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One of the great things about looking at Yves Klein’s work is that a viewer can have a “transcendental” experience contemplating, say, one of his monochromes while simultaneously being hyper-aware of the way the gloriously saturated signature blue pigment functions as a critique of the genius-ridden art market. This is due to the fact that there are various Kleins: ironic Klein, misogynist Klein, sincere Klein, the Klein of beauty and exquisiteness. This is an artist who self-published a book, Yves Peintures (1954), which consisted of reproductions of his paintings that in fact did not exist; who offered empty space in the city of Paris in exchange for gold (which he then threw into the Seine); who claimed to have patented his own signature color, International Klein Blue (IKB); and who, in his Anthropometries, made marks by having naked female models covered in blue paint cavort on paper while he retained a clean distance. Klein could be, as Amelia Jones has written, ironic and deadly serious at the same time (“Dis/playing the Phallus: Male Artists Perform Their Masculinities,” Art History 17, no. 4 [December 1994]: 553).
What is disappointing, then, about the Hirshhorn Museum’s recent retrospective, Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers, which also traveled to the Walker Art Center, is that it served to squelch this equivocation—the multiplicity of Klein’s work as well as his elaborately constructed persona. The ambivalence one may feel looking at or thinking about Klein (is Klein advanced capitalism’s artist par excellence or one of its harshest critics?) was gone (see Benjamin Buchloh, “The Primary Colors for the Second Time Around,” October 38 [Summer 1986]: 41–52; Yve-Alain Bois, “Klein’s Relevance for Today,” October 119 [Winter 2007]: 75–93). Granted, the exhibition’s co-curators, Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn’s deputy director and chief curator, and Philippe Vergne, the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York and a former curator at the Walker, which organized the show with the Hirshhorn and in association with the Yves Klein Archives in Paris, were faced with no small task: how to present Klein in all his ironic-sincere fullness, and, since there has been no major show of Klein’s work in the United States since 1982, introduce his conceptual practice to an American audience unfamiliar with his work. Faced with this challenge, the curatorial decision to let Klein essentially speak for himself—there was almost no wall text, and most of what was present consisted of quotations from Klein—ultimately affirmed Klein’s own self-mythology as a visionary artist and a kind of spiritual guide. As a result, the exhibition, and in large part the catalogue too, tended to shut down discussion rather than open up an understanding of the complexity and indeed continued relevance of Klein’s work.
The exhibition had been much anticipated and has elicited a great many reviews, a number of which display a fabulous right-on-ness and expertise. Nuit Banai’s review in the September 2010 issue of Artforum offers a particularly keen analysis of the exhibition’s propensity for mythmaking. Banai points out, for instance, how Brougher and Vergne reproduce a distorted biography of Klein by retelling his life’s story without revealing the discrepancies between what actually happened and what Klein claimed to have happened. Among other contradictions, Banai calls attention to the exhibition’s timeline, which stated facts such as that Klein “patented” his IKB in 1960 when in reality he never secured a patent. This was an unfortunate lost opportunity—for exactly such exaggerations and misrepresentations could have functioned as clues to Klein’s larger conceptual project. Similarly, Roberta Smith’s New York Times review from June 3, 2010, does an excellent job of taking Brougher and Vergne to task for the unnecessary and unadulterated hero worship expressed in their catalogue essays. In her review she quotes one of the strangest passages found in the catalogue text in which Vergne compares Klein to Christ and hyperbolically describes him as having left an “imprint on the creative landscape of the second half of the last century . . . as deep as that of a stigmata” (45). Another deeply troublesome section in Vergne’s essay, not mentioned by Smith, is his expressed rapture over Klein’s Anthropometries. Vergne gushes about Klein’s transfiguration from body to spirit without the least acknowledgment that this supposed dematerialization is realized through the actual bodies of nude women. Well it may be—but only if we can see, in this delectation of what Blake Gopnik in the Washington Post savvily describes as Klein’s James Bond babes, the saving grace of irony.
To give the curators their due, this over-the-top rhetoric is deliberate—an attempt to be true to Klein’s self-aggrandizing practice. Vergne sets forth an articulate and provocative explanation of this strategy in his catalogue essay. He anticipates the criticism we and others are making, but chooses to ignore it because he believes his approach will make Klein present and will thereby challenge the structural limits of museum exhibitions. Vergne then launches himself headlong into something that surpasses hagiography, verging on a hallucinogenic communing with the dead. “It was necessary for me to treat Klein as a living artist before confronting the artworks . . . as if Klein did not die on June 6, 1962. . . . As if, on that day, he himself became immaterial, atomized, everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, and then. In other words—still here” (46). Vergne’s language is histrionic, but fits with his conviction that the only “viable retrospective” of Klein’s work would involve a much more spectacular gesture than With the Void, Full Powers. Namely, his ideal would have been to assemble the most impressive collection of Klein’s works from around the world that money could buy, only to close the museum for forty-eight hours, de-install the exhibition, and return the borrowed works to their owners. He would have completed the exhibition with a version of Klein’s 1958 vernissage at Galerie Iris Clert, inviting visitors to the now empty galleries and serving them IKB-colored cocktails.
