Yves Klein, installation view of Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers. ©2010 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

Touching the Void:

Yves Klein at the Hirshhorn

By Robert Stalker

“What bliss there is in blueness.  I never knew how blue blueness could be.”

 —Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark (1938)

 

A painter who rarely picked up a brush, who eventually concocted “paintings” not with paint at all, but with fire, who sought in his famous blue monochromes to achieve what he called a “static velocity”—contradictions and paradoxes lie at the heart of the life and work of Yves Klein. “All facts that are contradictions are genuine principles of universal explanation,” the artist himself wrote in his justly famous “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto” (1961). Of the many contradictions surrounding Klein, perhaps the most provocative is the artist’s claim, in terms reminiscent of Duchamp’s dismissal of “retinal” art, that painting is not a function of the eye. 

The first major retrospective of Klein’s work in the U.S. for almost thirty years, the Hirshhorn’s With the void, Full Powers (May 20-Sept. 12, 2010) brings together approximately 200 works, charting Klein’s development from monochrome painting, to sponge reliefs, to the so-called “anthropometries” and “air architecture” projects, shedding valuable light on Klein’s many intriguing contradictions, especially his seemingly paradoxical understanding of the visual.  Supplementing the major work with sketches, photographs, letters, writings, and films, this fabulous exhibit affords a welcome opportunity to reassess how Klein, ever devoted to the immaterial and “the void,” remained throughout his career surprisingly preoccupied with the place of tactility within the optical field.  

The key details of Klein’s life and career are fairly well known.  He was born in Nice in 1928, to Fred and Marie Klein, a figurative painter and well-known abstract painter, respectively.  A Judo enthusiast who studied in Japan and became an instructor in France, Klein published in 1954 The Fundamentals of Judo, a notable primer on the subject, in which Klein credited Judo with “the discovery of the human body in a spiritual space,” an idea crucial to his future aesthetics.  Early on he formed important friendships with the artist Arman Fernandez and writer Claude Pascal, sharing with them not only a passion for Judo but also a fascination with Rosicrucianism, an esoteric mystical tradition in which Klein’s own interest in the void, fire, and energy would find a deep resonance.  Around 1947, he composed his Monotone Symphony, a musical piece consisting of a single note held for twenty minutes followed by twenty minutes of silence, anticipating in sound the extreme reductiveness of his own famous monochrome paintings.  On April 28, 1958, only a few years into an already sensational artistic career, Klein mounted his landmark exhibition, commonly identified nowadays as “the Void,” at the Gallerie Iris Clert in Paris, exhibiting little more than a small, empty cabinet standing in a gallery whose walls Klein had painted white, having sought, as he later put it in his lecture at the Sorbonne (1959), “to create an atmosphere, a pictorial, climate that is invisible but present.” (The Hirshhorn exhibit, With the Void, Full Powers, takes its title from a remark that Albert Camus, a visitor to the gallery, wrote in the guest book at this now-legendary show).  In 1962, Klein suddenly suffered a series of heart attacks, the possible result of chemical pigment poisoning, abruptly ending the career of an artist Walter Hopps christened “the most interesting purely abstract artist to come out of Europe since Mondrian.”  Klein was 34.

Yves Klein, during the filming of "The Heartbeat of France" (1961).  © Photo: Charles Wilp © Artists Rights Society, New York, 2010. Image courtesy of Yves Klein Archives.

Co-curated by the Hirshhorn’s chief curator Kerry Brougher and Dia Foundation Director Phillipe Vergne, With the Void, Full Powers surveys in roughly chronological order the major points of Klein’s brief but astonishing career, presenting us with an opportunity to reconsider Klein’s paradoxical interest in the relations among the visual, the immaterial, and the tactile.  Of particular interest in this regard is the exhibit’s inclusion of Klein’s first official foray into the art world, the book entitled Yves: Peintures [Yves: Paintings].  Published in Madrid in 1954 in 150 numbered copies, Yves: Peintures was a small (24.5 x 11.5 cm) booklet containing 10 commercially inked monochromes of various colors printed on high-grade paper.  A kind of parody of the genre of the exhibition catalogue, including even a “Preface” by his friend Claude Pascal that consisted of blank lines in the form of paragraphs, the book contained putative “reproductions” of monochromes painted by the artist in the various locales indicated below each “painting” (e.g., Tokyo, London) along with the artist’s name, “Yves.” As we now know, of course, an essential fantasy underlies Yves: Peintures—none of the monochromes included in the book exist outside of its pages.  This gesture cleverly announces several key ideas that would preoccupy Klein throughout his career: a jokiness that belies serious aesthetic implications; a rigorous commitment to the monochrome; an interest in circumventing or subverting the gallery system; a fascination with, as he put it citing the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, the miniature as a refuge of greatness; and, perhaps most interestingly, the play between presence and absence, the material and the immaterial, the visual and the tactile.   

 

As a book, Yves: Peintures possesses an obvious materiality and tactility, pushing the monochrome in the direction of an object, an object that one can hold, touch, and manipulate.  In a handwritten text dated January 13, 1955, Klein described the effect of the book on its “beholders,” writing that “in the depths of their stare, appeared beautiful and pure monochrome colors,” emphasizing the collapse of distance between art work and spectator as the “paintings” enter or penetrate the physical space of the viewer, a strategy Klein would soon explore in his “actual” famed blue monochromes.

