By Pete Hamill
Art & Antiques, May 1990
New York was full of swaggering energy in the spring of 1958, when I was living over a secondhand bookstore on Fourth Avenue and Twelfth Street, still trying to be a painter. It was a town where everyone was working, nobody cared about politics, and all things seemed possible. Even for the likes of me.
During the day I studied art at Pratt Institute, and in the chilly evenings I would wander to the Cedar Street Tavern on University Place to nurse a few beers on the thin leftovers of my G.I. Bill money. This was the great bar of the action painters, and of poets too, and visiting cowboys and a few stray seamen and too many rich girls from Bennington who lectured you about Selling Out. I went there because I wanted to see painters in the flesh, to see how they walked and moved and ordered their drinks. I was still something of a kid, unformed and green, and this information was much more important to me than theories of push-pull, color fields, plastic depth, the vital gesture, or the idea of the sublime.
Some insisted, of course, that the Cedar wasn’t what it had been; they always say that in Village bars. But about the Cedar they might have been right. In 1958, Jackson Pollock had been dead almost two years; de Kooning was not around much anymore; other regulars were moving uptown, never to return. But look: down past the end of the bar, in the first rough booth in the brightly lit back room: that elegant, beautiful girl is Joan Mitchell. Sitting with Alfred Leslie. And Philip Guston. And in that other booth, laughing raucously, that’s Grace Hartigan, looking like fifty miles of trouble out of a film noir. She’s talking to David Smith. And that huge fellow with the Zapata mustache: Harold Rosenberg. And over there, that’s Larry Rivers—he draws figures!—jittery-eyed, junkie-thin, fingers drumming on the table as if in time to a melody nobody else can hear. All were engulfed in a blue nicotine fog, drinking hard, laughing, having a great old time. And among them, every night, was the painter I admired most in the world: Franz Kline.
We all knew the legend: back home in the coal country of Pennsylvania, he’d played baseball and football, he’d been a boxer. In the age of Hemingway, such credentials were more important than they should have been.
With Pollock and de Kooning, Kline was the third glittering star in the Big Three constellation. He sat in a booth facing the door, dressed in a camel’s-hair coat, with his rough, lumpy slab of a face made oddly elegant by a carefully trimmed mustache. A spear of hair fell across his brow like a brushstroke by that other Franz, Mr. Hals. When women came to the booth he always tried to rise and bow in greeting, like a boulevardier from the French films we saw around the corner at the Eighth Street or the Art. Franz was one of those bulky men who look taller sitting down. But when he rose to go to the john, he moved with an athlete’s grace, giving off the same muscular aura that emanated from the paintings. We all knew the legend: back home in the coal country of Pennsylvania, he’d played baseball and football, he’d been a boxer. In the age of Hemingway, such credentials were more important than they should have been. As he went by, through the door that Pollock had once torn off hinges, he had a word and smile for everybody. Everybody called him Franz.
It was not in me, then or now, to fawn over famous men; by the tough code of the ’50s, that just wouldn’t be hip. But the Bennington girls had no such restraints, and they went for Franz the way sharks go for drowning sailors. So it was hard to be alone with Franz Kline; I suppose that’s why he went to the Cedar. But one night a painter friend named Haig Akmajian (he lived in my building) brought me over and introduced me. The great painter smiled and welcomed me to the booth and ordered the first of many beers; he treated me as if I were an established member of The Club. And we talked. And talked. Or rather, Franz talked and I listened. I wasn’t a reporter then, I made no notes; but I can hear him now. He had an elaborate, writerly way of speaking, with that rare tone that combines irony with affection. Nothing he said ever sounded bitter, except his references to Walter O’Malley, who had led the Dodgers out of Brooklyn with the Giants following timidly in their wake. “That s.o.b. will find a private place in hell,” Franz said of O’Malley. And then laughed, embarrassed by his own bitterness. It was difficult to believe that Franz Kline would send anyone on earth to hell.
He talked about Sugar Ray Robinson and Lester Young, Akira Kurosawa and Brigitte Bardot. He asked me about Pratt, where he had taught a few years earlier (as had lsamu Noguchi, George McNeil, Adolph Gottlieb, and Richard Lindner, among other stars of the New York art world). “You can help teach people how to draw,” he said, “but you can’t teach them to be painters. All you can do is let them know they better love it or get the hell out.”
At some point we started talking about cartoonists. His face brightened as he sipped his beer. “I wanted to be a cartoonist when I started out. I wanted that more than anything.” He loved the cartoons of Willard Mullin in the World-Telegram. (“I don’t know how he does it, day after day, on that level. The guy’s a genius.”) He was the first man to tell me he was a fan of the amazing Cliff Sterrett, whose surrealistic comic strip, “Polly and her Pals,” was usually overlooked by the solemn analysts of popular culture. And of course he paid homage to George Herriman, whose “Krazy Kat” was the highbrows’ favorite comic strip. “But you know,” he said, “I even like ‘Orphan Annie.’ The politics are neanderthal. But the man knows how to use blacks.”
