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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

With the Void, Full Powers

My Review of the Yves Klein Show at the Hirshhorn is in the September issue of Artillery magazine and is posted on my blog in the Online Articles section. Because Klein was such a powerhouse, whose influence on Contemporary Art cannot be overstated, I also wanted to post my review in its entirety here.

It was 102° in Washington the day I went to the Yves Klein show at the Hirshhorn. White hot, shimmering haze cloaked the city, making the prospect of an afternoon surrounded by expanses of IKB (International Klein Blue), so evocative of the sea and sky of Klein’s native Cote d’Azur, immensely appealing.

Klein virtually invented conceptual art. Indeed, much of what we take for granted about Contemporary Art can be traced back to him—quite an accomplishment for someone who was only active for eight years before dying prematurely at 34. The son of two painters, Klein was raised in an art hothouse, which explains his immense creativity and the ease with which he switched from one medium to another.

From the very beginning, Klein was fixated on monochrome paintings. Initially he painted them in a variety of colors, but he was unhappy with what he felt was a superficial effect and so he narrowed his concentration to “Yves Klein” blue. For him, the hue was more than just color; it was dimensionless, representing sky, water and space, in short, the immaterial world. The quest for immateriality was central to Klein’s oeuvre and his more conceptual pieces (the release of 1001 blue balloons in Paris, The Void exhibition consisting of an empty art gallery and the sale of “immaterial pictorial sensitivity zones,” empty space he “sold” in a transaction involving the exchange of gold ingots for a receipt, which the purchaser then burned, leaving the artwork to exist only in memory) are natural outgrowths of this attitude.

A showman and master of self-promotion, Klein operated in what seems like a perpetually manic state, with a finger in all manner of different art “pies.” One senses the urgency in him. Perhaps, on some level he knew his time was limited, or maybe it was, in fact, the creative fire burning within that cut his life short. His extensive writings, the many plans and maquettes he produced reveal a holistic approach to art (as well as a more than passing interest in science) and faced with all this, I couldn’t help thinking of Leonardo da Vinci.

As Klein ventured more into spirituality, he expanded his monochrome palette to include gold leaf, which symbolized the passage towards immateriality, and pink, representing flesh, thereby creating a potent trinity. In addition, he produced, fire paintings, “cosmogonies” (plant and rock impressions) and the infamous “anthropometries” in which nude models (“living paint brushes”) were coated with paint and dragged or laid across the painting surface.

Klein also created sponge reliefs and sponge sculptures—sponges, which he initially used to apply paint, became important symbols for him. Their absorption of paint made manifest his concept of the “impregnation” of the material with the immaterial. He planned to float the sponges in the air (levitation being another form of immateriality) using a combination of helium and electromagnets, but never did. He also collaborated on kinetic sculptures with the sculptor, Jean Tinguely, and took plaster casts of well-known items (human torsos, the Victory of Samothrace, a globe) coating them in IKB.

His technique of applying pure pigment suspended in synthetic resin onto gauze-covered panels allows for an incredibly deep saturation of color and creates a glowing three-dimensionality. Though static pieces, they are animated by the blue and seem almost to vibrate. The “monogolds” have indented surfaces that add shadow and shape. Standing before them, one is met with an indistinct reflection, a blurred and muted view of reality that provides an evocative window into another world. 

The anthropometries vary from lyrical explosions of pigment to tribal totems and the fire paintings with their artfully scorched surfaces are beautiful—both muscular and graceful. Some look like they’ve captured the very fire they were burnt with, others resemble cyanotypes making one wonder if the alchemy of intense heat on paper actually caused some kind of photographic exposure.

The films of Klein at work are as amusing as they are interesting. The marriage of surreal and serious is so very French. Neatly attired in dapper suit or tuxedo, Klein’s earnest demeanor in the center of such oddball circumstances recalls the antics of that great master of deadpan, Jacques Tati. One segment shows an anthropometric performance before a rather prim looking audience, dressed in cocktail attire. At this early art happening, the comely living paintbrushes do their stuff accompanied by an orchestra playing Klein’s 1949 composition, The Monotone Symphony, which consisted of one chord played for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of silence. In spite of the respect I have for the finished product, the spectacle’s more than passing resemblance to a Crazy Horse nightclub routine, or even mud wrestling is hard to shake. The other memorable segment shows Klein executing a fire painting with what looks like a flamethrower assisted by a uniformed fireman manning a fire hose.

Klein certainly had some pretty wild ideas as his manifestos attest. With The Blue Revolution he wanted to cover the entire surface of France in blue. Blue H-bombs were also on the agenda and he wrote to those in power (Eisenhower, Castro, etc.) to try and get his ideas realized. Certainly, this was part of a larger immaterial artwork, but there is an aspect of Klein that makes you believe that on some basic level he really embraced these ideas. He pursued them doggedly, his persistence, a reflection of the fighting spirit of judo (of which Klein was one of the best masters in France) where each defeat is viewed as a step toward victory.

Despite all the hype and hyperbole, and the bizarre notions, there is something authentic about Klein. His work’s got the goods. After all these years it continues to hold up and is as fresh and beguiling as it ever was.


  1. This show is coming to Minneapolis in October. You've got me looking forward to seeing it.