Martin Kline’s particular sensitivity to nature is nurtured by living most of the time in the Hudson Valley, a couple of hours north of New York.

Kline happens, like a number of artists (Ben Shahn, Jasper Johns, and Joel Shapiro come to mind) to be an excellent and imaginative cook. It is almost impossible for Kline to compose a salad without making it not only delicious, but also beautiful, as if purple chive blossoms were invented by the horticultural gods specifically for his hand.

At Ohio University in Athens, Kline majored in studio art, mainly drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. He had a second major in art history prior to the twentieth century, with an emphasis on Italian Renaissance painting. It was not until he moved to New York in the later 1980s that he became attuned to abstract art.

Kline began working serially, yet in close touch with nature, for example with groups of finely detailed drawings of dead zinnias and yucca flowers. The watercolor lines surrounding the blossoms became reductive circles, structured by grids. These watercolor grid compositions grew into large works measuring five by more than three feet; and some were five by ten feet.

He worked flat, from above, his paper support laid on a table. This gave the artist an aerial view of what he was doing as he did it. His command of these large watercolor works had a delicate yet tough finesse. My colleagues and I acquired one for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s then Department of Twentieth-Century Art in 1996.

Around this time Kline transferred his topographical views from paper to surfaces of canvas, then of wood panel. These works, still gridded, were painted with black brushstrokes of encaustic, the ancient Ptolemaic medium of pigment bound with wax. Quickly realizing the inherent sculptural properties of wax, Kline began to build up his surfaces and also began to cast paintings and other objects covered in wax into bronze, stainless steel and carbon steel.

Using a wood panel as the support for his paintings, Kline layered hot, colored wax, which he dripped or painted with a paintbrush. The layers of the paint grew into reliefs, some with particular repeating “leaves” that cast deep shadows. Others were made with shallow layers that are difficult to decipher in terms of the method of their making. A work in pure beeswax, with no pigment, appears white. An abstraction of this variety, entitled Nest, 2000, also acquired by the Metropolitan, challenges the public to figure out exactly how the relief was built up. It also challenges the curator to display the work so the haptic appeal of such Klines does not tempt viewers into touching the surface.

Since World War II, numerous artists have insisted that art project into the actual space of the viewer instead of creating an illusion of space behind the canvas surface. This concern is pervasive in Martin Kline’s work and is specifically reinforced in the work Ed Ruscha, from 2004. For the heightened illusionism of the lettering in so many of Ruscha’s own word-based watercolors, Kline has substituted something literal: letters in encaustic that rise from the support.

Kline is a gifted colorist and there are colors to which he is particularly attracted: white in many variations, black, red, and silver. A seemingly red, circular monochrome, Read Red, 2008, is in fact red and pink, reestablishing what we have known since the experience of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918, that monochromes are often more than one color.

From Malevich’s famous white work that left Russia rolled inside Alfred Barr’s umbrella, the history of monochrome abstraction unfolded in the 1920s and 1930s first in Eastern Europe, with the single red, yellow, and blue lost paintings of Aleksandr Rodchenko (their surface remains a mystery to us) to the Blok group works and Unist reliefs of Poland, made by the Russian-born Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzeminski. The British painter Ben Nicholson made exquisite paintings and reliefs in shades of white and ecru in the 1930s and 1940s.

In Paris in 1950, the young Ellsworth Kelly made the stunning White Relief, a work dedicated to John Cage, in which hexagonal forms project from the surface in a grid. Kelly then proceeded to a career of monochrome work. The following year, his compatriot Robert Rauschenberg produced five multipart all-white paintings with a flat, even facture. He also made a series of all black reliefs the next year with rumpled newspaper collage beneath the surface.

In 1954 the French painter Yves Klein produced his first
“monochromes,” a booklet, Yves Peintures, of tipped-in paper rectangles purporting to be reproductions of single-color paintings that in fact he had never actually painted—but the concept was there. In 1957 Klein showed eleven dark ultramarine monochromes, each the same size, which he later said each cost a different price. He hung these several inches in front of the wall; this emphasized their status as objects—they were painted on muslin over panel—and as reliefs. One of the buyers was the Argentine-Milanese painter Lucio Fontana, who painted his first true monochromes the same year.

In 1955 Jasper Johns painted his large, encaustic White Flag and other monochromes such as Green Target; a little later Gray Target followed.

In 1960, the year before Kline was born, a large exhibition in Leverkusen, in the Rhine-Ruhr, “Monochrome Malerei” (Monochrome Painting), showed how widespread monochrome reliefs had become in Western Europe among a few artists born at the turn of the century, such as Alberto Burri and Fontana, and a large number born, like Yves Klein, in the 1920s: Italians such as Piero Manzoni—a lover of grids and white, creased and layered surfaces—and Enrico Castellani, whose surfaces in various one-color works poked forward in points aligned in grid compositions.

There were German artists born in the 1920s who developed Group Zero (a “zone of silence for a new beginning”—that is, do not repeat the crimes of World War II): Otto Piene, who made “stencil paintings”—white, yellow, or gold monochromes with raised dots formed with the use of stencils; Heinz Mack, who worked especially in reflective aluminum; and Günther Uecker, whose all-white reliefs were built from painted nails.

Related artists working in France, such as François Morellet and the Argentine Julio Le Parc belonged to GRAV, the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel. The Dutch Nul-groep was centered in Amsterdam. The energetic Japanese painter and sculptor Yayoi Kusama, who showed often with Zero, lived in New York in the 1960s. There she used the effects of a single color to unify her painted compositions and humorous three-dimensional objects, such as life-sized rowboats filled with many stuffed, phallic shapes.

This work constitutes some of the art-historical context for Kline’s monochrome reliefs from the late 1990s to the present. When I first saw Kline’s stunning encaustic monochromes I was immediately reminded of the European work made shortly before he was born. But this context was not Kline’s source; he barely knew that art. He worked out his reliefs in a variety of campaigns of hot wax dripped or painted from a brush, sometimes from one direction, sometimes from all sides, often on supports that are square or nearly so; sometimes the panels have sides of some depth, covered or partly covered with drips. These “frames” were employed by Kline for the practical purpose of protecting the surfaces so he could stack finished works.

In this exhibition are new shapes of circles and ovals—the latter are portraits, according to Kline. The circular panels remind me of Kline’s longstanding fondness for Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo.

The lettering on Ed Ruscha is vividly readable. A new set of sculptures are not. They began as Duchampian found objects. They are baseball bats, some dripping with content, which is a departure from Kline’s abstraction. He sees bats in sundry ways: as scepters (they are, after all, something one holds in one’s hands), as weapons (something wielded wrongly by that “Bush league” ruler soon to be out of office), and as symbols of “American legacies,” he says. Cast in bronze or stainless steel, the weight of these objects confers power and authority. Bling, with its ribbons of gilded corn rows, honors African-American baseball players. Not cast in sterling silver but in stainless steel, Sterling Reputation has shiny pill-like protrusions, referring to the recent steroid use scandal within the sport. Fat Man is named for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Little Liberty, diminutive in size, reflects the shrunken but still shining torch of the Statue of Liberty. Other bats are wrapped in writing, which spirals around the bat and is seemingly illegible until held and turned.

Kline’s elegant, meticulous craft and originality are perhaps most manifest here in a group of silver works. Tondo Tondo eschews leaves, squares, and tongue shapes for encaustic silver plates of varying size. Another work, Brand, features Kline’s monogram and points to consumer culture. Yet another is a grid of vermiform lines. Silver Falls shows Kline’s mastery at drips falling down a surface: a window pane on a rainy day when the sun shines silver.

Nan Rosenthal