“Hell, half the world wants to be like Thoreau at Walden, worrying about the noise of traffic on the way to Boston; the other half use up their lives being part of that noise. I like the second half.”
I was astonished. This was years before pop art was proclaimed by critics as the successor to abstract expressionism. No painter’s vision seemed more distant from cartooning than the great bold abstractions of Franz Kline. But as he talked that night, I realized that it was comics that had made him want to be an artist. Born in 1910, he grew up in the ’20s with John Held Jr. as his hero. Held’s drawings in the old Life and Judge and Vanity Fair made him the most famous cartoonist of his time. In their way, Held’s short-skirted flappers and bell-bottomed college boys expressed the hedonism and silliness of the Roaring Twenties as powerfully as the stories of Scott Fitzgerald. But Kline saw form as well as content; he liked the way Held designed a page, placing a number of figures in the space but using blacks to establish a pattern that became the true structure of the drawing.
Kline also talked with affection of certain illustrators and figurative painters. He admired Jack Levine and praised John Sloan and Reginald Marsh, who in different ways had embraced the energy and tension of the city the way the New York School did with pure paint. (Kline once said to Irving Sandler, “Hell, half the world wants to be like Thoreau at Walden, worrying about the noise of traffic on the way to Boston; the other half use up their lives being part of that noise. I like the second half.”) As we talked, he was amused, perhaps even delighted, that I knew the work of the British pen-and-ink illustrators—men like John Leech, Donald Keene, and above all Phil May, who tried to turn the city into art.
“Phil May got me to go to England,” Kline said. “I wanted to draw like he did, that big open confident way.” Franz Kline in England? Yes: before the war. After two years at Boston University’s School of Fine and Applied Art, he moved to London in 1935 and enrolled in art school. He was apparently not much touched by the political fevers of the day: the Spanish Civil War, the threat of fascism, the romance of communism. Instead, he absorbed the look of architecture, trains, bridges, ships, theaters, music halls. He spent hundreds of hours drawing the figure and mastering the principles of composition. He walked the streets that once teemed with Phil May’s ragamuffins. He looked hard at the drawings of the Frenchmen: Daumier, Steinlen, and Forain. In London, the dream of a career as a cartoonist gave way to the desire to be an illustrator.
London also had a certain logic for the young man who became Franz Kline. With the grand exception of Turner, it had produced great draftsmen rather than colorists (Hogarth, Rowlandson, Tenniel, du Maurier, Gillray, Phiz). For Franz, London must have been a gloriously dark indoor city of black and white. I often wonder what his art would have been like if he’d gone instead to Venice or Mexico.
“I had a good time there,” he said of London. “I was never so hungry in my life. But I really did learn to draw.”
When I mentioned that I’d spent a year in art school in Mexico, his eyes brightened and he laughed. “When I came back from London, everybody around was trying to be Orozco or Siqueiros, except the guys who wanted to be Mondrian.” He and his wife (whom he’d met in England) moved to Manhattan in 1938, with Franz now determined to be a fine artist. He missed being part of the great brawling fraternity of New York artists who worked for the WPA, but he slowly got to know most of them in the bohemian bars of Greenwich Village. “Some of them liked the Mexicans because of the politics,” Kline said. “Some, like Jackson, for the size of the work.” He shrugged. “I didn’t care for all of them, but I liked the attempt, you know? They could all draw. They had power. They were trying to do something big.”
Listening to Kline talk at the height of his fame, in a voice whose confident baritone seemed to match the blacks of his paintings, I felt something else brewing under the polished, generous surface. I was too young to identify it, but I think now that he probably knew his own huge achievement was only provisional. He’d done Something Big too. But now there were dozens of kids at Pratt belting out “Klines” (or Pollocks or Rothkos or de Koonings) and talking in the opaque codes of the new art theorists. Rebellion was undergoing its familiar transformation into orthodoxy.
For Kline’s generation, the work of the artist could be defined not simply by what he did, but what he refused to do.
The young hadn’t struggled through the rigorous art schools of the ’30s, hadn’t been challenged by the Depression or the war, hadn’t been forced to support themselves by doing murals for bars (as Kline had done at Minetta’s and the Bleecker Street Tavern). Not one of them would have done a mural for an American Legion Post, as Kline had done in 1946 back home in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, four years before he broke through into the style that made him famous.
For Kline’s generation, the work of the artist could be defined not simply by what he did, but what he refused to do. They had struggled to make an art that was uniquely American: not pseudo-European, neo-Mexican, or some additional knockoff of Picasso. They wanted to be as American as the comic strip or jazz. The best of them certainly didn’t want to be rich or famous; if anything, they shared a romantic view of the clarifying power of poverty. They wouldn’t pander to an audience, or shape their work to please collectors or museum directors or even critics (although Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg did have an enormous influence on the artists who came right after the first generation). They hated glibness and facility; they thought the American artist had a special responsibility to be original (the worst epithet was “derivative”). They expected the artist to live or die in every brushstroke (they’d have hung the likes of Mark Kostabi from a lamppost on Eighth Street), to paint as if he or she might die before morning.
