association? If there is, whatever there is, that’s what these paintings contain.