Probst I was painted in 1960, the year Franz Kline was awarded a prize at the Venice Biennale and ten years after he abandoned figuration for his signature gestural style. Kline’s artistic training had been conventional: he had studied at Girard College in Philadelphia, at Boston University, and then at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art in London. However, the excitement surrounding the “action painting” of such artists as Jackson Pollock [1984.749, 1971.638] and especially his close friend Willem de Kooning [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Willem%20de%20Kooning] in the late 1940s and early 1950s influenced Kline’s interest in abstract painting, and his over-life-sized black-and-white canvases are now considered major monuments of Abstract Expressionism.
Unlike the restless lyricism of Pollock or the density and ambiguity of de Kooning’s canvases from the 1950s, Kline’s paintings are composed of clear, open shapes. His works are dramatic, confident, and above all forceful. His massive black strokes—often applied with a six-inch housepainter’s brush—are sometimes associated with Asian calligraphy, a connection Kline denied, stating: “The Oriental idea of space is an infinite space; it is not painted space, and [mine] is . . . calligraphy is writing, and I’m not writing. . . . I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important.” 
Kline’s pictures are muscular, strong, and above all exultant: they attempt to capture, in an abstract language, the dynamism of contemporary life. His shapes are architectural, evoking buildings, bridges, or, in the words of his friend Elaine de Kooning, “the old-fashioned engines that used to roar through the town where he was born.”  The titles of many of Kline’s paintings allude to his upbringing in the Pennsylvania coal country; others, including the MFA’s, reflect his surroundings in Greenwich Village, New York. The title of Probst I refers to Jack (Yoachim) Probst, an artist friend from the Village. It is a painting both monumental and subtle, gaining luminosity from the delicate passages of yellow and pale salmon and depth from an undergirding of rich dark brown behind the slashing black strokes.
1. Katherine Kuh, interview with Franz Kline, in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross (New York: Abrams, 1990), 92–93.
2. Elaine de Kooning, quoted in Irving Sandler, Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 256.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).