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Yves Klein: A Master of Blue

8 minute read
Richard Lacayo

The one thing most people know about Yves Klein, if they know anything at all, is that in 1960 he had himself photographed swan-diving off the ledge of a roof in Paris, hovering in midair above an empty street. It may be one of the most concisely telling self-portraits ever made. One reason is that Klein was devoted to the idea of venturing into the ineffable and leaping into the void. The other is that the picture was faked. Friends in the street who caught him before he hit the pavement were doctored out of the photo. But the fakery is one more thing that makes it a perfect image of Klein. He was a consummate trickster, and nearly half a century after his death in 1962 at the young age of 34, we’re still not sure how seriously to take him.

Over the years, Klein’s reputation has grown steadily in Europe, where he’s regarded as a key originator of conceptual and performance art. But in the U.S., he remains something of an art-historical curiosity — a famous name but with none of the iconic heft of that other European artist-performer, Joseph Beuys, with his signature hat and gaunt charisma. “Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers,” a new show that runs through September 12 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington and then moves to Minneapolis, is his first retrospective in the U.S. since 1982.

(See TIME’s 1961 profile of Yves Klein.)

Though both of Klein’s parents were painters, he resisted the idea of painting as an end in itself. His art was a means to an end. Its purpose was to use material — canvas and paint — to open the way to a realm of pure spirit. Or even better, to use no material, as when he made art from fireworks or flames. Born Catholic, he studied for a time the mystical Christian theology of Rosicrucianism. His yearning for the ineffable may have been encouraged during the 15 months in the early 1950s that he spent in Japan, where he obtained a black belt in judo. (Klein is certainly the only 20th century artist to have published a book titled The Foundations of Judo.) But he would turn out to be a very worldly mystic. A merry prankster and shrewd self-publicist, Klein was a singular combination of spiritual seeker and shameless showboat — an artist of metaphysical bent, but with none of Mark Rothko’s majestic gloom or grumpy self-regard. It seems exactly right that during a trip to the U.S. in 1961, he made sure to stop at Disneyland.

All the same, Klein’s lighthearted art emerged from serious circumstances. France in the late 1940s was still a nation traumatized by World War II. The cultural center of gravity had moved across the Atlantic to New York City. The artists who remained in Paris, or at least the good ones, were producing postapocalyptic work, like Jean Dubuffet’s childlike scrawls on what appeared to be caked magma and Alberto Giacometti’s emaciated bronze men. Out of the same rubble came the much younger Klein. Of course he leapt into the void. When so much of the civilized world has disappeared, what else can you do?

As with Marcel Duchamp before him and the conceptual artists who came after, Klein believed that the idea behind a work was more important than the execution. “My paintings,” he once said, “are the ashes of my art.” Among his earliest projects were two booklets he produced in 1954 that supposedly contained plates of his monochrome paintings — canvases covered over entirely in a single color. But while Klein by that year had produced some small monochromes, the particular paintings the booklets pretend to reproduce probably never existed. Klein simply pasted in cut-out squares of solid-colored paper, each of them duly assigned a city and date. His “collected works” were actually chapbooks of imaginary pictures.

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Tangled Up in Blue
It was after his return from Japan, while attempting to run a judo school in Paris, that Klein exhibited his first monochromes. Though he made them in several colors, including pink, orange and gold, by 1956 he had committed himself mostly to blue. It became not just his signature color but his obsession. For him it didn’t simply symbolize the eternal; it was somehow the gateway to entering it. He declared a “blue revolution” aimed at transforming consciousness. He developed a means of suspending intense ultramarine pigment in a binder that allowed the pigment to retain its powdery texture on canvas, then patented it under the name International Klein Blue. (The combination of metaphysics and marketing was pure Klein.) He soaked big sponges in the stuff and attached them to canvases slathered in blue. He also mounted the sponges individually on metal rods like objects of veneration. At one of his openings, he even served cocktails laced with a chemical that turned everybody’s urine blue. What a swell party that was.

At the Hirshhorn show, which was organized by chief curator Kerry Brougher and Philippe Vergne, director of the Dia Art Foundation, there are whole galleries given over to Klein’s monochromes, which have an undeniable, almost pulsing intensity. But none of them really holds your attention for very long. True to his word, Klein wasn’t interested in the optical or structural satisfactions that a painting can offer. He wasn’t attempting the tightly wound play of line, form and color that gives Ellsworth Kelly’s monochrome panels their visual tension and snap. He was so indifferent to the kind of delicate brushwork that imparts a surface flutter to Robert Ryman’s all-white paintings that he eventually took to applying his paint with rollers to remove any evidence of the artist’s touch. If you don’t share Klein’s yearning for the ineffable — or his conviction that paint might be one way to arrive there — being in a gallery surrounded by his glowing blue monochromes can be like visiting the chapel of a faith you don’t belong to.

Until Andy Warhol, it may be that no artist, not even the publicity-crazed Salvador Dalí, was more preoccupied than Klein with getting before the cameras. So the cameras were rolling on March 9, 1960, when he staged a public performance in which nude female models coated themselves with his patented blue paint, then bumped and rolled against white canvas. While this went on, Klein demurely stood back in black tie and white gloves. For an artist who was supposed to be in touch with the future, it’s funny he didn’t realize how sexist — and worse, corny — the whole thing would look in just a few years, a stunt the Rat Pack might have tried if they had gone to art school. And yet some of the pictures produced by that very contrived method are strangely effective. In Untitled Anthropometry, the bodies — in this case, Klein and his future wife — form a line of plump silhouettes, like the handprints in neolithic cave paintings, the blunt traces of perishable mammals. Then there’s Hiroshima, a convocation of pale human silhouettes that weirdly summons the ghosts of people vaporized by the atomic bomb.

Klein’s experiments with his “living brushes” eventually brought him to the attention of Paolo Cavara, a filmmaker about to embark on the leering “shockumentary” Mondo Cane, a grab bag of exotic cultural practices, animal slaughter and cleavage. But Klein didn’t know what he was getting into when he agreed to be filmed by Cavara at work with his nude models. He thought the film would launch him onto the world stage. Not until the night of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1962 did Klein see the entire film, which, he was horrified to discover, made him just one more act in a global freak show. Mortified, he returned to his hotel room and suffered a heart attack. Over the next three weeks, he had two more. The last was fatal.

Klein had finally achieved the eternal, in that way we all do eventually. And from there he has certainly gained his share of immortality. But who knew better than he that the void can be an ideal base of operations?

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