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If large-scale exhibitions are a measure of an artist’s lasting success, then Yves Klein has admittedly fared better than some of his more neglected French peers. This is the third major exhibition of Klein’s work in a Paris museum since his death in 1962, and the second exhibition the Pompidou Center has devoted to the artist. Perhaps best known for his signature International Klein Blue (IKB) two-and-three dimensional works and his Anthropométries (1960–61), paintings resulting from his use of the nude female model as a “human paintbrush,” Klein still remains a contested figure despite the recognition he has received in France. The current exhibition and catalogue, curated and edited by the Pompidou’s Camille Morineau, rely on a thematic approach in order to redress a certain number of clichés and to correct some false presumptions about the artist and his work. Morineau’s stated aims are to show how Klein’s work prefigures an entire range of contemporary art practices, to contextualize his monochrome paintings in relationship to his more performative and conceptual works, to emphasize the importance of pink and gold in his color hierarchy over the ubiquitous blue, and to challenge his reputation as a superficial showman and savvy media manipulator who liked to provoke scandals.
The catalogue includes substantial texts by Morineau, Klein specialist Denys Riout, and twentieth-century art historian Yve-Alain Bois that consider Klein’s practice in depth, and shorter texts by over a dozen international scholars of post-War art that situate Klein within a broader artistic and historical context, and explore his relationship to his public image, to the mass-media, and to his contemporaries in France, Europe, and abroad. Fine reproductions of the works in the exhibition and of his press albums, and myriad photographs and other documents from the Klein archive make this catalogue a valuable resource for scholars. The resulting image of Klein is balanced, in no small part due to the inclusion of Bois’s brilliant critical reading of Klein’s “actuality,” where he fairly, and with admitted ambivalence, manages to temper the reverential and quasi-mystical rhetoric that can still surround Klein’s work. Importantly, Bois also historicizes Klein’s reception, making reference to Sidra Stich’s, Nan Rosenthal’s, and Thomas McEvilley’s groundbreaking studies/exhibitions, as well as important contributions to Klein scholarship by Riout, Didier Semin, and Marie-Anne Sichère. Throughout the book, and in the exhibition, one senses an underlying desire to finally wrestle Klein from the critical grasp of the late Pierre Restany, whose continual association of Klein’s work with the Nouveau Réalisme movement he founded and promoted has long dominated and, according to some, “distorted” Klein’s reception. Given that a two-day international colloquium in homage to Restany was held at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art during the exhibition, it is likely that we will soon have a more nuanced image of both men and their influence on post-War French art.
The exhibition covers the period 1955–1962, with 1955 signaling the onset of Klein’s career as an independent artist. This was indeed a prodigious year for Klein. His first scandal took place when his (orange) monochrome was refused by the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles dedicated to abstract art. Subsequently, he published an explanation of his conception of the monochrome in the Nouvelles Littéraires. He also had his first solo show, Yves, Peintures, in Paris. In 1962, after several years of association with Restany and the Nouveaux Réalistes, with whom he severed ties in 1961, Klein exhibited in several group shows and continued to produce his Zones de sensibilité picturale immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility [1959–62]). He sold these zones of “emptiness, wind, nothing” for 365 grams of solid gold, half of which he then ceremoniously threw into a body of water. In return, the buyers received a receipt they were required to burn in the presence of a notary and two witnesses; the only remaining trace of the transaction was a stub in the IKB receipt booklet kept by Klein. The year 1962 was also marked by Klein’s “royal” wedding to Rotraut Uecker, which he conceived of as a performance and designed right down to the IKB. crown holding his bride’s veil in place. The film he commissioned of the flamboyant religious ceremony, with a contemporary voiceover by his widow, is the work we encounter before exiting the exhibition; and our last image is of the young, smiling couple, clearly deeply in love. Of course, the image assumes an ironic poignancy as less than six months later, after three successive heart attacks, Klein died at the age of 34.
The thirteen rooms of the exhibition are divided into sections focusing on three themes Morineau has identified as prevalent in Klein’s prolific and diverse production, as well as present in his writings: Impregnation, Illumination of Matter, and Incarnation. Impregnation refers to Klein’s use of color, its permeation of his paintings, objects, and eventually of space. The magical/alchemical overtones of the theme Illumination of Matter are embodied in Klein’s Monogolds (1960–62) and his Cosmogonies (1960–61)—paintings made by exposing the pigmented canvas to the natural elements, while, in some cases, attached to the roof of his moving car—as well as his utopian “Air Architecture” project, with its schemas for human levitation. Finally, Incarnation tackles the presence of the human body—Klein’s own as Judo champion and teacher—but above all the female body in the Anthropométries (1960-61), and the Suaires (1960–61), imprints made by the model dipping her lower half in paint and then straddling the rolled canvas), and the ochre and charcoal Fire Paintings (1961–62).