It was a heroic enterprise. Macho: yes. Self-destructive: sometimes. Safe, timid, conniving, calculated: never. And they’d accomplished much of what they’d set out to do, shifting the center of Western art from Paris to New York. But by 1958, other words were being spoken: exhaustion, repetition, mannerism. And Franz must have heard them too.
“It’s closing time, isn’t it?” he said one night, gazing around at the almost empty Cedar. And then he led a few of us up to Fourteenth Street for a nightcap at his studio. I’d never been in a real painter’s studio before. That dark loft was clearly a place of work. I could see rolls of canvas, buckets of paint, large house-painters’ brushes, cans of turpentine, baking pans caked with paint. The floor looked like a Pollock. There were small painted drawings scattered around, some of them on the floor, proof that Franz knew what he was going to paint when he approached the canvas. The public image of the action painters was, of course, a crude cartoon. In their work, they could express anger, serenity, anxiety, a contempt for the slick and the sentimental. But for men like Franz Kline, painting was never mere performance or raw therapy. They were making art.
Most of the sketches were on heavy paper, but about a half-dozen were done on classified pages of the Times. I was staring down at one, a shape like a machine gun, done in lavender paint, when Franz came over and handed me a beer. “I like the grayness, that texture,” he said of the Times. “It looks like a sidewalk. Besides, someday soon I might need a job.”
He laughed, handed out more beers, turned on a radio (in my beer-blurry memory, it was Symphony Sid on WEVD). I walked around the dark studio, the way I’ve since seen actors prowl on empty stages or young ballplayers walk into Yankee Stadium, imagining myself in this loft, struggling heroically with paint and canvas. Stacked against the walls were paintings tacked on frames. Someone asked to take a look. Franz smiled: “Sure, why not? But they’re not all finished.”
Franz was a man who loved to draw.
He switched on some lights. And then we saw them, all mauves and greens and yellows and blues, with great bold structures on this canvas, more delicate and lush coloring on that one. Some had matte surfaces, thinned with much turpentine, the color as layered and luminous as Tintoretto. Others were glossy, the voluptuous color premixed before going on the canvas, scraped with palette knives or sticks. A few were bright, but most had a dark brooding power.
“The gallery doesn’t want me doing them,” he said. “They want the real Franz Kline. Black and white, black and white…”
He shook his head and smiled in a sad way and sipped a beer. He was pleased that we liked what we saw, but insisted that he wasn’t finished with many of them. He probably wouldn’t show them at the Sidney Janis Gallery show scheduled for May. “They’re not there yet,” he said. Then he turned off the lights and we went back to drinking beer and talked for a while about prizefighters before we all went home through the gray New York morning.
Some of the paintings in color were shown at the Janis show, but most people were impressed by the ferocious Crow Dancer, which was another version of the mounted machine gun, a picture that I think now was called Siegfried. In later years, I saw different versions of what I saw that night, the shapes altered or refined, the colors overpainted. Among them, I’m sure, were the great painting Shenandoah Wall, along with Horizontal Rust and Andrus. Franz certainly didn’t intend to move through the ’60s or ’70s repeating what he had done in the ’50s. He had added color to his artistic weaponry. Like Guston (and in different ways, Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud), he might have returned to the figure. Franz was a man who loved to draw.
But like the Cedar Tavern, Franz Kline didn’t make it very far into the ’60s. In the spring of 1962, Kline, along with Mark Rothko and Andrew Wyeth, was invited by President Kennedy to a dinner at the White House in honor of André Malraux. The date of the dinner was May 11, a Friday. Kline didn’t make it. A week before, he suffered a heart attack and was taken to New York Hospital. While he was there, Janis opened a group show that included Scudera, Kline’s last painting, all deep rich blues, with some red and a broken black square. On Sunday, May 13, Franz Kline died, just short of his fifty-second birthday.
That night, I was working at a newspaper when the word arrived on the AP wire. I was first shocked, then filled with a kind of remorse. In my few encounters with Franz, he’d offered the same hand of friendship that he’d given to so many others. But out of stubbornness or empty vanity, I’d never really taken it. He was too famous and accomplished for us to enter as equals that private conspiracy called friendship. And I was too proud to serve as anyone’s acolyte. By 1962, I’d put painting behind me, with sorrow but no regrets, and gone my own way, into the world of words.
But when the night shift was over, I didn’t go home. At eight in the morning I walked up Rector Street to a newspaper bar called Page One and starting drinking beer. Around eleven, I went to the pay phone and called the World-Telegram and asked for Willard Mullin. When the great sports cartoonist answered, I told him my name.
“I don’t know if you saw the paper yet,” I said, “but Franz Kline, you know? The painter? He died yesterday. And he was a fan of yours. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“No kidding?” A beat. “What was his name?”
“Kline,” I said. “Franz Kline.”
There was another pause, then: “Oh, yeah. Franz Kline. He did those big black and white things, right?”
“You know,” the cartoonist said, “I bet that guy could’ve learned how to draw.”