Contested Comparisons: Franz Kline and Japanese Calligraphy

November 1, 2019

Contested Comparisons: Franz Kline and Japanese Calligraphy 1950s remarked with irony

Franz Kline’s relationship with East Asian calligraphy is among the most contested facets of the interpretation of his oeuvre, with critics making comparisons between his work and Chinese or Japanese calligraphy throughout his career.1 However, although mentioning the visual similarity between Kline’s black and white-colored abstract works of art and East Asian calligraphy grew to become a recognised way of addressing his art, the later reassessment of the relationship by Kline and also the calligraphers switched out to become a highly politicised venture.

Kline’s Meryon 1960–1 (Tate T00926), a sizable painting composed of dynamic black and white-colored strokes, presented Kline’s go back to an early on stage in the career, when his link with East Asian calligraphy have been most apparent. Because this essay demonstrates, Meryon, produced late in Kline’s existence and a few 10 years after he earned his first large black and white-colored abstractions, encompassed ten years of negotiations, competition, hidden aspirations and mutual denials between Kline and Japanese calligraphers. It will likely be contended here the visual simple this dynamic and monumental jobs are outbalanced through the large number of meanings and interpretations it provides. The brilliant brushstrokes contain traces of Kline’s self improvement being an artist and also the entangled histories of publish-war artistic exchange between Japan, the U . s . States and Europe, which is reflected within the responses of countless art critics who formed the cultural agenda at that time. By dissecting these interpretative layers of Meryon, this essay demonstrates the potential discrepancy between your actual visual characteristics from the artwork and also the perception and interpretation from it by others, including its creator.

The allure from the ‘foreign’

When critics pointed out Kline’s possible inspirations from East Asian calligraphy, they considered this either as an indication of Kline’s worldwide prominence or like a curious coincidence, which added a very beautiful flavour to American abstract expressionism.2 Until lately, however, it had been left unmentioned that Japanese calligraphers – most conspicuously the Kyoto-based avant-garde calligraphy group Bokujinkai – positively arrived at to Kline along with other abstract painters, adding calligraphic theories and visual modes to abstract painting within the U . s . States and Europe.3 Thinking about black and white-colored straight line abstraction their natural domain, Japanese calligraphers acutely interacted with worldwide artists, including Kline, to find mutual understanding and understanding between artists from various areas of the world, and also to situate calligraphy inside the progressive modern arts.

Cover from the first publication of the calligraphy journal Bokubi, June 1951, having a painting by Franz Kline

The ways that Japanese calligraphers arrived at to the American abstract art community were intricate and needed profound cultural strategising. Inspired and encouraged through the visual similarities with calligraphy shown by many people European and American abstract artists, calligraphers from the Bokujinkai group, that was leading publish-war efforts to internationalise Japanese calligraphy, attempted to promote this interest further among foreign artists. Avant-garde calligraphers meticulously studied new abstract art to be able to establish theoretical and visual parallels with abstract painting worldwide. Considerably, the very first publication of the Bokujinkai group’s avant-garde calligraphy journal Bokubi featured a replica of Kline’s focus on its cover (fig.1) – a gesture unimaginable as well as insulting for additional conservative calligraphers.4

The Bokujinkai had received photographs of Kline’s works in the Japanese abstract painter and art theoretician Hasegawa Saburō and, fascinated with the similarity of Kline’s visual approaches, had put his focus on the coverage of the journal to show their worldwide commitment. Much more of Kline’s works were printed within the issue, plus a Japanese translation of Kline’s letter to Hasegawa. Morita Shiryū, certainly one of Bokujinkai’s leaders, authored in 1952 that whenever he saw Kline’s painting he’d ‘seldom felt so acutely the character of the work can be created with the harmony from the outdoors and also the inside … During these works I’ve found exactly the same beauty as with calligraphy!’.5

Following the initial contact started through Hasegawa, the bond between Kline and also the Bokujinkai artists began to bolster. This 1952 letter from Kline – among the earliest bits of evidence showing direct contact between Kline and calligraphers – was addressed to Morita Shiryū:

