Franz Kline grew up in Pennsylvania coal country and studied in Philadelphia, Boston, and London. Throughout the 1940s, he earned a precarious living in New York painting urban scenes in a style based on the Ashcan School and derived from Social Realism. It is said he arrived at his famous black and white abstract style after seeing an enlarged detail of one of his own drawings in a stereopticon.
Kline was a friend of both Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and his first abstract paintings shared with theirs the large scale, gestural forms, elemental force, and all-over composition characteristic of many Abstract Expressionist works. Kline's earliest abstractions were black strokes on what appeared to be a ground of white paint often applied over black areas. Although these canvases have an air of great spontaneity and were clearly executed at times with large brushes, they were in fact the result of long study and many preparatory drawings.
Kline's paintings have been seen both as stark, existential confrontations and as recollections of his Pennsylvania origins and his gritty urban surroundings. In this work, the title "Siegfried" refers to the folk hero of Richard Wagner's opera The Ring. As the agent of the destruction of the Norse gods, Siegfried was later appropriated as a symbol by the Nazis. Kline may have associated the stark black and white slashing strokes of pigment and the sense of extremity and tragedy with both The Ring and Nazi atrocities.
By 1958, when he painted Siegfried, Kline had begun to experiment with color, and the large, clear structural intention of his black and white paintings was starting to collapse. The presence of gray in this work creates an ambiguity absent from his earlier work. The black strokes are less forceful and energetic, and the area of white is much diminished; in fact, Kline stopped just short of covering the canvas with impenetrable areas of black.