Lesson 4: The Structures of Beauty

Architecture of Design

The American abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline distilled painting to its primary elements of black/white design.

In his works, a nearly two-decades series of black and white paintings, he explored the dynamic possibilities of push and pull within the canvas (the pictorial arena, our working surface, i.e, the paper).

Despite appearances his paintings were not rapidly executed ‘one-offs’. Kline worked slowly constructing his compositions usually by means of assemblages on pages torn from telephone directories.

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As can be seen in this example from 1954 (the dimensions are 9x11”) Klein would cut and paste and work the composition until he felt he had ‘something’. He would then project the assemblaged study using an opaque projector (de Kooning introduced Kline to this method in 1948) onto a large canvas. Doing so distilled the composition to its essential elements and either it worked or it didn’t.

Kline considered these works as both figurative and landscape which can be read as harsh rectilinear silhouettes of New York’s architecture, tunnels and elevated subway tracks. The heaviness of Kline’s black girders and joists and I-beams, built in layers and then feathered into white pictorial voids, gives his pictures their most powerful quality, which is fundamentally architectural. Kline paints a picture with something of the stubborn, improvisational character of an amateur carpenter building a house.

In the previous lesson, The Elements of Composition, I touched upon the five principles of composition/design as they pertain to Shapes and Spacing. These are:

1. OPPOSITION
2. REPETITION
3. SUBORDINATION/DOMINANCE
4. TRANSITION
5. SYMMETRY

Franz Kline Untitled 1954
Franz Kline, Untitled, 1954

Opposition

The vertical line groupings pictured here demonstrate the Principle of Opposition at work. A singular line ‘balances’ the larger grouping of three-to- five lines (depending on how you want to count them). Using the single line as a counter-weight also requires the larger area of white field. The effect is a more stable arrangement than the horizontal line arrangement.

The Fulcrum Armature, discussed in the aforementioned previous lesson, also relies upon the Principle of Opposition.

Franz Kline #7
Franz Kline, Painting #7, 1952
Repetition
Franz Kline, Untitled, circa 1958-60

Repetition invokes melody. It can be either a fast or slow tempo. In painting brush work can effectively instill both repetition and subtle patterned reticulation to further model form. Edgar Degas was a master of this, particularly in his portrait of Albert Melida.

Repetition

This untitled Kline painting (circa 1958-60) suggests that it is a large piece. There is a monumental quality to it. It’s actual dimensions are 12 x 20”.

Vertical lines are compositional brakes; they temper the velocity of the viewer’s eye, slowing it down. Read from left to right (due to the placement and grouping of these vertical lines) the eye moves from one ‘figure’ to the next. There is a definite figural quality to this work.

Vertical lines communicate a feeling of loftiness and spirituality. Erect lines seem to extend upwards beyond human reach, toward the sky. They often dominate public architecture, from cathedrals to corporate headquarters. Extended perpendicular lines suggest an overpowering grandeur, beyond ordinary human measure.

Subordination/Dominance

A successful painting is wholly dependent upon all of the elements contributing to a singular, dominating unity.

The principle of subordination/dominance governs the distribution of the dark/light pattern (the Notan, see Lesson #2: Unity) and also the color scheme.

Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell, In Black & White, 1960
Franz KlineFranz Kline, Untitled, circa 1958-60

Transition

The principle of transition glues the various elements of the painting together into a unified whole. Transition is more often than not discrete, yet without it everything falls apart.

A transitional element may be either tone or line or both. A diagonal line is often very effective.

Diagonal lines convey movement and direction. However, diagonal lines and groupings are unstable in relation to gravity.

In a two dimensional composition diagonal lines are also used to indicate depth, an illusion of perspective that pulls the viewer into the picture creating an illusion of a space that one could move about within.

Symmetry

Symmetry is commonly understood as placing two lines or objects in equal, common balance. This often results in cheap and mean design that lacks all sense of beauty.

The basic armatures of composition convey balance and symmetry. However, nothing is ever that simple and straight forward.

A pairing of horizontal lines can possess a stark and brutal beauty.

Horizontal lines are ‘reader’ lines. To a large extent they inform the viewer as to whether a painting is to be read from the left or from the right. This is largely determined by the placement of the main horizontal lines within the canvas.

Symmetry in design

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