Appreciate your letter and also the [issue of] Bokubi. I’m very grateful. I deliver each issue to [art book dealer George] Wittenborn’s friend, [Charles] Egan. Egan is exhibiting them in the gallery, after which hands-disbursing them, as Noguchi recommended. I’m also keeping two issues at hands. Studying them is a superb pleasure for me personally, that also my buddies who’re artists and musicians tell me. Besides, I sent the Bokubi journal using the illustrations of Mr. Hasegawa’s screens to Ms. Rockefeller. She clarified that it might be wonderful to demonstrate them at Hasegawa’s solo exhibition, and also the gallery everyone was also looking forward to it. It could be best to consult the gallery in regards to the catalog, layout, work arrangement etc.

I wish to email you about how exactly beloved the Bokubi is here now, with which admiration it’s being received. People constantly ask me to provide them the problems which i have. I’m convinced that it’s not lengthy until Bokubi is going to be discussed throughout New You are able to …

Just like you, I’ve the sensation of working not far from you. Appreciate that when more.

Sincerely, Franz Kline6

Ideas can easily see that Kline wasn’t only searching at modern Japanese calligraphy, but seemed to be involved with its promotion abroad, adding to calligraphy’s worldwide breakthrough within the mid-1950s by presenting it to his network of yankee abstract artists as well as their benefactors. The letter to Morita implies that not lengthy after his use abstraction within the late 1940s, Kline enthusiastically valued his relationship using the Bokujinkai. Like Morita, who saw in Kline’s works the ‘same beauty as with calligraphy’, Kline’s letter spiritedly confirmed he felt as though he was ‘working very close[ly]’ with Japanese calligraphers. For Kline, connection with the Bokujinkai artists would be a first-hands resource relating to this East Asian talent, which captivated him visually, and Bokujinkai’s curiosity about Kline’s art offered as evidence of Kline’s recognition in as remote an area as Japan.

Morita Shiryū
蒼 (Sō Dark Blue) 1954
Ink in writing
1210 x 690 mm
National Museum of Art, Osaka
© Estate from the artist

Kline ongoing to switch letters using the Bokujinkai, receive their journal and advertise it among his fellow artists. His personal archive contains many photographs of functions by publish-war calligraphers delivered to him by Morita and the mentor Ueda Sōkyū, in addition to numerous problems with the calligraphic journals Bokubi and Bokujin, as well as other Japanese art journals, for example Sansai and Geijutsu Shinchō, spanning time 1950 to 1957.7 Even though it is difficult or possibly even essential to know who saw whose works first – Japanese calligraphers Kline’s abstractions, or the other way around – in early 1950s it grew to become apparent to both Bokujinkai and Kline that they passed into common visual ground, although from various entry ways. Upon seeing new avant-garde calligraphy by Morita or Inoue Yūichi, Kline should have realized that his large-scale works together with dramatic black strokes on the white-colored background inevitably asked associations and comparisons with modern calligraphy, for example Morita’s 蒼 (Sō Dark Blue) from 1954 (fig.2).

This similarity had different implications for Kline and also the Bokujinkai. For calligraphers, connection with youthful American artists within the atmosphere of Japan’s publish-war liberalisation and also the active re-establishment from the artistic exchange between Japan and also the US would be a hopeful sign that calligraphy would receive more worldwide attention and become recognised on the componen with abstract painting. To be able to stress their global orientation, calligraphers from time to time incorporated British-language articles within their journals, and Bokubi provided short British summaries and tables of contents in every of their issues.

