Art history professor Bob Mattison in front of a poster for the Franz Kline exhibitBy Katie Neitz

Robert S. Mattison, Marshall R. Metzger Professor of Art History, has been selected by the prestigious Hauser & Wirth Institute to oversee the creation of a comprehensive digital catalog of paintings produced by acclaimed abstract expressionist artist Franz Kline between 1950 and 1962.

Mattison, a long-time scholar of modern art and Kline’s work, is collaborating on the project with former student Jennifer Gross ’85, founding and executive director of the Hauser & Wirth Institute.

Kline, a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., gained immense international fame in the 1950s for his large-scale black-and-white paintings. Kline, who died in 1962, was influenced by his Pennsylvania roots among other sources; his work reflects industrial coal and steel imagery.

Mattison wrote an extensive exhibition catalog about Kline’s work and curated Kline art exhibitions at Allentown Art Museum and in New York City in 2012. Through these exhibitions, Mattison developed a close relationship with the Franz Kline Estate, one that would lead to an unexpected—and serendipitous—reconnection with Gross.

Gross, a well-known art historian and scholar, was asked to write about Kline for another exhibition. Through her attempt to research Kline and his body of work, she became aware of the inaccessibility of primary documents on the artist.

Professor Bob Mattison teaches in a classroom.“Having to compile information for a focused essay was a challenge,” she says. “I realized there was an opportunity there.

“I approached Kline’s estate about producing a catalogue raisonné and asked if there was a scholar with whom they would feel comfortable. They said, ‘There is this person, you might not know him, but we recommend Bob Mattison from Lafayette College.’ It was an extraordinary moment. I deeply admire Bob. He had a profound impact on me while I was at Lafayette. I realized he would be the perfect person. He’s so passionate about the work and the artist, and I knew he would bring a discerning expertise and respect to the project.”

Mattison is now a few months into his research for the catalog, which will be published online in 2020. Here, Mattison shares insights about Kline and the passion project:

What should we know about Franz Kline’s origins?

“Franz Kline is an American Abstract Expressionist who was an essential artist for his generation. He was brought up in the coal country of Pennsylvania, and subsequently he created monumental black-and-white paintings that made him internationally known. Kline experienced the height of the Pennsylvania coal revolution as a child and its collapse as an adult; his paintings reflect that experience. They are bold and explosive. They feature simultaneously strength and fragility.”

How did the project come to be?

“I’ve taught Kline as a major modern artist in my art history classes as have my departmental colleagues like Ed Kerns. When I first traveled to Pennsylvania coal country, I saw that its derelict industrial structures were an important source for Kline’s imagery. I wrote a lengthy exhibition catalog about his work and curated an exhibition at the Allentown Art Museum and in New York in 2012. In the process, I became very close to the Kline Estate. One of my first students at Lafayette, Jennifer Gross, has gone on to be a very successful museum curator … When the estate recommended that she reach out to me because of my Kline scholarship, it was as if stars aligned.”

What is the goal?

“We will provide a complete digitized documentation of all the paintings Kline produced between 1950 and 1962, works that are featured in museums and private collections around the world. There are about 250 major works we will include. I will be gathering all documents and history of these works. The Archives of American Art, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, is the biggest repository of information on American artists. Having a digital catalog will give scholars and the public access to the information we gather. Because the catalog is electronic, we can continue to add and revise it over time as the scholarship on the artist continues to develop.”

What does that entail?

“The project involves traveling to study and analyze individual works. The precise physical properties of each work will be determined. Each work will be put in the context of Kline’s oeuvre and will be linked to the artist’s overall development. The provenance of each work will be traced back to Kline’s studio. The project entails a great deal of archival work at museum libraries, public institutions, like the Archives of American Art, private archives of dealers and auction houses, and the notes kept by the artist’s colleagues and individual collectors. Also, records will be assembled as to each time a work is illustrated and discussed in the literature on the artist. All of this information will be assembled in a clear format that will provide an indispensable source for future scholarly studies of Kline and his era.

“The project is substantially aided by the support of faculty scholarship provided by Skillman Library. [Visual Resources Curator/Digital Scholarship] Paul Miller is essential to this effort. Kline’s estate had partially developed a preliminary paper catalog of his work. Paul is working to translate that into a digital format that will be part of my research. The project will continue to draw on the resources of Skillman, and future research will involve a number of Lafayette students as EXCEL Scholars.”

Is that challenging?

“Yes, it’s a complicated process. Unlike many of today’s artists, Kline’s generation did not keep detailed records, and he died very suddenly in 1962. It will require a great deal of research to reconstruct the history of his body of works. But, for me, it’s really fun—it’s like detective work. You get to follow these hidden threads. You might think you know a painting or an artist well, but there is always more to uncover.”

What draws you to Kline’s work?

“I think the paintings are sensational. When you see one of them in a museum, gallery, or private collection, it just knocks you over for its boldness and energy. I have always thought his works were some of the most powerful art made at mid-century. When you consider the connection to Pennsylvania, there is an additional level of interest. Ultimately, his works tell us about American values at the mid-century. They combine social, cultural, and political values. I’m drawn to them and excited for this opportunity to learn more and to share information about this profound artist.”

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2 Comments

  1. Ingrid Furniss says:

    Wonderful project, Bob! I enjoyed reading about it.

  2. Lisa Hahn says:

    Excellent discussion of Kline’s importance and relevancy
    Exciting project

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