Blue Streak: "Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers"

By O'Donovan, Leo J. | Commonweal, September 24, 2010 | Go to article overview

Blue Streak: "Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers"


O'Donovan, Leo J., Commonweal


At the age of nineteen, the mid-twentieth-century French artist Yves Klein signed the sky above Nice as his first artwork. The same year he began to compose a symphony that consisted of a single note for twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of absolute silence. Later, having renounced paintbrushes as "too excessively psychological," Klein employed nude, paint-smeared female models as "living brushes." And once, after emptying the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris of everything in it, he dubbed his exhibition "The Void". These gestural flights, with which he rivaled Marcel Duchamp as an impresario of the improbable, once led Paris Match to call Klein "the greatest painter in the world."

Born in Nice in 1928 to the figurative painter Fred Klein and Marie Raymond, an abstractionist, young Yves was an indifferent student whose first passion was judo. After spending a year in Japan (1952-53), where he earned a black belt, he was refused recognition by the French Judo Association and turned to art. His first exhibition, in 1955, was monochrome paintings of various sizes in vivid colors. This summer a selection of these early monochromes kicked off "Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers" at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. (The title comes from Albert Camus's comment in the guest book for "The Void.") The exhibit moves to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on October 23 (through February 13, 2011). It is Klein's first major retrospective in the United States since 1982.

The show documents how Klein's remarkably fertile (and assertive) imagination anticipated minimalism, conceptualism, and later, even performance and installation art. When his critic and friend Pierre Restany associated Klein with the Russian suprematist Kasimir Malevich, Klein protested. "I am not an abstract painter but, on the contrary, a figurative artist, and a realist." Elsewhere he wrote, "My monochrome propositions are landscapes of freedom." (When, some years later, he prophesied an age of "impersonal ontology," the apparent contradiction was welcome. An artist, he thought, must contradict himself.)

Debonair and articulate, with an air both angelic and arrogant, Klein was a marketing genius. In 1956 he decided to paint only in blue--and patented his International Klein Blue (IKB), an ordinary ultramarine with a polymer binder to preserve its intensity. His presentation of eleven identical blue monochromes at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan drew wide attention, and the examples from this "Blue Epoch" in the present show are a marvel, almost justifying the religiously transcendent language with which Klein spoke of the color. The largest piece, California, from 1961, reflects a trip he took to Los Angeles--and Disneyland--with his studio assistant, the beautiful young German Rotraut Uecker, whom he married the following year.

Noticing how the sponges he used to apply the IKB absorbed the pigment, in the late 1950s Klein began to attach them to panels as "sponge reliefs." Employing metal stems on stone or wood, they also became freestanding sculptures. Klein's commission for the Gelsenkirchen Opera House in Germany featured both canvases and sponge reliefs. …

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