From inspiration to strategies

During the period of the later 1950s, however, both Kline and also the Bokujinkai critically reconsidered their relationship, succumbing towards the more and more conservative intellectual atmosphere enforced by influential art critics on sides from the Off-shore. Art historian Bert Winther-Tamaki described this phenomenon as publish-war ‘artistic nationalism’, which pressured artists to recognize strongly using their country of origin, politicising both American abstract expressionism and Japanese calligraphy.8 In this particular ideological framework, abstract expressionism started to become celebrated because the apex of genuine American art. Because the art critic John Canaday later described the intellectual atmosphere from the late 1950s: ‘in 1959, for any critic to question the validity of Abstract Expressionism because the ultimate talent ended up being to inspire obscene mail, threatening telephone calls, and outraged letters towards the editor signed by eminent artists, curators, collectors and critics demanding his discharge like a Neanderthal throwback’.9 Simultaneously Japanese calligraphy was considered being an essential medium of Japanese philosophy and spirituality, impenetrable to people from other countries, with Zen philosopher Hisamatsu Shin’ichi defining the skill of calligraphy in 1955 as ‘a direct artistic symbol of the Active Non selfish Self, which expresses itself with the medium of characters’.10

For Kline themself, the nationalistic orientation of critics which were central to developing the narratives of publish-war abstract expressionism, for example Clement Greenberg and Frank O’Hara, grew to become essential in defining his public position towards Japanese calligraphy. In the point when acknowledging his link with calligraphy made him susceptible to critique, Kline began to deny it, despite getting developed his understanding of contemporary calligraphy for quite some time. Initially he highlighted the artistic dissimilarities between his works and new avant-garde calligraphy, as are visible in his 1958 interview with art critic and curator Katharine Kuh:

I do not consider my act as calligraphic. Critics also describe Jackson [Pollock] and [Willem] De Kooning as calligraphic artists but calligraphy is not related to us. It’s interesting the Oriental critics never say this. The Oriental concept of space is definitely an infinite space it’s not colored space, and ours is. To begin with, calligraphy is writing and i’m not writing. People sometimes think I have a white-colored canvas and paint a black sign up it, but this isn’t true. I paint the white-colored along with the black, and also the white-colored is equally as important.11

Several facets of this statement could be read as symptomatic from the publish-war intellectual atmosphere. It appears that at this time Kline fully recognized and it was keen to strengthen the thought of themself being an American abstract expressionist, grouping themself with Pollock and de Kooning. Regarding themself on your behalf of the art movement, Kline speaks for other artists too, calling this group ‘us’. Kline defends the identity from the group from allegations from the impact of calligraphy on their own style, and by doing this mentions ‘Oriental critics’, insisting that in Japan his art isn’t considered as calligraphic, although he or she must have known better. There is, for example, his fervent exchange using the Bokujinkai calligraphers, and in early 1950s Japanese newspapers and art journals – which he’d many copies – were consistently covering the similarities between new American art and Japanese calligraphy. In addition, Hasegawa Saburō, who gone to live in the U . s . States within the mid-1950s and offered like a linking point between Kline and also the Bokujinkai, persistently recognized Kline’s works best for being calligraphic.12

Inoue Yūichi
Work A 1955
Enamel on Kent paper
876 x 1152 mm
National Museum of contemporary Art, Kyoto
© Estate from the artist

The argument for Kline’s significant difference with calligraphy may also be considered critically from your aesthetic perspective. Kline’s declare that ‘calligraphy is writing and i’m not writing’ is just true for traditional calligraphy. In the late 1940s onwards Japanese avant-garde calligraphers, whose works Kline saw, attempted abstraction and produced fully abstract works unrelated to Chinese figures or even the Japanese alphabet (each of which are utilized in calligraphy), as are visible in Inoue Yūichi’s Work A 1955 (fig.3). These experiments made the calligraphers’ mention of the writing purely visual, similar to in Kline’s painting. Kline’s next claim about his and the contemporaries’ utilization of ‘painted’ space can also be questionable. Publish-war avant-garde calligraphers attempted various backgrounds and frequently incorporated colored ones, sometimes colourful, within their works, in addition to incorporating the idea of negative space to their considering calligraphy. Inoue, for example, from time to time used newspaper pages as backgrounds for his calligraphies for example花 (Hana Flower) 1957 (fig.4), that is far in the plain white-colored background that Kline is speaking about and not far from Kline’s own experiments with painting on phonebooks (see, for example, Untitled II c.1952 fig.5).

