IN 1958, YVES KLEIN scandalized the Parisian public by presenting nothing but a whitewashed room with a lone, empty vitrine at Galerie Iris Clert. The exhibition, known as "Le Vide" (The Void), was marked by the momentousness of its opening. Among the guests was Albert Camus, who presented Klein with a piece of paper bearing the phrase "Avec le vide les pleins pouvoirs" (With the void, full powers). The room, Klein asserted, contained an "invisible pictorial state," one that is "direct" and requires no "intermediaries." Yet these claims of pure presence had to be reinforced: Klein limited the number of visitors allowed in the room at one time by stationing a pair of security guards at the gallery's entrance, served cocktails that tinged drinkers' urine blue, and retrospectively wrote a hyperbolic account of the event in the present tense. In all respects, "The Void" was a highly mediated event, one that teased the public with the promise of empowerment--granting them freedom from ossified pictorial conventions and inviting them to unleash their own "affective presence"--while allowing Klein to keep authority firmly in his grasp.
Fifty-two years later, Camus's words return as the celebratory title of Klein's much-anticipated US retrospective, framing the reception of approximately two hundred works from every stage of the artist's brief but prodigious career. Organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in association with the Yves Klein Archives, Paris, the exhibition is the first undertaking of such scale on American shores since 1982. The curators, Kerry Brougher and Philippe Vergne, thus had a monumental task: that of critically examining Klein's aesthetic identity from a contemporary perspective while introducing the artist to a public largely unfamiliar with his practice. Complicating such an endeavor are the peculiarities of the subject itself: Any analysis of Klein must also take into account the artist's own attempts to erect a scaffolding for the reception of his work by self-consciously eliding his biography with a sensationalized practice.
Throughout his lifetime, Klein diffused brash posturing and lofty claims by generating texts (intimate journals, personal and professional correspondence, press releases, and essays) and cleverly manipulating the media (courting newspaper coverage and radio interviews, doctoring photographs, and producing--and frequently revising--accounts of his life and work). In this, he was aided by his de facto mouthpiece, the critic Pierre Restany, who gave shape to many of Klein's core arguments in print and elevated the artist to the helm of the Nouveau Realistes. The crux of Klein's message, articulated most directly in his 1959 text "Overcoming the Problematics of Art," is that "painting today is no longer a function of the eye; it is the function of the one thing we may not possess within ourselves: our LIFE." Though Klein was not alone in his efforts to dismantle art's autonomy--many artists of the period had similar concerns--he went one step further, effectively transforming his life into the hermeneutic grounding for his work and, in doing so, inspiring scores of analyses that consider his self-created myth as empirical data. Indeed, if Klein's painstakingly constructed persona and retrospectively revised biography cannot be separated from his artistic project, it is by now clear that they should be regarded as aesthetic inventions in their own right. At various moments in his life, most often simultaneously, Klein inhabited the roles of bourgeois, judoka, painter, charlatan, showman, and mystic, each persona fabricated with the same artistic license and according to the same provocation and paradox as his artworks. These very issues have been addressed in the exponential increase of Klein scholarship since the 1980s and, more recently, in the exhibitions at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt in 2004 and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2006 (full disclosure: I contributed essays to both catalogues). …