Franz Kline: Black and White, 1950-61

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through June 4

Bruce Nauman: Elliott’s Stones

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through May 30

The distinctive designs of first-generation abstract expressionists like Franz Kline have often been seen mainly as assertions of the artist’s personality–and also as potential interior decorating designs. Witness Annie Leibovitz’s portrait photo Steve Martin, Beverly Hills, 1981, which shows the actor in a mock-heroic pose before a Kline painting he owns, mostly broad black brush strokes against a white field, wearing a white suit painted in Kline’s “style,” with broad black brush strokes. The abstract expressionists’ colorful, hard-drinking public personas contributed to the impression of swaggering, macho form givers, whose arms’ sweeping across canvases left iconic forms worthy of worship.

Viewing the some 50 paintings and drawings from Kline’s last period–he died in 1962–at the Museum of Contemporary Art, one can see at least some truth to the idea of the abstract expressionist as heroic creator. The paintings are mostly large, and their broad, black swaths of paint ride over them like the tire marks of a giant truck or fill them the way an elevated train might fill the sky. (Kline grew up in eastern Pennsylvania coal-mining country, where his father was a railroad engineer, so it’s not surprising that his pictures often suggest industrial forms.) At first his magnificently irregular streaks and patches almost assault the eye, declaring themselves with such force that they seem to stretch the picture’s borders almost to bursting. But look a little closer and these paintings are a lot more than the simple declarations of a unitary style by a unified self. Indeed, each is a balancing of opposites.

Even the pictures that seem ready to bust out of their frames actually create a subtle interplay between painterly self-assertion and a tendency toward perfectly contained shapes. The central form of Black and White No. 1 (1952) appears to leave the frame at left and right, but the lines at the left edge are bunched together to form a single black shape, and at the right only two lines actually “exit.” The shape presented seems reasonably complete in itself.

Another duality that informs these pictures, as David Anfam points out in the catalog, is that between order and disorder. (Anfam quotes Kline, who was trained in “traditional methods of pictorial construction,” as saying, “Got to fuck this up a bit.”) Wotan at first appears to be quite well ordered: a single black square, the top edge extended a bit to the right, sits in a large rectangular canvas almost touching the upper edge. But this square has none of the ruler-straight symmetries of a Stella or a LeWitt–what one starts to notice are its tiny imperfections and imbalances, the extended line at the top, the roughness of some edges, the fact that the square, which at first looks parallel to the frame, is actually a tiny bit askew. Despite the monumentality of these paintings, much of Kline’s art resides in the details: though his large swaths often seem to have been done with the single pass of a housepainter’s brush, he is said to have spent hours on the edge of a single stroke.

But the opposition that I find the most complex and compelling, and that ultimately raises Kline’s art above the level of mere style, is the contrast between his black lines and the delicately painted white grounds that underlie them. And it is this opposition that finally gives the lie to the Steve Martin/Annie Leibovitz view of Kline as a designer asserting himself by smearing black marks over empty space. Kline also works in carefully painted whites as complex in shape and texture as his blacks; the contrast between the two, each throwing the other into relief, is what gives his work its deepest meaning.

One is initially struck by the forceful, raw elegance of the lines and masses of black in Vawdavitch (1955), for instance, but then one begins to notice the complex variety of the ground. Just like the black lines, the broad brush strokes of white often go in different directions, creating angles with one another. Some of the white areas are flecked with black spots; in others the white seems a bit duller, almost as if there were areas of black or gray behind. And some areas, often those closest to the lines, are not painted at all, and the pale tan of the raw canvas shows through. Thus the white is not just a vacuum, a neutral ground; like the black it represents conscious decisions.

The detail in the white ground encourages the viewer to inspect the black lines more closely, and it turns out they’re not as solid and certain and proud of themselves as Steve Martin is of his possession. Many are broken, as if the brush had made only partial contact with the canvas. When two black lines meet, if one isn’t completely solid, the other seems to dominate. Vawdavitch communicates a bit of the power of a huge steel bridge silhouetted against the sky, a feeling of immenseness and solidity and strength. (Kline once said, “I like bridges.”) But this isn’t a bridge that could support anything heavy; its “beams” sometimes half disappear, and a central vertical “support” ends just before the picture’s bottom.

