Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bettie Kline by Richard Prince

In the past twenty-five years I have never looked at one of Franz Kline's paintings and thought, "That might be Bettie Page's vagina." Never happened. Robert Motherwell maybe, but Kline? Richard Prince has a new artist book called Bettie Kline and the content may shift the way you look at Kline's works forevermore.

In the 1950s Irving Klaw had his infamous studio at 212 East 14th street which churned out pin-up photos and stag films featuring his most popular model Bettie Page. I lived for a time on the second floor of 212 in the loft which many of those films and photos were taken and the door of the then uninhabited first floor still had a large decal announcing Klaw's "storefront." I knew of the history but I didn't know that Franz Kline had lived for half a decade in the loft above the one I shared. According to this book, Kline would use many of Klaw's models as figure studies and Page would become Kline's favorite muse - apparently he was head over spiked heels for her.

This book brings together a few dozen of the hundreds of pen and ink sketches Kline produced set aside photographs of Page that were popular wares from Klaw. In retrospect it all makes complete sense. Page's bangs, black garters and bondage gear contrasting with her flash burnt white skin become obvious mash-ups of light and dark that Kline responded to with further abstraction.

Seemingly less a sensual response to body, it is the taught contraptions and ropes which bound Page into contorted poses - the "push and pull" of tension-filled line - that Kline put to paper. In a few, his sketches take on her curvy body with less abstract approach but these are less interesting visually. His strength is when the artist/inspiration relationship is kept secret - a subliminal nod to the calendar girl in large swaths of roughly applied black and grey.

Published by the Gagosian gallery, Bettie Kline is a beautiful book. Exquisitely produced, it is printed as a series of images stuck to the page with cellophane tape. The text, in the form of a typed letter that came out of a letter dropping Olivetti, gives us the history which reads as fact, but the book retains the feeling of a constructed reality where fiction is still a lingering possibility.


Tad Fancy said...

O my God, just when I thought I'd safely stepped back from the precipice of unbridled photobook consumption, you drag me back in...

Anonymous said...

Could you clarify? The juxtaposition of the photo and the sketch is entirely Prince's imagination at work. The relationship between the two images is fictional. Is that correct?

And the text is or is not fact?


mr whiskets said...


I don't know, I think it is fact but as I said there is an element of doubt. This book is the first I have heard of such a relationship.

The text about 212 east 14th street is factual. I am taking Prince's word that Kline was fascinated with Page. Makes sense.

That's all I can offer you.

Sebastian said...

i sure hope you didn't find this book in china!

John Doe said...

Don't think there's an ounce of truth to it but the juxtaposition is brilliant. Prince at his best and most thought provoking. Even the two paragraph letter is well constructed. One of my favorite books of the year and well worth the $150. Though not stated, it's limited to only 1000 copies.

Jimmy said...

just realized this is the best blog on the internet


Maxford said...

Complete fabrication.

I haven't read the so called "factual" text, but Kline didn't have a loft at 212 e 14th. His last loft was at 242 w 14th st, from 1957 until he passed away in 1962. (Currently there is a porn shop below that old loft space.) Prior to that he lived at various spaces on 9th st, 10th st, and 6th Avenue.

Kline was mostly inspired by studies he did of his wife.

jeff ladd said...


Thanks. Just curious, where do you get that info?

The dates cited in this book are from 1951 to 1956 that he lived at 212 east 14th. The only reason I question your info is that Robert Frank lived on East 12th street and I read somewhere of Frank mentioning photographing his "neighbors" Franz Kline and other artists. Frank photographed his "neighbor" Kline in 1956. If Kline was, according to your timeline, at 9th or 10th street and 6th ave, then Kline wouldn't really have been Frank's "neighbor." Guess we'll have to ask Robert and see if he can remember.

Maxford said...

Rbt Frank was living on 11th st near University Place when Kline lived at 52 E 9th st betw Uni Pl & Broadway. Kline lived there from 1949 until early '53 when the building was torn down, and then, I believe he lived on 10th st betw the same streets for a short bit. He loved that neighborhood because it was close to the Cedar bar.

I know that Rbt Frank lived in the same building as de Kooning, Alfred Leslie and a number of other artists in 1956. That address was 34 Third Avenue betw 9th & 10th. Frank has talked about watching de Kooning at night across the way, standing in front of a blank canvas for hours. I believe Kline lived on 10th st betw 3rd & 4th Avenues around that time. Prior to that he lived on Ave B, if I recall correctly. There's a published interview with him during that time and his loft overlooks Tompkins Square Park.