According to Vergne, the world is not yet ready for such an exhibition. Thus he and Brougher had to make do with gestures toward Kleinian radicalism without taking their dreams all the way. The opening room, for example, which documents that famous early exhibition, was sparsely populated. Viewers saw only a photograph (Klein’s famously staged Leap into the Void from 1960, in which Klein hurls himself off a ledge into space), a three-minute video (footage from the show at Iris Clert), and a note left at Clert’s gallery from Albert Camus, which says, “Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers.” The gallery’s emptiness here was meant to echo its subject. But sparsely populated is not the same as empty. And perhaps more to the point, Klein is in fact not alive; he cannot speak for himself.
These things matter not because we are sticklers for accuracy but because the idea that in 2010 one could understand Klein as if he were still alive means to ignore fifty years of history, and prevents one from seeing how Klein’s work continues to evolve over time. Instead of dreaming big and settling for compromises, we would have favored an exhibition that provided new insight into the artist. The introductory wall text posited Klein’s great influence on art history, but we were left (after visiting the exhibition several times and reading the catalogue) wanting more substantiation. How widely known were Klein’s shenanigans at the time? What impact did they have on his generation? More recently? Nan Rosenthal, in her touchstone essay for the 1982 retrospective, cites Donald Judd and Frank Stella as early admirers (Nan Rosenthal, “Assisted Levitation: The Art of Yves Klein,” in Yves Klein 1928–1962: A Retrospective, Houston: Institute for the Arts, Rice University, 1982: 91, 106). There is no doubt a substantial paper trail, starting with these contemporaries and waiting to be traced through the resurgence of artists concerned with institutional critique, relational aesthetics, and—perhaps most precisely relevant—the line between sincerity and cynicism.
But if not this, then at least dazzle with the installation. Admittedly, we were delighted by the abundant and diverse selection of Klein’s work on offer. Especially welcome was the prominent inclusion of copious film footage. It was also wonderful to see the tongue-in-cheek catalogue of monochromes, the burned paintings, the Tactile Sculpture (ca. 1957) (ideally inhabited by “shapely nude models”), the Monogold (1962) with precious flakes fallen into the protective plexiglass. Other reviewers, such as Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker and Gopnik, expressed considerable exuberance at seeing this collection of works. Even Roberta Smith, despite her serious critique of the catalogue, thought the exhibition was stunning.
In the end, though, the exhibition’s hang was disappointing. Something about the dim lighting made the IKB monochromes look flatter than usual, not able to absorb quite the requisite amount of light. In addition, the Anthropometries lost some of their mystique (ironically, in this mystifying show) because their mysteries—the fact that these blue gestural marks are the imprints of female torsos—are revealed even before the viewer has a chance to muse. The explanatory film catches the viewer’s eyes before they are absorbed by the subtleties of the assembled paintings. But more than this, the installation, as with other choices, made it difficult to notice how Klein’s work solicits multiple and contradictory interpretations. The sumptuousness of IKB blue, for instance, should stand in tension with the farce of monochrome painting. Are these masterpieces supposed to be taken seriously? When clues to Klein’s multiplicity were presented, they were often so subtle that only the most careful visitor could possibly notice them. For example, the exhibition opened and closed with two versions of the same photograph, Leap into the Void (1960), the image of Klein jumping out a window. But only upon going through the catalogue, where the photographs are reproduced side by side, did we finally realize that these are variations published by Klein to wink acknowledgment of the dark-room manipulation. The canny decoder might discover the inconsistency between the photographs, but to what ends? The subtlety of this curatorial gesture seemed only to demonstrate Klein’s cleverness, without ever allowing for implosion. Where was the repulsion with or delight in the fraudulence? Where was the mockery of pretension?
However, having high expectations unfulfilled did lead us to think about the questions raised by the exhibition and its failures. Taking Vergne’s cue, we wrestled with the problem of how a museum should or might treat an artist such as Klein. Disgruntlement greeted every solution: for us, the monochromes did not sufficiently resemble a temple to blue, but then the sponges looked too pristine, not as messily gathered as in various installation shots from the 1950s. Like Banai, we were aggravated by the lack of translations (Klein’s handwritten notes, displayed in vitrines, unreadable to those unfamiliar with French), but then grumbled about the proximity of film and objects as too revealing.
Perhaps the problem is the relationship between the exhibition and the catalogue, specifically the lack of space between them. The exhibition was disappointing in its attempt to mislead the viewer into believing that Klein’s value lies in his greatness. Admittedly, there is something refreshing about attempting to hang a show by channeling the artist to the most extreme possible degree. But if this is the chosen route, then surely it is also the curatorial team’s responsibility to intervene somewhere—especially with an artist such as Klein whose sensationalized practice was built on myth. The catalogue could have been this place, and there are bright moments (Andria Hickey’s essay on the role of Klein’s photography and Kaira Cabañas on his relationship to Situationism and Lettrisme). But to counter the extremes of the exhibition, more was needed. In an exhibition that myopically focuses on the artist’s “immaterial sensibility,” Hickey and Cabañas contribute to a historical investigation into Klein’s work and usefully correct the urge to turn him into a spirit who floats above us all, still watching.
According to Cabañas, “Klein declared an art premised on immediacy and direct perception, but, in the end, his work reveals this immediacy as decidedly fraught” (189). If only we had been given more clues to this ambivalent Klein.
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts and Art History, George Washington University