The entrance to the exhibition contains a series of small monochromes in blue, gold, rose, and silver, along with the standard biographical information provided through wall text, a video montage, and photographic as well as print documentation of Klein’s early years, including his famous first publications, Yves Peintures and Haguenault Peintures (1954), which reproduced monochrome works that did not yet exist. Also included in this introduction to Klein and his work are audio-visual materials (produced by the museum) based on his Judo practice and book Les Fondements de Judo (1954). As an aside, before getting into the heart of the exhibition, something must be said about the Pompidou Center’s experiments with documentation here. While the films of Klein at work on his Fire Paintings, the Anthropométries, and his Symphonie Monoton-Silence (1947–61) combine with glass-cases chock full of fascinating objects and archival materials to elucidate his process and provide depth to Klein’s work, not all of the documentation is so productive. The wall-sized Power Point displays of still images and texts bordered in IKB, complete with constant narrative chatter and repetitive zooming in and out, provide little additional enlightenment while simultaneously distracting and aggravating the viewer. Worse, however, is the ubiquitous whispery female voiceover emanating from Mickey Mouse ears on the small white benches designed for children (though adults may sit on them too; the only child I saw was engrossed with a handheld computer game, and wearing earphones). While viewers may be long removed from the expectation that there might exist a pure or pristine museum-going experience, the onslaught of information in this multi-media extravaganza distracts from the objects to the extent that it was nearly impossible to look at them and think one’s own thoughts at the same time. Such a distracting environment is all the more unfortunate given Klein’s deep interest in the potential effect of his works on the viewer.
In the Impregnation rooms, which open the show, we saw how Klein’s IKB covers and seeps into surfaces, objects, and ultimately leads to his conception of a utopian space, which he explored further in his air architecture and decorative interior for the Gelsenkirchen Opera House. Klein believed IKB had the power to activate the viewer’s “pictorial sensibility,” while recalling “what is most abstract in tangible and visible nature.” The large monochromes from 1960–61 come first; they are tastefully hung together to show the uniformity of color and their subtle distinctions in texture and surface. Next, we encounter the pocked and mottled Planetary Reliefs (1961), Klein’s project to illuminate the Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde with IKB colored light (a project realized for this year’s contemporary art festival Nuit Blanche), small scale sculptures, and a globe. Glass cases contain sheets of blue postage stamps he used on invitations to his infamous 1958 exhibition known as Le Vide, where he invited several thousand guests to visit Iris Clert’s empty gallery, which he claimed enclosed the immaterial presence of the blue with which he had decorated the outside. Other documents in this section include letters to heads of state, including Fidel Castro, soliciting their aid in his “Blue Revolution.”
Here, the focus on color as it was deployed into space suggests that Klein’s interest in monochrome painting lay not in its status as a historical paradigm for abstract art but in its capacity to serve as a vehicle for activating a relationship between the spectator and his invented IKB. Klein considered his short life’s work as “going beyond the problematic of art” and referred to his paintings as “the ashes of his art.” Documentation surrounding Le Vide—the accompanying photomontage of his Leap into the Void, and its publication in his mock newspaper Dimanche (November 27, 1960)—as well as remnants of the Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, support Morineau’s claim that Klein was working toward a dematerialization of art at this stage. However, in the following room, the return to impregnation is so literally and materially evidenced in the pink and blue sponge sculptures and reliefs that the viewer is left wondering if Klein had taken a radical step back away from this aim.
This confusion over the relationship between material/immaterial or visible/invisible lingers as one passes through the shimmering gold Illumination of Matter section through to the Incarnation rooms, where it seemed as if most of the visitors gathered in front of the videos to watch the impeccably dressed Klein aim his flamethrower at the canvas or direct his models’ nude, IKB paint-covered bodies onto canvas. Because the video documentation is so prominent in these displays, the paintings, hung as series or in coherent groups, seem almost secondary to the processes recorded on the screens. In the catalogue, Morineau makes a case for rereading Klein’s Monopinks (1955–62), also present in this section, as a sublimation of the flesh, otherwise indicated in the imprinted bodies of the Anthropométries. Taking issue with feminist criticism that Klein’s imprints objectify the female body, she insists that the Anthropométries were the result of a true collaboration between artist and model forged in the “purely affective” climate of the studio. Her defense of Klein seems motivated by a desire to counter rumors of sexual promiscuity between him and his models, or accusations of pornography that negatively tinged the reception of these works when they were first shown. Citing Klein, who claims (despite photographic evidence to the contrary) that he never touched the women, she favors a ”sensual” rather than sexual reading of the body imprints. While it might seem reasonable on the printed page, this argument falls apart in the exhibition, where sexual difference is nothing if not palpable in the blue breasts and thighs imprinted onto the monumental canvases, and in the accompanying video of the silent models caressing blue paint onto each other’s bodies before helping each other imprint the vertical canvas, while Klein and the male orchestra playing his Monotone Symphony look on.
The last rooms of the exhibition contain the luminous large-scale Fire Paintings and works reuniting Klein’s three fetish colors: Pink, Gold, and IKB. The IKB-hued cast body of his friend Arman attached vertically to a gold ground (Portrait-relief d’Arman / Relief Portrait of Arman, 1962), and his gold tomb for painting and sculpture, complete with blue sponge wreath and pink plastic roses (Ci-gît l’Espace / Here Lies Space, 1960), mark instances (like the Suaires) where Klein allowed more than one color to appear in a single work, at the risk, he admitted, of bad taste. That the trinity, with all of its overtly spiritual overtones, had transcended the monochrome by 1960 is further demonstrated by the presence of Klein’s Ex-Voto (1961). This small acrylic box containing pink and blue pigment, gold leaf, and three gold ingots was discovered in 1980 to have been offered by Klein to the Monastery and Shrine of Saint Rita in Cascia, Italy in 1961.
There is something telling about the fact that Klein’s Ex-Voto, a work invisible to the public eye, made for private contemplation, and offered in secret, could not escape being brought to light. Ultimately, this exhibition shows that despite all his talk about immateriality and invisibility, or perhaps because of it, Klein’s work and his impressive command of the documentary apparatuses he used to record it end up having much more to say about art’s conditions of visibility than they do about its dematerialization.
art historian and critic, School of Fine Arts, Dunkirk, France