From The Economist print edition, May 27th 2010:
Yves Klein was lounging on a beach with some friends in 1947 when he had his big artistic breakthrough, so the story goes. Born in Nice to painter parents, the 19-year-old Klein gazed up at the sky and imagined signing his name near the clouds. “The blue sky is my first artwork,” he declared, neatly summing up his ambitions to breach the ordinary boundaries of art; no mean feat in post-war Europe.
Besides revealing Klein’s grand expectations for himself, this anecdote helps to illustrate why he is still so difficult to classify. A painter who bemoaned the limitations of paint, he tried to convey something immaterial in his work, to lend shape to the invisible. He was a visionary, a bridge between representational art and the conceptual kind, with ideas about revolutionising music, theatre, architecture and art. But he was also a charismatic showman with a touch of the charlatan about him, and he loved a good spectacle.
In an early show at a Paris gallery, for example, Klein emptied the space, painted it white and announced that he was exhibiting his “sensibility”. For his later “Anthropométrie” series, an orchestra played his one-chord “Monotone Symphonie” while the artist, dressed in evening tails and white gloves, directed a group of naked women to smear themselves with the blue pigment he patented as “International Klein Blue” and roll about on canvas or cardboard. (A large work from this series sold at Christie’s in New York earlier this month for $12.4m.)
“Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers” is the first comprehensive re-examination of his work in America in nearly 30 years. Organised by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC (where it is now on view), and the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis (where it moves next), it includes around 200 paintings, drawings, films and ephemera, selected from the many hundreds Klein left behind when he died of a heart attack in 1962, aged 34. His seven-year body of work is sprawled yet distinctive, particularly given the many works coated in his personal hue of blue.
The timing of the show is serendipitous. Though this exhibition has been in the works since 2003, Klein has been in the headlines lately for breaking records at auction. “I don’t always understand the market,” says Kerry Brougher, the deputy director and chief curator of the Hirshhorn, “but Klein has a position in art history that isn’t going away.”
Yet organising a retrospective of Klein’s work is tricky, as his artistic evolution lacks a clear narrative. He wanted to free painting from representation, and free art from expectations, but this was not without contradictions. At times Klein comes across as wry and savvy, such as with his first self-published book, “Yves Peintures”, a collection of “reproductions” that seems to poke fun at the whole idea of an artist catalogue. At others he seems like a bit of a loon, such as in his published correspondence with Philip Johnson, an American architect who handled Klein with impressive patience.
The show moves chronologically, from his earliest monochromatic canvasses to his sponges, “Anthropométries” and fire paintings. The curators have limited the wall text to Klein’s own observations. (These don’t always serve him well, as one example shows: “All facts that are contradictory are genuine principles of universal explanation.”) Klein’s most radical work came early on. The strongest room of the show is one filled completely with his trademark blue monochromes. The colour feels a little heavy for an ethereal rendering of sky and sea, as Klein had envisioned. Yet these paintings are remarkable to look at, and a gallery full of their throbbing colour delivers a curious conceptual wallop. The room’s security guard divulges that she has to keep visitors from plunging their hands into the dry pigment. Klein, the showman and the artist, would surely have appreciated that people would try to steal a touch.