Inoue Yūichi
花 (Hana Flower) 1957
Ink, paper and newspaper
814 x 1344 mm
National Museum of contemporary Art, Kyoto
© Estate from the artist

Franz Kline
Untitled II c.1952
Ink and oil on cut and pasted phone book pages in writing aboard
Museum of contemporary Art, New You are able to
© ARS , NY and DACS , London 2017

The conceptual and visual variations between calligraphy and abstract painting are thus perhaps minimal, and Kline’s statements concerning the variations between his art and calligraphy could be regarded as strategically directed towards American art critics, to complement the nationalistic narrative that they produced for abstract expressionism. As the next phase in dismantling his connect to calligraphy, Kline denounced his personal affinities and connections to Japanese calligraphers. An anecdote a good encounter between Kline along with a Japanese calligrapher, presumably Morita, relayed through Gordon Washburn, mind from the Asia House Gallery in New You are able to, illustrates this attitude: ‘When a particular Japanese calligrapher visited Franz Kline’s studio, the customer announced within the influence of Japanese art on Kline’s strongly stroked images. “But this isn’t true, could it be?” Rosati whispered to Kline. “No,” Kline responded, “but he’s pleased to accept is as true. Allow him to be.”’13 This anecdote reveals a particular arrogance for Kline towards his Japanese customer – inside a manner totally different from a dark tone of his earlier letters to Morita. In addition, Washburn informs this anecdote approvingly, supporting Kline’s artistic independence and distance, or perhaps haughtiness, regarding his East Asian counterparts. Finally, after being able of denying his link with calligraphy for any lengthy time, starting in the mid-1950s, Kline moved from it visually, using other kinds of images in the works from the later 1950s. He reintroduced colour into his works of art and from time to time came back to figuration. Several works within the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., for example his Untitled of 1957, offer types of this trend. In 1979 the skill critic Paul Richard authored of those works the ‘unfamiliar colors of his [Kline’s] last works, individuals muddy vegetables, heavy reds and pale, acidity yellows, are – as colors – just like energized and jarring much like the black calligraphies that earned him wealth and fame’.14

Many of these methods ultimately pacified the skill critics and earned Kline the status of the independent and original American artist whose work was lacking of foreign traits, whether European or East Asian. The critics, certainly one of whom in early 1950s remarked with irony that ‘it could be really simple to switch several types of Japanese calligraphy in the Museum of contemporary Art with a few of the more youthful Americans in the Guggenheim, without drastically altering the atmosphere from the either show’, later in life used rhetoric a lot more protective from the originality of abstract expressionism.15 The famous example is Clement Greenberg’s significantly re-written article ‘American-Type Painting’. During its original 1955 version Greenberg describes Kline because the only American abstractionist having a profound curiosity about Asian art, inside a 1958 revision Greenberg stresses that ‘not among the original “abstract expressionists” – least of Kline – has felt a general curiosity about Oriental art’.16 Thus, later, when evaluating functions by Kline and Bokujinkai’s Morita, it grew to become common for American critics to condition the brilliance of Kline’s abstraction over calligraphy, as Washburn did:

We ought to compare the truly amazing black grids of Kline using the bold brushstrokes from the Japanese calligrapher Shiryū Morita – an average East-West contrast. The truly amazing, thrusting girders in Kline’s works shoot from the canvas at its edges. They’ve nothing that is similar to the floating scrolls of Morita that appear to locate perfect accommodation inside the rectangles of the frames.17

This comparison by Washburn implied the lack of ability of Japanese calligraphers to interrupt using their traditional roots and divorce their art from convention, meanwhile praising Kline’s work with its dynamism and unrestrained creative energy.

Meryon and also the persistence from the calligraphic

Through the finish from the 1950s Kline had irrevocably guaranteed his devote the constellation of celebrated American abstract expressionists, his art rhetorically well defended from allegations of foreign influence. His secure position within the American art community granted him a lot more artistic freedoms. Firmly moored within the narratives of yankee art, Kline could finally go back to the pictures that absorbed him earlier and attracted the interest of Japanese calligraphers – his large black and white-colored works of art.

