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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Dr. Robert S. Mattison, curator, CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Dr. Robert S. Mattison, curator, "Franz Kline: Coal and Steel," with exhibition poster at The Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley.
CONTRIBUTED IMAGE Franz Kline, CONTRIBUTED IMAGE Franz Kline, "Turin" (1960. Oil on canvas, 80 3/8 x 95 1/2 ins.)

Lafayette College professor transports Franz Kline back to coal-country roots

Wednesday, October 31, 2012 by PAUL WILLISTEIN Focus Editor in Focus

Dr. Robert S. Mattison remembers when he discovered the roots of the iconic work of Franz Kline, the abstract expressionist king of coal country.

Mattison, the Marshall R. Metzgar Professor of Art History at Lafayette College, curated "Franz Kline: Coal and Steel," with 64 works by Wilkes-Barre born Kline including many rarely or never seen by the public through Jan. 13 at The Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley.

Soon after arriving at Lafayette in 1981, Mattison and his wife, Liza, drove to the Lehighton area to see the roots of Kline's work.

"Once I saw that landscape the coal breakers and the trexile bridges, the factories, the piles of coal. I said, 'My god, this is Kline'," Mattison recalls.

Mattison, who has written books and articles about abstract expressionists Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg, gives a 45-minute guided tour of the "Coal and Steel" exhibition, noon Nov. 7 at the art museum, and gives a talk about Kline's Pennsylvania roots and the influence of coal-mining and railroad imagery on his art, followed by a question and answer session, 1 p.m. Dec. 16 at the museum.

Another opportunity to view the Kline exhibit is "Cocktails and Collecting," 6 - 9 p.m. Nov. 10, featuring artists and art dealers from the Lehigh Valley and beyond, museum curators and hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. The event is coordinated with the Allentown Symphony Nov. 10 and 11 "Americana" concerts.

"About three years ago," Mattison continues, "I became close to a number of collectors who collected and had a special interest in his [Kline's] early works. The large black and white works are well-known internationally, but no one has really looked into the origins."

"It's mentioned that he [Kline] came from rugged Pennsylvania. But he was brought up here in Northeastern Pennsylvania at a time when in the United States, 100 million tons of anthracite was being mined.

"By the time, Kline was an adult, the industry was in decline. He moved to New York in 1938, but he would visit [the Lehighton region]. He saw the incredible height of industry, but also its decline.

"What I believe is that the big black and white paintings, which are forceful but splintered and off-balance, reflect those experiences. I know a number of people who were close to him and he would talk all the time about his Pennsylvania roots."

One of the sources was Grace Hartigan, about whom Mattison wrote the book, "Grace Hartigan: A Painter's World" (1990, Hudson Hills, 156 pp.). Hartigan was a friend of Kline, Mattison says, adding. "He [Kline] would talk all the time about the miners. She said on one trip [to Pennsylvania], he went down into the mines."

Mattison says that part of what the "Franz Kline: Coal and Steel" exhibit is about is "the connection.

"The source of that imagery is in the representational paintings he did, the railroad trains, trestle bridges, one of the miners' patch towns.

"I'm not saying in any way that the big black and white paintings are representational. But that imagery was so ingrained in his visual memory.

"That industrial history was so powerful that he realized that abstraction provided a universal language to reveal those feelings," Mattison continues.

"This sensibility was ingrained in New York. It was part of his New York experience. In Pennsylvania, he paints locomotives when the steam train was disappearing. When he goes to New York, he paints dilapidated buildings. One of his favorite scenes are the elevated railway lines, just at the time they're ending their life, too. They're being replaced by subways.

"Things that are monumental, but disappearing or decaying, seems to be a reccurring theme," Mattison says.

"He [Kline] exploded on the art scene in 1950, with his first exhibition of the black and white paintings. He immediately became celebrated among the avant-garde.

"For many, these paintings were the most advanced and shocking work that was being presented. People saw him as being an equal to Pollock and de Kooning."

"Big black and white paintings seem to epitomize the energy of their era. This show is kind of showing how he got there."

Mattison culled the work for the Allentown Art Museum exhibition from collectors, the National Gallery of Art and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. From Nelson-Atkins came "Turin" (1960). "It's as great a Kline as any in the world. There's not a better one in New York," Mattison says.

Augmenting "Franz Kline: Coal and Steel" are photos of anthracite mines by George Harvan and historic footage of Pennsylvania trains from the 1940s.

"All of that puts this in context," Mattison says.

To register for Dr. Robert S. Mattison's Allentown Art Museum talks: 610- 432-4333, ext. 110.