Yves Klein, La Rêve du Feu [The Dream of Fire], c. 1961. Private Collection. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Shunk-Kender, © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, courtesy Yves Klein Archives

After a short period painting monochromes in various colors, many included in this exhibit, Klein entered what he called his “blue epoch,” painting his now-celebrated ultramarine monochromes.  Defining painting as “radiance,” Klein sought, with the help of a professional chemist, to develop a paint that would preserve the brilliance and glow commonly lost when the dry blue pigment was combined with a fixative.  Around 1960, Klein arrived at International Klein Blue (IKB), a patented formula comprised of Rhodapas MA, ethyl alcohol, and ethyl acetate, resulting, as the exhibit’s ample showing of IKB monochromes attests, in an especially vivid, shimmering blue.  Klein applied this unusually sumptuous paint with rollers, decrying the gestural brushstroke as too “psychological,” the tension between the sensuousness of the paint and the smooth, manufactured-looking surface producing a hypnotic glow.  

Despite Klein’s repeated claims about the immateriality of these monochromes, his blue epoch, like the earlier Yves: Peintures, provocatively explores the relation between the material and the immaterial.  On the one hand, Klein experimented with various dimensions and supports.  The Hirshhorn exhibit includes examples of IKB monochromes ranging from the large, vertical “California (IKB 66)” (1961) on gauze on panel, to the smallish, square “IKB 108 (1956),” to “IKB Godet” (named for Klein’s close friend Robert Godet, in whose apartment Klein first developed his “anthropometries”) on gauze, whose dark, scumbled, streaking paint differs markedly from the brighter, ever-so-slightly bubbling and rippling surfaces of the other two.  Challenging what Klein called in his lecture at the Sorbonne the “sclerosis of recognized concepts and established rules,” the monochromes compel us to marvel at the effects of the paint and how various dimensions and material supports produce subtle differences. In addition to this level of materiality, Klein originally pushed his monochromes in the direction of the object by exhibiting them mounted on brackets extending from the wall as much as 8 inches.  (A practice not employed by the Hirshhorn’s curators, perhaps because of the potential danger to the work.)  Coupled with Klein’s statements of how his blue monochromes “impregnate” the “readers” of his monochromes (his language here recalling Yves: Peintures), his own technique of displaying his paintings suggests how he wished his paintings to penetrate the space of the viewer.

Yves Klein, installation view of Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers. ©2010 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

With Klein’s move into more ground-breaking techniques and materials—such as his sponge reliefs, anthropometries, and fire paintings—comes a more explicit displacement of the artist’s touch even as these same works powerfully evoke the viewer’s desire to engage them physically, enticing our touch.  The installation of Pure Blue Pigment, a large box on the floor filled with dry blue pigment recreated for the Hirshhorn exhibit, presents us with what Klein called “a force of attraction that directed only toward itself,” an attraction seemingly borne out by the fact that only days into the show several visitors had to be escorted by guards downstairs to wash their hands, so irresistible did they find the pigment’s incitement to touch.  Similarly, the almost otherworldliness of the bumpy, craterous surface of “The Pink of the Blue” (1960), a painting comprised of natural sponges and stones saturated with pink paint, presents us with a beguilingly tangible beauty.  The anthropometries, on the other hand, in which Klein had live models dip themselves in paint and brush up against or roll over the canvas, or others, such as “Hiroshima (ANT 79)” (c. 1961) and “People Begin to Fly (ANT 96)” (1961), in which Klein spray painted around the imprint left by models’ bodies on the canvas, incorporate touch directly into the work itself, the ghostly silhouettes capturing, as Klein put it in a handwritten text, “the dimensions of being flesh through the imprints stolen from the bodies of my models.” The relation between touch and transgression suggested here by Klein’s emphasis on “stolen” imprints resonates with Klein’s “Tactile Sculpture (S22)” (1957) in which Klein envisioned nude female models housed in a box with holes designed for spectators to reach in and touch the models’ bodies, a project never realized for, as Klein said, “the police would have been on my back right away.”  Even so, the exhibit’s inclusion of this never-realized project highlights the centrality of touch within Klein’s developing aesthetic. 

 

The exhibit With the Void, Full Powers and its accompanying catalogue foreground Klein’s undeniable influence on future artistic developments, from minimalism and the light and space movement to conceptualism and performance art.  Klein’s interest in the place of tactility within the visual field, however, connects him in important ways to the historical avant-garde, which, as Tobias Wilke has recently emphasized in an article on Walter Benjamin, is defined by its insistence on “human perception as historically conditioned, and hence transformable.”   Klein’s interest in the relation between the tactile and the visual forms an important part not just of his aesthetic but of his ethics, an ethics that turned on, as he said, in his characteristically paradoxical way, “an immaterialism that will accomplish the rediscovery of a true love for matter as opposed to the quantitative, mummifying materialism that renders us slaves.”

Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers is at the Hirshhorn is at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D. C. from 20 May -  12 September, 2010. 

Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.