Whether calligraphic or otherwise in the intention, Meryon, using its strong contrasts between black and white-colored, straight lines with dynamic, visible brushstrokes and symbol-like brevity, represents Kline’s visual emancipation in the restraints enforced on him by critics. Meryon returns to the kind of abstract painting that captivates using its ambiguity and ease, inviting viewers to see it while getting away these attempts at interpretation. Meryon references the sooner calligraphic mode of abstract expressionism, yet relabels onpar gps from that which was regarded as East Asian as to the was decided among critics as American. Ironically, the visual characteristics of Kline’s black and white-colored imagery hardly altered within this renegotiation procedure for the first 1960s.

Within the lengthy decade of the negotiations, both Kline and also the Japanese calligraphers, possibly paradoxically, were able to achieve their set goals. While Kline joined canon’s of yankee abstract expressionism, the Bokujinkai triggered an worldwide breakthrough for calligraphy and arrived at global audiences in the Museum of contemporary Art in New You are able to in 1954, Documenta in Kassel in 1959 and also the São Paulo Biennial in 1956, 1959 and 1961. Through similar, visually stunning artworks, Kline earned recognition from critics for example Greenberg for locating a united states mode of abstraction while calligraphers were recognized for presenting a contemporary undertake Japanese tradition and spirituality. In addition, through Kline, the Bokujinkai placed Japanese calligraphy in to the body of contemporary abstract painting at about the time that Kline’s calligraphic images grew to become representational of publish-war American art. The amount that Kline accomplished it in a manner that was informed by calligraphic references, or subconsciously reflected their looks, remains debatable.

Pierre Soulages
[no title] 1956
Tate P08219
© ADAGP , Paris and DACS , London 2017

Yet both Kline and also the Bokujinkai achieved their aims at the expense of the relationship with one another. After feeling neglected by Kline and also the American critics, Japanese calligraphers reoriented themselves towards European art informel as a substitute mode of calligraphic abstraction and it is contextualisation. Just like Kline, calligraphers discovered European abstract artists from reproductions of the works, and attentively studied their visual methods to painting and calligraphic features. For example, the extensive 1953 roundtable discussion of contemporary art and calligraphy one of the central players of avant-garde calligraphy opened up by having an analysis of informel artist Pierre Soulages’s works, that have been recognized as ‘extremely poignant’ (see, for example, Soulages’s untitled intaglio print in writing from 1956 fig.6).18 The Bokujinkai’s later relationship with Soulages along with other European painters developed quite differently compared to Kline. Unlike Kline, who never visited Japan, many prominent European abstract artists, including Soulages, Pierre Alechinsky and Georges Mathieu, travelled to Tokyo, japan, Osaka and Kyoto in the mid-1950s onwards. There they voluntarily took part in calligraphers’ exhibitions and theoretical discussions, freely speaking regarding their works and thoughts about Japanese art. A 1958 roundtable discussion in Kyoto focused on calligraphy and Parisian painting introduced together Soulages, Zao Wou-Ki, Japanese calligraphers and Zen philosophers.19 Encouraged by such attention using their European peers, calligraphers shown the transfer of their worldwide orientation by altering the 2nd language of the Bokubi journal from British to French as soon as 1953. By doing this they, too, grew to become active in the competition between your European and American schools of abstraction, altering sides between your artistic opponents around the different sides from the Atlantic, and reinforcing the divide together.

Kline’s Meryon comprises an unresolved tension between politically motivated art historic interpretations, which ascribe it to American abstract expressionism, and visually apparent aesthetic characteristics, which suggest its link with Japanese calligraphy. In Meryon, new American art grounded in American experience clashes using the artistically inspirational East Asian script. This tension forms the cognitive benefit of Kline’s large black and white-colored works, infusing Meryon’s bold brushwork using the reverberations of the transatlantic and transpacific artistic competition.


Japanese Calligraphy Compilation x Shinrei