Please wait
Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956. Oil and paper collage on canvas, 80 × 100 in. (203.2 × 254 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art  57.10. © 2009 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956. Oil and paper collage on canvas, 80 × 100 in. (203.2 × 254 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art  57.10. © 2009 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ever since Whitney Museum conservator Matthew Skopek saw Franz Kline’s Mahoning (1956) as part of a permanent collection exhibition seven years ago, he wanted to restore it. The black-and-white work originally contained a remarkable amount of variation in saturation and tone, but as Mahoning aged, its vibrancy had dulled, and subtle distinctions in color had become uniform. Fifty years after the painting was created, Skopek explains, “Every single black was just the same gloss, the same saturation.” The opportunity to treat the painting arose in 2013 as part of an effort to prepare Whitney permanent collection works for the Museum’s new building, where an unprecedented number of pieces will be on display. 

When the treatment process began, Skopek’s aim was to bring the painting back to its original documented state, cleaning it and removing a layer of varnish that had been applied during an earlier conservation effort in 1963. But as he started removing the varnish, he uncovered something unexpected. “I thought that I was going to go back to a certain place that resembled a 1957 photo [taken when the Whitney acquired the work],” Skopek said. “I found something else.” A different varnish had been locally applied to the painting’s broad black sections, and small dabs of brownish-black paint had been roughly affixed with a palette knife. Both the paint spots and the varnish contained the same resin, suggesting that the two modifications had taken place at the same time and were carried out by the same person—the artist. 

Skopek speculates that when Kline saw his painting at a 1960 exhibition, there may have been nicks and dings in the paint, and the black color had likely lost some of its saturation—a natural result of the paint continuing to dry in the years after it was painted. Kline had initially sought to create a rich surface, using thinned oil paint and then adding varnish to increase its gloss and depth. Just a few years after making Mahoning, he could see it aging. The artist’s intervention is a surprising revelation, countering his documented claim that he would not mind if his paintings’ materials discolored with age: “The whites, of course, turned yellow, and many people call your attention to that, you know," Kline had said. "They want white to stay white for ever. It doesn’t bother me whether it does or not. It’s still white compared to the black.”* Skopek’s discovery demonstrated that Kline’s engagement with his paintings and materials was deeper than previously known, and changed the course of the conservation treatment; the focus shifted from restoring the painting’s 1957 state to recreating areas where the artist’s later revisions had worn away. 

Beyond protecting and preserving the work, this conservation treatment contributed to our knowledge of Kline and his process. The case highlights an element of surprise and spontaneity in a field more commonly associated with its academic rigor. While Skopek’s research on the treatment was extensive (including site visits to other institutions and the examination of receipts and files kept by Kline’s partner, Elizabeth Zogbaum), careful study did not provide all the answers. As Skopek observes, “Any time we clean a painting we’re taking it back to a state closer to what the artist intended, and that can be really rewarding. By restoring it you affect the viewer’s experience and hopefully allow the artist’s voice to speak more clearly. If at the same time you come across something unexpected, then that can be even more of a thrill.” In the end, the work tells its own story.

*David Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.  p.61

Related Story

ALL STORIES

Whitney Stories Video:</br>Vincent Punch
Whitney Stories Video:
Vincent Punch

The Future Whitney
Q&AWith the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part Three
Q&AWith the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part Three
Exhibitions
Q&A With the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part Two
Q&A With the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part Two
Exhibitions
Two of the Whitney’s Hoppers Keep the President Company in the Oval Office
Two of the Whitney’s Hoppers Keep the President Company in the Oval Office
Whitney News
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Renzo Piano
Whitney Stories Video:
Renzo Piano

The Future Whitney
Q&A with the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part One
Q&A with the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part One
Exhibitions
In Memory: <br>Cecil Weekes, 1956-2013
In Memory:
Cecil Weekes, 1956-2013

Behind the Scenes
Whitney Stories Video:</br>Larissa Gentile
Whitney Stories Video:
Larissa Gentile

The Future Whitney
“Am I As Much As Being Seen?” Fred Wilson Collaborates with Whitney Teens
“Am I As Much As Being Seen?” Fred Wilson Collaborates with Whitney Teens
Behind the Scenes
Whitney Stories Video: Fred Wilson
Whitney Stories Video: Fred Wilson
The Future Whitney
Construction Continues on the Future Whitney
Construction Continues on the Future Whitney
The Future Whitney
Exploring the Legacy of the Meatpacking District
Exploring the Legacy of the Meatpacking District
The Future Whitney
Raising Spirits
Raising Spirits
Behind the Scenes
Conserving Franz Kline’s Mahoning
Conserving Franz Kline’s Mahoning
Behind the Scenes

Behind the Whitney Stories Video Series
Behind the Scenes
Welcome to Whitney Stories
Welcome to Whitney Stories
Whitney News
The Future Whitney In Progress
The Future Whitney In Progress
The Future Whitney
Whitney Stories Video: Carol Mancusi-Ungaro
Whitney Stories Video: Carol Mancusi-Ungaro
The Future Whitney
A Space Without Walls: T.J. Wilcox’s Studio, Photographed by Marco Anelli
A Space Without Walls: T.J. Wilcox’s Studio, Photographed by Marco Anelli
Exhibitions
Vlogging About Art: The Whitney Video Blog Project
Vlogging About Art: The Whitney Video Blog Project
Whitney News
Words on Walls: A Conversation with Tom Black
Words on Walls: A Conversation with Tom Black
Behind the Scenes
Cubes and Anarchy: An Installation
Cubes and Anarchy: An Installation
Exhibitions
Picturing Progress: Building the Future Whitney
Picturing Progress: Building the Future Whitney
The Future Whitney
The Whitney Does D.I.Y. With Desert Island Comics
The Whitney Does D.I.Y. With Desert Island Comics
Whitney News
Mapping the Whitney in New York City
Mapping the Whitney in New York City
Behind the Scenes
Breaking Ground
Breaking Ground
The Future Whitney
Choreographing Community
Choreographing Community
Whitney News
Into the Future with <span class="caps">CHERYL</span>
Into the Future with CHERYL
Exhibitions
Cory Arcangel Re-Blogs the Internet
Cory Arcangel Re-Blogs the Internet
Behind the Scenes