What gives Vawdavitch its complex and compelling beauty is the interplay between the aggressive declarativeness of its black lines and the various ways in which those lines are undercut, broken, or set amid gentler whites. Gender-oriented critics might plausibly speak of Kline’s “masculine” and “feminine” sides; I’d prefer to think of them as the two sides within each of us. The ego wants to announce its identity and visage to the world, while other, less readily named parts of the psyche see beauty in the gaps, in the empty spaces, in the self’s inadequacies and imperfections. The artist as the great form giver is there, in the masses of black, but at every moment they’re in a dialogue with the picture’s other, equally important side–just as the silhouette of a bridge traverses but will never fill the shifting light and clouds of the softer, less limited sky.

Seen in this way, a masterpiece like the large untitled 1957 canvas (owned by David Geffen) is a complex series of heterogeneous forms, a dialogue between differences and opposites, rather than a singular assertion of self. Massive black diagonals might suggest a series of bridges crossing a river, except that the white brush strokes below mostly run perpendicular to what would be the current, defeating any easy, representational identification. Amid the white are tiny flecks of solid black and myriad shades of gray in patches, streaks, blobs. The big black lines aren’t always solid, and unpainted canvas is there too: every visual possibility is modified, even undercut, by its opposite.

It’s not uncommon for Kline’s paintings to suggest bridges, slag heaps, or railroad tracks. The weighty, mostly black Requiem (1958) even recalls the romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich: an opening of white at the upper left seems almost a patch of brilliant sky–rays of sun peeking through a break in oppressive storm clouds–or perhaps smoke. But what makes Kline’s pictures so strong is not the way they elude reduction to representation but the way each includes a wide range of experience, thoughts, and emotions. By restricting his pictorial range Kline–like the color-field abstractionist Barnett Newman, whose work he once defended as far more complex than it seems–was able to expand his range of expression.

In addition to the large Kline show, the MCA is presenting an installation by a more contemporary but similarly well-known artist. Yet Bruce Nauman’s art is almost the opposite of Kline’s, and one can see in their differences many of the ways art has shifted in recent decades.

Elliott’s Stones was commissioned by the late Chicago collector Gerald Elliott, who wanted a Nauman work in stone but left the form unspecified. Nauman hired a professional gravestone cutter to create six rectangular slabs on which were inscribed the words “above yourself,” “after yourself,” “before yourself,” “behind yourself,” “beneath yourself,” and “beside yourself.” Nauman didn’t specify how the slabs were to be arranged, but for a 1990 gallery exhibit he himself arranged them in a cruciform on the floor, four stones in a vertical line with a gap in the middle, and the two others on either side of the gap. The MCA has replicated this arrangement.

While nothing in the installation tells the viewer where to stand, one can read all six texts right side up without walking around only by standing at the open center of the cross and rotating. Nauman makes the viewer his subject, transforming him, in the words of Lucinda Barnes’s helpful catalog essay, into a “form of sculptural matter.” I found the experience enlightening–a bit poetic, vaguely threatening, but ultimately not quite as satisfying as the one produced by Kline’s work.

The six phrases are key to Nauman’s effects. Surrounding the viewer, they refer him back to his body, his position in space. I found myself recalling childhood taunts, a kind of game in which one kid tries to confuse another by suddenly yelling something like, “There’s a truck in back of you!” Each stone refers to the self only by referring to the space adjacent to, but outside, one’s body: one is made more aware both of one’s physical boundaries and of the surrounding space. Centered in the work, one is also a bit decentered, since the language refers to spaces outside the self.

Several of the phrases, like “beneath yourself” and “beside yourself,” also suggest idiomatic meanings. By association, then, the other phrases might also refer to the mind or the whole being. Nauman doesn’t challenge only the body but one’s whole existence, and questions the process of viewing art–commendable results, to be sure.

But like so many works by art stars even younger, Nauman’s was not from his own hand but created by a hired professional. Its art resides less in physical details than in the idea behind it; it’s appreciated more by the mind than the eye. What poetry there is comes from the words and their arrangement on the stones; there’s no possibility that a tiny fleck of paint or the intersection of two lines will become a brilliant vision. Looking at Elliott’s Stones is more like reading an essay than looking at the sky. And the child in me still prefers the clouds.