On ViewThe Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
May 20 – September 12, 2010
In his Hirshorn retrospective, French artist Yves Klein (1928 – 1962) is presented with theatrical and retinal abandon. Klein’s brief (less than 10 year) career arc encompasses a number of approaches, from performative and conceptual modes to materially-bound painting. The degree to which Klein pushed his experimentation with ideas and materials is both shocking and perplexing for a time when conceptual practices were not common. From eccentric, prankster-like exhibitions-as-performance and performance-as-painting to his optically arresting monochromes, Klein’s multiple strategies were randomly magnificent.
While on the beach with two friends at age 19, Klein declared “signing the sky” his first work of art. He tended to view his biographical narrative with such imaginative, outré vision, from his interest in judo, to votive offerings to the Order of Saint Sebastian. This sensibility grew into conceptual work that attempted to capture the immaterial. In his “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility,” Klein sold empty space (the Immaterial Zone) for various amounts to collectors, who were presented with a receipt. To complete the transaction, Klein exchanged the purchase amount for gold leaf, which he tossed into the Seine River. The collector then burned the receipt, leaving no record of the transaction, although some photographs contradictorily remain as documentary evidence. It may be a stretch to say that this tendency towards collaborative recognition of the intangible in art foreshadows the relational aesthetics of the 1990s. Yet, Klein clearly wished to negate, or at least complicate with a Marxist tinge, the ritual of collecting. Also, by discarding the material of gilding, which dates back to Egyptian and Ancient Greek sculpture, he ultimately suggested an impulse toward the dematerialization of the art object.
I found it difficult to keep in mind that this is the same Klein who in the 1950s patented the visually seductive “International Klein Blue,” a simple mixture of ultramarine and resin binder. This was done with considerable entrepreneurial savvy. He declared it was an alternate way of attaining the immaterial through evoking the elemental blue of water or sky. International Klein Blue found its way into Klein’s monochromes, painted with rollers and sponges, creating a series of electric, hovering retinal experiences with pure color. These applicators (Klein wished to remove any trace of the hand by use of brushes) also became beautiful sculptures in their own right. Displayed in clusters in an alcove, they’re weird, otherworldly, readymade remainders of the monochromes. Some are fashioned into flowers; others stand on their own pedestals glowing lusciously in your peripherals, serendipitously placed against the reciprocally curving white walls of the Hirshhorn’s second floor.
Klein’s sense of theatricality and drama translated in an eccentric array of mark making in his paintings. Perhaps his most signature move involved painting nude female bodies (“living brushes”) and directing these models to create blue, woman-sized Rorschach-like abstractions (he called “Anthropometries”). Klein also explored a variety of other approaches: He sprayed the outlines of splayed female nudes on canvas with water and scorched the canvas with assistants dressed as firemen, strapped a painting to a car roof, liberally and loosely applied gold leaf to canvases (“monogolds”), and buffed the surface of stainless steel. The exhibition is punctuated with video projections of Klein executing most of the work in each section of the gallery, which is particularly informative in understanding the relationships of the performances to the objects.
While visiting the exhibition on a Sunday, I watched a toddler run directly for a wooden tray in “Pure Pigment Blue” (re-creation of 1957 and 1961 pieces), dip his finger into the dry pigment and wave it excitedly for his parents, who, along with the museum guards, were a little confused and distraught. To the child, the sculpture must have looked like a huge, inviting, blue sandbox. This incident struck me as a sensational act and I think Yves Klein would have approved of it. His work invites eccentricity, impulse, and acting out.
The wide sweep of Klein’s production, via both actions and objects, left me mulling over his influence on contemporary artists. It would be too facile and formal a comparison to mention Brice Marden’s monochrome paintings of the 1960s and 70s. In terms of exploring new methods of mark making, I think specifically of Janine Antoni’s “Loving Care” (1992), in which she used her hair as a paintbrush to mop the gallery floor, thus reclaiming the female body from the male gaze, which Klein could easily be accused of exploiting in his “Anthropometries.” Terence Koh’s installations, which often reveal his obsession with all things white or nothing at all but light, come to mind when thinking of Klein’s pursuit of the immaterial.
While not exactly contemporary, Gordon Matta-Clark’s impalpable fake estate pieces, conceived largely through maps, deeds, and bureaucratic documentation rather than physical occupancy, echo Klein’s idea of the Immaterial Zone. Uncannily similar to Klein’s “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” is Spencer Finch’s “Sunken Treasure” series (2006). After determining precise GPS readings of three locations on the Gowanus Canal, Finch submerged one ounce gold bullions at each one and created corresponding minimal drawings of the exact coordinates in invisible ink. In order to read the coordinates and retrieve the gold, the drawing’s owner would have to heat (and thus destroy) the drawing. Through placing more emphasis on the latent and potential image of the drawing, Finch’s piece heightens an awareness of time, place, and a multidimensional interpretation of value in a work of art. In addition, with the recent Superfund designation, by the Environmental Protection Agency, of Gowanus Canal for extensive decontamination and cleanup, the possibility of dredging the canal could result in an unintentional shifting of location, meaning, and control in the piece.
The toddler’s removal of pigment allowed a remarkable realization: although the tray appeared to be a few inches deep, the layer of International Klein Blue was only a thin dusting over white sand. Maybe the child knew it was actually a sandbox, or maybe he was just as seduced by the brilliance of the pigment as the rest of us. This sculpture is read like a monochrome painting on a floor, its picture plane seemingly infinite. Like the “Leap Into the Void” (1960) photograph depicting Klein jumping from a roof into an empty street, it’s our desire to believe in the work that completes it, despite the fact that the image is an impressive invention of the darkroom (now standard practice through Photoshop or digital matte painting in film). Klein’s work is about this magical illusion and our willful suspension of disbelief in experiencing it.