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Franz Kline was born on May 23, 1910 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a small coal-mining town. Following the death of his father, Kline moved to Lehighton, Pennsylvania and attended Girard College in Philadelphia, a school for fatherless boys, at the behest of his mother. After high school, Kline studied art at Boston University from 1931-1935, followed by a year at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London. It was in London that he met his future wife, ballet dancer Elizabeth Parsons. In 1938, the two returned to the United States, settling in New York in 1939.

Kline’s early work was primarily figurative, as his training had been based in traditional illustration and drafting. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Kline primarily produced cityscapes and interior scenes, many of which were inspired by his hometown in Pennsylvania. It was also during this time that he met fellow painters such as Willem de Kooning, who encouraged him to work more abstractly. In 1948, while visiting de Kooning and his wife Elaine at their studio, one of Kline’s sketches was enlarged and projected onto the wall, sparking inspiration in Kline.

From that point on, Kline began working in the style he is best known for today: large-scale, abstract works rendered almost exclusively in black and white. Their fluid gestures and limited palette deftly emphasize the relationship between figure and ground, creating evocations of the recognizable while avoiding literal references to real-world objects or events. 

Now considered to be one of the most important Abstract Expressionists, Kline has been widely exhibited around the world, including at the Venice Biennale (1956, 1960), and Documenta in Kassel, Germany (1959). The Washington Gallery of Modern Art in Washington D.C. organized a memorial exhibition following Kline’s death in 1962, and he has similarly received monographic exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1968); the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. (1979); the Cincinnati Art Museum (1985); the Menil Collection, Houston (1994); Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona (1994); and Castello di Rivoli-Museo d’arte contemporanea, Italy (2004). 

Klien’s work can be found in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Tate Modern, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.

Franz Kline passed away on May 13, 1962 from rheumatic heart disease, just ten days before his 52nd birthday.

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