Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers at the Hirshhorn Museum is the artist’s first major retrospective in the United States in three decades. While Klein’s work has long been under-explored by American museums, his once radical ideas inspired many of the artistic movements of the last half century, such as minimalism, conceptual art and performance art. Although Klein’s career only lasted seven years (he died of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 34), the artist produced an impressive body of work that explored how pure color, space and the body could be used to communicate immaterial spiritual truth.
Klein’s genius was not immediately apparent. When you enter the Hirshhorn exhibit, you notice a collection of early monochromes in green, hot pink and a myriad of other colors. The pieces are not especially impressive. They are small, shabby, and sometimes poorly executed. The paint handling is often sloppy. Hints of naked canvas can be detected around the edges – breaking the illusion of pure color. While imperfect, these early works are important within the context of the show, because they illustrate how a few conceptual changes can determine the difference between unsuccessful and great.
The artist had had his first great epiphany while contemplating the deep blue pigment in one of Giotto’s frescoes. Klein instantly recognized that there was something otherworldly and splendid about this color. The ultramarine hue had long been used in Christian religious paintings. Without looking garish or artificial, it possesses a depth and intensity rarely seen in the material world.
Klein believed that the intense blue possessed a mystical quality and realized that the deeply saturated color was exactly what he needed to make his monochromes pop. He invented a technique for combining the gorgeous pigment with a synthetic binding material and patented the process. In effect, he owned a color, which he christened International Klein Blue (IKB). Without the interruption of lines, the pure lapis canvases provide the viewer with a totally overpowering experience. In a room filled with blue monochromes, you are totally transfixed by the intensity of the color. For Klein, the blue represented space. He wanted the experience of looking at his pure blue pigment to resemble what we feel when contemplating the endlessness of the sea and sky.
Klein maintained that he was only interested in working with one color at a time. Despite his intentions, his pieces inevitable interact with the environment around them, affecting how they are viewed. The transcendent power of IKB can partly be attributed to the way it affects white gallery walls. There is a known optical illusion that occurs when you stare at one color intensely and then look at a white surface. Suddenly, you see the hue’s complimentary hue – in this case orange. In the presence of Klein’s monochromes, the gallery and everything in it takes on a pleasant golden tinge and appears illuminated. Klein occasionally experimented with other colors, such as a cranberry red, but these attempts were rarely successful.
The creation of International Klein Blue was only one of the artist’s many significant inventions. Klein introduced the radical notion that an idea without a physical form could be a legitimate work of art. He also blurred the distinction between artist and artwork. In his 1958 Paris exhibition at Gallerie Iris Clert, The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, Klein simply emptied the gallery and presented visitors with bare walls. Viewers were supposed to contemplate the invisible trace of the artist’s presence.
Klein’s work also contained an undeniable performance component. In the famous photograph, Leap into the Void, by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender, Klein threw himself out a second story window. The image was then printed in the fake newspaper, Dimanche, which he had created to accompany the Avant-Garde Art Festival. While Klein asserted that the image was about being in space, its drama really comes from the artist’s interaction with the world. He appears to soar through the air, his face tilts up towards the sky, rather than downwards towards his inevitable collision with the pavement. You imagine him hitting the ground and marvel that he does not seem more concerned about his immediate fate.
Klein must have known that the viewer would inevitably have been more affected by the sense of a man’s impending splatter than the idea of his ‘leap into the void.’ You begin to wonder to what degree the artist truly believed his own metaphysical notions and to what extent they served as effective marketing tools. In another project, Klein sold Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility to wealthy patrons. His customers traded gold ingots in exchange for a receipt and a zone. In order to activate their new purchase, the receipt had to be burned and one half of the gold thrown into the Seine. Naturally, Klein kept the half that remained.
In one of Klein’s, racier projects, the Anthropometry series, the artist dressed to the nines and directed naked ladies while they painted themselves in IKB paint and impressed their bodies onto the canvas. Musicians played in the background and an audience of art lovers watched the spectacle. The impression of these bodies represented the energy and temporal nature of the human form. While Klein spoke about his Anthropometry pieces in cosmic and asexual terms, the edginess of the project cannot be denied and is one of its greatest strengths. The mysterious, headless impressions reduce women to their most elemental signifying components. Against a white canvas, we see cosmic blue breasts and thighs and stomachs. They are as primitive and as powerful as the Venus of Willendorf.
While we cannot hold Klein to the feminist standards of today, there is something unsettling about the role of women in his art. The contrast between the fully clothed Klein and his naked, anonymous sponge girls is a bit uncomfortable. In another project, Klein created haptic sculptures – three-dimensional works that were placed in a box and that the viewer could only experience through touch. The artist imagined creating one such sculpture by placing a shapely young women inside a box and allow his ‘viewers’ to touch and squeeze away.
In the late 1950’s, Klein incorporated a new medium into his work – fire. Klein had always been fascinated by the elements. For him, fire was “the universal principle of expression.” The artist burned the canvas while firefighters chaperoned the project to avoid an accident. Klein incorporated his girls into many of these pieces, either dipping them in IKB and impressing them on a burned surface, or tracing them in water, so that the ghostly outline of their bodies would resist the heat of the flames.
Despite the abbreviated nature of his career, Klein created work that redefined how we think about art. By combining his visual ideas with his notions about the spiritual, he imbued his pieces with deep meaning and invigorated the art world. On a purely aesthetic level, Klein created beautiful works that were simultaneously timeless and completely original. His smart, clean aesthetic and romantic theories about the nature of art are as relevant today as they were in the 1950’s.
Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers will be on display at the Hirshhorn Museum through September 12, 2010.