I live near Alfred Leslie, who was friends with both Kline and Frank. When I see him again I'll try to ask him for more details.

Anyway, I try to read everything available on Kline. I love his work, and I was born in the same town in Pennsylvania as him. A number of monographs on Kline provide chronological timelines on his life. There's also a terrific book by Fielding Dawson detailing his friendship with Kline, most of which took place during that period. Dawson helped Kline move a few times during those years.

jeff ladd said...

Thanks again Max...great info. A friend of mine works at Gogosian and I was having her ask around for more info.

I just want it to be true because I lived in 212. I guess I still have Bettie and Irving.

Maxford said...

Jeff -

I checked out a photo of Franz Kline by Rbt Frank in one of my books last evening and the copyright date for the picture says 1951. Not too sure if this is correct, though. The online listing of the Rbt Frank Archive at the Nat'l Gallery of Art has three contact sheets of Kline by Frank and they're all dated 1962. Maybe Stuart Alexander can help us out on this.

I noticed in your latest post on 'Best Books of 2009' that "Looking In" is at number 2. In regards to the book, do you know why the editors decided not to publish any pictures of the covers that Alfred Leslie made for the "The Americans"? This past summer Leslie had several variations of them tacked to a bulletin board in his studio and they could be seen clearly from the street. I stopped and stared at them every time I passed the place. Fascinating images (some of them were published in a Yale Art Catalog a few years back.) I believe Leslie and Frank had a falling out a number of years ago and I was wondering if that might be the reason.

Anyway, it would've been great to see what Kline or de Kooning would've created for "The Americans" cover if Frank's wish had happened.

jeff ladd said...


I have heard that the falling out was something having to do with Pull My Daisy.

I have a fine poster that Leslie made for Frank's Whitney show in the mid-90s. It is a silkscreen of the poster for Pull My Daisy and signed boldly by Alfred.

Maxford said...

Jeff -

I remember the "Moving Out" retrospective well, but I don't recall the Leslie poster, although I usually stay away from museum gift shops to avoid temptation. The poster sounds wonderful. I love a lot of Alfred's art.

If you haven't seen it yet, check out the Robert Frank exhibition at the Robert Mann gallery. Fantastic collection of prints, smaller than the prints at the MET, and the gallery setting makes them feel warmer and more intimate. The work includes images from 40s NYC, Paris, London, 'The Americans,' and portraits of artistic friends. Most of the prints are from the 70s, but three are vintage, and one of those is of Franz Kline, signed and dated 1956.

Stuart Alexander said...

Maxford and Jeff,

Sorry I was super busy when this was going on and did not notice that the comments kept going.

The date of the Kline portrait has troubled me for years. I have seen dates put on it by Frank as early as 1951, the year Kline made the painting behind him, and as late as 1962, the year Kline died. I used to think one of the keys was the painting behind him on the wall but we do not know how long it hung there before it was put on a stretcher and sold. It was first acquired by an Italian collector. The earliest reproduction I have found is in an exhibition catalogue in Rome in 1963. Not much help. The painting eventually was acquired by New York dealer Allan Stone and sold at Christie's New York in 2007 for $2.7Mill.

I still think the best clue will be to locate the date on the newspaper in front of him. Chances are that it did not sit there too long. It just means picking a date and beginning to page through the New York Times. With some persistence and luck, you will find it.

Frank first suggested having a cover designed by Kline or De Kooning but then he asked his friend Leslie. I think Grove Press finally decided to use one of Leslie's proposals on the back cover instead of the front because they were afraid of confusing the readers about this book of photographs. I have not found any documents to back this up. Just a hunch.

I think there are probably several reasons for the break up of their friendship. I read somewhere, now I will have to try to locate it, that one reason was that Leslie insisted on yanking 'Pull My Daisy' from distribution in 1961 and keeping the original negative together with all the outtakes of that film at Leslie's studio which was subsequently destroyed in a fire. I think they have disagreed over credit for that film. Leslie wrote a long article about it in the Village Voice in 1968.

Happy New Year,
p.s. I would love to see the poster Jeff (or at least a scan)
p.p.s. Maxford, I hope you also went to the Frank exhibition at Pace/MacGill. Enlarged contacts for The Americans and a good set of prints from 'The Bus Series'. See it online if you missed it.