The cumulative effect of Klein’s methods is to make his monochrome paintings seem as if they occupy the entire visual field. American painters like Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman achieved this effect by enlarging their pictures to mural dimensions, so that they literally fill your field of vision. Klein did it by drawing you inward with textures that mimic the wavering caused by atmospheric diffraction (like a mirage hovering over a highway on a summer day), while softening the corners and edges of his works so that they seem not to end but just to fade away. Around 1960, he discovered a new way of generating texture by covering surfaces with a loose grid of pieces of gold leaf, secured only at one edge so that they fluttered and crumpled in response to the tiniest tremor in the air around them. (Unfortunately, because of their fragility, they are usually displayed in Lucite cases or behind glass, rendering them inert.)
In the same year, Klein began making his “Anthropometries.” Compared to the uncanny sensuality of his monochromes, Klein’s arrangements of breasts and thighs often seem sad and conventional, like “abstract” centerfolds. Similarly, the flame paintings of 1961-62 strain for sublimity but often end up looking like the result of low-budget special effects.
Klein’s supporters would object that it is unfair to judge him solely by his paintings and sculptures. Doesn’t his 1958 exhibition “The Void” count as a gesture of historical significance, anticipating the empty spaces later displayed by Post-Minimalists such as Mel Bochner and Bruce Nauman? Shouldn’t the public performances of the “Anthropometries” be seen as antecedents for Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy” of 1964 and Vanessa Beecroft’s phalanxes of nude models from the late 1990s? In 1962, Klein sold three “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” in ritualized ceremonies held on the banks of the Seine. In exchange for a quantity of pure gold, the collectors received printed receipts; Klein then threw half the gold into the river, while the collectors burned their receipts, so that nothing material (well, almost nothing) remained of the transactions. Doesn’t this prefigure the certificates Sol LeWitt later sold, permitting collectors to have his wall drawings installed on their own walls? Or Chris Burden’s Full Financial Disclosure, displaying all of his cancelled checks for 1976? Or Hans Haacke’s documentation of the sales and resales of miscellaneous modernist masterpieces?
The problem is that, to see Klein as a pioneer of postmodernism, you need to look at his performances in the most general terms possible, ignoring the specifics of his actions and the language he used to describe them. In the abstract, “The Void” seems like a brilliant extension of Marcel Duchamp’s argument that “art” is constituted not by the object, but by the conditions of its display. In effect, Klein demonstrated the power of the “white cube” almost 20 years before Brian O’Doherty coined the term.11 This Duchampian insight is not, however, what Klein actually had in mind. Although his installation is commonly referred to as “The Void,” its real title was “The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility.” As Klein himself wrote, the exhibition was intended to be “a space of Blue sensibility,” paradoxically communicated by the white walls that the artist and several friends spent two days repainting before the opening. The empty space was supposed to communicate “an ecstatic . . . emotion” that would “impregnate” the viewer with the “sensibility” of the artist.12
In other words, Klein’s thinking had nothing to do with Duchamp. It was rooted instead in the Symbolist mysticism of the Theosophist-turned-Rosicrucian Max Heindel, who in 1909 published a treatise called The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception. Klein came across a French translation of Heindel’s book at the age of 19 or 20, and remained obsessed with it for the rest of his life. In his incisive 1982 analysis of Klein’s muddled thinking, Thomas McEvilley describes Heindel’s Rosicrucianism as “a psychological alchemy which aspires to set spirit free from solid bodies and restore it to the Eden of unity.” For better or for worse, Klein’s esthetics were rooted in Heindel. McEvilley summarizes Klein’s thinking as follows:
An immaterial substance, which Yves called “pure pictorial sensibility,” is injected into the artwork by the alchemist/artist who has isolated and purified this sensibility in himself; it can be experienced in the painting, after any number of years, by a viewer whose own sensibility is sufficiently developed. Art, then, is not a sensory but an extrasensory experience. Of two visually identical paintings, one possessing this substance is art, and the other, lacking it, is not. A sensitive viewer can distinguish it at once.13
It must have embarrassed Klein’s friends and supporters to hear him spouting such nonsense. In 1958, on his 30th birthday, his mother solved this problem by giving him a copy of Air and Dreams, a work by the eminent literary critic Gaston Bachelard, who specialized in interpreting elemental imagery. As Sidra Stich has noted, Bachelard provided a more respectable source for Klein’s monochrome esthetic by tracing the symbolism of the color blue in authors such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Samuel Coleridge and Paul Eluard. Thereafter, Klein frequently quoted Bachelard’s statement, “First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a blue depth.” Another of Bachelard’s books, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, may have inspired Klein’s fire paintings and fire sculptures.14
Most of Klein’s ideas about art are complete bunkum, and the attempt to establish him as a significant theorist of postmodernism is doomed to failure. The fact remains, however, that many of the masters of modern art based their work on silly theories, and there’s often something to be learned from an artist’s relationship to those theories. Klein, for example, invented his own set of primary colors: rose, ultramarine blue and gold instead of the usual red, blue and yellow. It is possible that Klein’s primaries derive from theosophical color symbolism, which identifies “pure pale rose” as a sign of “that absolutely unselfish love which is possible only to high natures,” while “the devotional thought of an unselfish heart is . . . like the deep blue of a summery sky,” accompanied by “golden stars.”15 Further study of Klein’s literary sources would probably reveal layers of hitherto unrecognized symbolism in his work, and perhaps even lend substance to the overinflated rhetoric of his statements about his art.
The retrospective opening at the Hirshhorn this month promises to give viewers a full overview of Klein’s artistic trajectory, in its multiple and sometimes contradictory dimensions. According to Hirshhorn curator Kerry Brougher, the first gallery will present not paintings, but documentation (and possibly a recording) of Klein’s “Monotone Symphony,” in which a group of instruments plays a single note, F#, for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of silence. (You might think this would be incredibly boring, but in fact the interaction of overtones and undertones from the different instruments creates a shimmering, beautiful texture of sound, like one of Klein’s gold leaf paintings.) Subsequent galleries will alternate between tangible works of art—the early monochromes, the paintings of the “Blue Revolution,” the sponge reliefs, the “Anthropometries,” the fire paintings, etc.—and documentation of Klein’s performances and unrealized projects. In the accompanying catalogue Brougher gives a focused account of Klein’s career, while co-curator Philippe Vergne (formerly deputy director of the Walker Art Center, now director of the Dia Art Foundation) lays out the argument for Klein as a misunderstood revolutionary; indeed Vergne argues in his catalogue essay that Klein transformed “our very notion of the nature and meaning of art.” Visitors to Washington and Minneapolis will have the chance to measure Klein’s rhetoric against his work, deciding for themselves on the scope of his achievement.