Matting the Monochrome: Malevich, Klein, and Now
Cheetham, Mark A., Art Journal
Recent abstract art actively works against the paradigms of purity and autonomy.1 A self-conscious revision of its heritage is a striking feature of its renewed vitality. Commentators have recognized the import of impurities within the founding practices of the field. Briony Fer has revealed the aberrations integral to Piet Mondrian's paintings, for example, as Allan Kaprow did in the 19605 when he wrote that "the impure aspect of pure painting like Mondrian's is not some hidden compositional flaw but rather the psychological setting which must be impure for the notion of purity to make any sense at all."2 Here I will develop and examine a paradigm of mid-twentieth-century abstraction's resistance to the norms of purity and autonomy in Yves Klein's agonistic reception of the monochrome, that compressed but not so rarefied Russian doll that sits inside abstract painting just as abstraction inhabits the core of modernism.3 Klein systematically took the avant-garde monochrome beyond the frame of painting. Seeing his work as a precedent in this regard underscores Klein's historical importance and connects recent work not usually regarded as monochromatic or abstract to a genealogy in which he is pivotal. Klein scholars and supporters-especially Thomas McEvilley, Pierre Restany, and Sidra Stichdocument his legacy for recent and contemporary art, including abstraction. Others are at best ambivalent about the artist and his patrimony. Benjamin Buchloh claims that Klein, in company with Joseph Beuys, has been "overestimated in U.S. reception."4 Thierry de Duve's writing in this context seems pulled in two irreconcilable directions. On the one hand, he asserts that Klein's "only tangible contribution to the history of painting is the chemical formula that allowed him to fix powdered pigment without diminishing its glow," yet in an instructive endnote about his reception in the United States, de Duve struggles with the tension between Klein's alleged "failure" and the fact that he "is not a negligible artist."5 More serious questions about the neo-avant-garde notwithstanding, a (usually) unspoken discomfort with Klein the provocateur and supposedly right-wing sympathizer colors the interpretation of his work.6
The phrase "matting the monochrome" refers simultaneously to the intrinsic and extrinsic contexts in which we might reconsider this type of abstraction today. One "mats" a work of art as a way of presenting it against something that it is not, a practice that applies to the installation of the work as well as to its internal composition and reception. As Klein showed in his struggle with Kazimir Malevich's reputation, matting in these senses is not a trivial concern. The other abiding passion of "Yves le monochrome" was judo. Here again, mats are not merely supplemental but necessary support planes, limits, and frames for the martial arts. I will argue that the specific Zen attributes of the judo form Klein studied in Japan and promoted in Spain and France with his teaching and writing informed his innovations and excesses in abstract art throughout his short but prolific career and are exemplary of his holistic, as opposed to pure or autonomous, sense of art practice. The two types of matting, one intimate to art making and viewing, the other apparently extraneous to the aesthetic, come together in a way that is typical not only of Klein's work but of the productive theatricality of much abstract art since the 19605, practices that I will contrast with Michael Fried's theory of absorption.
Monochromes were Klein's first and omnipresent aesthetic obsession. He notoriously appropriated the unmarred back of the blue sky as his work in 1946, painted blue the vault of a basement room where he and his youthful comrades hung out, printed reproductions of putatively earlier monochromes in his booklet Yves Peintures of 1954, and conceived a film in that year in which the opening scenes moved from monochrome white, through yellow and red, to ultramarine blue. …