Washington D.C. In 1948, at the age of 20, Yves Klein laid claim to the kingdom of the sky.1 Its presence hovers in the monochrome blue panels he began painting in 1955. But Klein’s blue is not the pallid tint of the daytime sky. It is the dark, electric blue of the Paris sky at nine o’clock on a summer night, when the energy of the vanished day still resonates through the atmosphere, and the headlights of the traffic seem like sparks descending from above. Klein’s blue monochromes have the kinetic energy of van Gogh’s Starry Night, all the more intense for being compressed into a single hue. His other paintings—some pink, some gold, some impressed with traces of the human body, some scarred by waves of flame—also offer moments of extraordinary beauty. Even as he was making these paintings, Klein staged a series of events rejecting conventional ideas of painting and sculpture. In 1958, he exhibited an empty gallery. In 1960 he published a fake newspaper. In 1962, he sold certificates for non-existent works of art. He is a forerunner, if not a founder,of installation art, conceptual art and institutional critique.
For Klein, painting and sculpture were means to a greater end. “My works are only the ashes of my art,” he proclaimed in 1960.2 His goal was to transform first art, and then the world. Like Joseph Beuys a few years later, Klein saw himself as a shaman, an architect of souls, a Napoleon of the spirit. In the cold light of history, he can look like a charlatan, a raving narcissist alternating between megalomania and despair.3 But almost everyone who knew Klein seems to have considered him a genius. His passion inspired hard-headed architects and engineers to assist him with his visionary installations.4 Since 2000, his brief, improbable career (1955-1962) has inspired an impressive drumroll of museum retrospectives, in Nice, Frankfurt, Paris, Lugano and now Washington, D.C., where “Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers” will open this month at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, before traveling to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in October.5
Born in Nice, Klein (1928-1962) was the child of two painters. As a young man, he dabbled in that medium, but his main passion was judo. After seeking out advanced instruction in Japan, he returned to France in early 1954, expecting to be recognized as a leading martial arts expert. Discovering to his shock that the official French judo association would not recognize his Japanese degree, he decided instead to win fame as a painter.
Klein was convinced from the outset that he was bound for greatness. “I think I am a genius,” he wrote in his diary entry for Jan. 1, 1955, several months before he actually began to paint in earnest. That spring, he began making pictures with the assistance of his girlfriend Bernadette Allain, a young architect who had done extensive research on color perception. Unable to afford a studio, Klein made his first works in the kitchen of his parents’ apartment.6
Almost immediately, Klein began creating the extraordinary monochrome paintings for which he is known today. He succeeded with breathtaking rapidity. A private exhibition in October 1955 attracted the attention of art critic Pierre Restany, who encouraged the art dealer Colette Allendy to see Klein’s work. His first public exhibition opened at Allendy’s gallery in February 1956, his second at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in January 1957. Also in 1957, he had multiple shows in Paris and Düsseldorf. The following year, he was chosen to execute a vast mural commission for a new opera house in Germany. He exhibited in New York and Los Angeles, and had his first retrospective, in Germany, in 1961. On June 6, 1962, Klein died of a heart attack, possibly brought on by the amphetamines that he had begun taking while working and studying in Japan.7
Klein’s amazing success was due in part to his talent for pushing the envelope. In 1955, it seemed outrageous to propose that works utterly devoid of composition could be considered as art. Indeed, he titled his first show “Monochrome Propositions,” as if daring the public to disagree with him. When his work began to win acceptance in 1957, Klein upped the ante, exhibiting 11 seemingly identical blue canvases and begging comparison with Picasso by titling the exhibition “Monochrome Propositions, Blue Period.” He invited 3,500 guests to the opening of “The Void,” his 1958 show at Iris Clert, where the art consisted of nothing more than the gallery’s freshly painted white walls.8 In 1960, he staged a public performance of his new “Anthropometries,” instructing his nude female assistants to daub themselves with blue paint and press their bodies against a large canvas, while a small orchestra played a “Monotone Symphony” of Klein’s own composition. The next year, he launched a series of fire sculptures and paintings made with Bunsen burners and flamethrowers.
It may seem as if Klein’s career was nothing more than a series of provocative, neo-Dada gestures. Indeed, these gestures are what seem mostly to interest recent critics, who have built him up into a kind of prophet of postmodernism. Quite to the contrary, I would contend that his most significant achievement remains his classically modernist paintings of 1955-60. The seductive intensity of their colors and textures can be experienced fully only firsthand. But some idea of their impact can perhaps be communicated by placing them in historical context. After the trauma of World War II, Paris was struggling to revive itself as a center of avant-garde art. Surrealism, the dominant movement of the prewar decade, seemed trivial and exhausted. Its old opponent, geometric abstraction, appeared equally irrelevant. The elderly masters of the avant-garde—Picasso, Matisse, Léger and Braque—continued to produce impressive new work, but no longer offered a useful example for young artists. In Paris as in New York, this dilemma was resolved by the emergence of a new style of gestural abstraction. But the French exponents of this style, such as Georges Mathieu, Pierre Soulages and Hans Hartung, were cursed with a facility and elegance that undercut the expressive power of their brushwork. More radical members of the European avant-garde rejected elegance in favor of a willful crudity of figuration, facture or materials, which appeared in different ways in the work of Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, Antoni Tàpies, Antonio Saura and other leading figures of the 1950s.
Nan Rosenthal, in a seminal 1982 essay, suggested that the thick, pasty surfaces of canvases by Dubuffet and Fautrier provided an essential stimulus for Klein. In effect, he took their textured surfaces, removed their scribbled imagery, and replaced their dirty, “abject” colors with a series of pure hues.9 Klein wanted to retain the intense color of raw pigment, which vanished when the pigment was mixed with oil or other conventional mediums. Through his paint dealer, he sought help from an industrial chemist, who suggested an artificial resin that would hold the pigment in place without diminishing its intensity. (The artist later patented the combination of blue pigment with this invisible binder under the name International Klein Blue.) Klein applied his paints not just to the fronts of his panels, but also to the sides, which he often extended with wood slats, filing down the corners so that they would be rounded, like the corners of an old-fashioned television. Using housepainters’ rollers and other tools, he created a variety of textures. As Rosenthal writes, some of his pictures “have a low, sandpaperlike surface, some are flat, others in their swirls and pockets of texture resemble icing spread roughly on a homemade cake.”10