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Blake Gopnik reviews 'Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers' at the Hirshhorn

By Blake Gopnik
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; C09

Of all the dazzling stuff on this planet, not much beats the art of Yves Klein. In 1956, Klein invented a blue paint that made his paintings and sculptures as gorgeous as anything could be. Over the seven years of his career -- Klein died of a heart attack in 1962, when he was only 34 -- the Frenchman made something like 1,000 works, one richer than the next. Two hundred are now here, and the huge Klein survey that just opened at the Hirshhorn Museum could hardly be more alluring. Americans haven't seen a full spread of Kleins in almost three decades, and it might never happen again: The powdered pigment is so fragile that the works are almost unshippable, and they're getting so expensive you can hardly insure them. That makes this one of the most important shows in Hirshhorn history. It's also one of the most beautiful. Curator Kerry Brougher has installed the survey with a courageous restraint that lets the art speak for itself.

But here's the strange and most important thing about Klein's art: Its direct, material appeal is not what's at its heart. These are earthbound objects that want desperately to point to a world of immaterial spirit. Klein's gorgeous matter hopes to transcend everything that's down here on this planet.

Weirder yet, its beauty seems to end up showing that transcendence is impossible. No matter how much you might wish to find deeper truths in Klein's heavenly blue, it always ends up being smartly formulated paint.

That makes Klein's art much more than simply gorgeous: It's also poignant, almost tragic, because it's about the grandest of defeats. It lets us watch an artist try to do more than any artist humanly could, and then fail in the attempt. You might say that, taken together, the all-blue artworks in the Hirshhorn's Klein survey -- not to mention the show's peculiar films and photographs, as well as its works in gold or white or pink -- paint a picture of Icarus flying high in the sky, at the moment when the wax on his wings is melting.

Blue-sky ideas

Yves Klein is most famous, and influential, as the inventor of monochrome abstraction. From the very beginning, he looked into what would happen if you covered a canvas in a single color of paint, then presented it as art. The Hirshhorn shows him trying it out with red and orange and black and green, before perfecting the blissful ultramarine that he patented as IKB -- International Klein Blue. (What he patented wasn't, in fact, the color itself, which dates back to before Giotto, but a way of mixing the ground pigment with a synthetic binder so it wouldn't lose the dry, velvety intensity it had as a powder. One Klein installation re-created at the Hirshhorn consists of a huge trough of IKB pigment itself, which the artist's estate continues to stock.)

There's no other artistic experience quite like looking at (more like tumbling into) one of Klein's blue monochromes. Even in nature, just about the only place you ever see something like this -- an all-encompassing color that doesn't seem to have a surface and a distance you can pin it to -- is when you look up into a cloudless sky. These blue pictures evoke such unfathomable skies, but Klein seems to have distilled the color out of them, then concentrated it on a canvas. They aren't just a feast for sore eyes. They're more like a lifetime's worth of ocular nourishment.

That isn't nearly enough for Klein, or for many of his admirers. Klein said he didn't want to be thought of as just another abstractionist, intent on feeding his viewers' senses -- although his monochromes were at the root of so much later art that aimed to do just that. (Frank Stella, the later American abstractionist who once met Klein, famously said that in his own near-monochromes, "what you see is what you see.") For Klein, the monochrome is meant to reveal "that immeasurable 'void' in which lives the permanent and absolute spirit freed of all dimensions."

Your typical Klein fan has always said similarly vaporous things. One scholar opined that the artist's portraits, presented as blue-painted body casts (a gorgeous one concludes this show) are about "a sublimation of the personal aura, a transformation of physical sensuality into the inviolable if ineffable presence of enduring artistic values." I have no idea what these claims mean; I mostly doubt they mean anything. And yet I'm perfectly aware of how much all of us, including me -- and especially including Klein himself -- wished we could make transcendence come true as a coherent, comprehensible, effable state.

That's what IKB is all about: the desperate human desire to bring transcendence within arm's reach by giving it a material presence in art. And then, more interesting yet, it's about how even art's most beautiful matter will never do the trick. Paint remains tethered to the earth it's taken from. Or maybe Klein's art doesn't set out to prove that struggling for transcendence is either useless or valid; instead, those blues present a picture of the struggle itself.

The holy fool

Right from the start, Klein seems to have known that his quest might be foolish.

Klein's first mature work -- one of the best he ever made -- was a printed book full of glued-in reproductions of his single-color abstractions, each captioned with the place and year it was painted. But when the book was published in 1954, those paintings did not yet exist: Klein's "reproductions" were just rectangles of colored paper he'd pasted into each volume. More than that, I'm told that they were put in almost at random, so that different copies of the book pair different colors with different dates and places. An orange rectangle is labeled "Paris, 1954" in this exhibition's copy, but might go with the words "Tokyo, 1952" in another. It's as though Klein himself knew that the perceptual or even factual particulars of his project didn't matter. He knew that his art would always be about the gesture of making monochrome abstractions, or of thinking about making them, rather than the actual results.

Klein could simply declare transcendence as the aim of his abstractions. No one had to witness that mystic moment.

Then came the ethereal magic of International Klein Blue, which made such a seemingly absurd declaration -- "this art transcends" -- more credible. The weightlessness of IKB made an art of disembodiment believable. But even once he'd found his blue, you could still question the transcendence of Klein's art.

Sometimes it felt like a joke. On April 28, 1958, his 30th birthday, Klein opened a one-man show called "Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility," later nicknamed "The Void." It consisted of nothing more than an empty gallery in Paris -- no blue or anything else. Or as Klein preferred to put it, a gallery packed with "immaterial pictorial sensibility." A film shot in Klein's Paris exhibition reveals a patch of painting-free wall, as well as some empty space where one of his sculptures isn't. It's simply impossible to imagine that you're supposed to take this straight. Or if it's not an outright gag, it's deliberate, self-conscious wishful thinking. "Wouldn't it be great if, thanks to an artist, a merely empty room really could contain immaterial being?" Klein seems to ask. Then he leaves it to us, watching a film of straightforward nothingness, to answer: "What a shame it can't."

Audacious leaps of folly

All of Klein's best works have this kind of pie-in-the-sky ambition. He proposed that his monochrome art had such spiritual power that it would save the world, via some kind of all-encompassing "Blue Revolution." He made outdoor fountains of pure flame, and "painted" pictures with a flamethrower, saying that by emulating fire an artist could become "a personified and universal principle." His famous "Leap Into the Void" is a photo that shows him swan-diving into empty space out of a second-story window.

But here's the thing: Klein always let us have our doubts. His effort to bring about a "spiritual" revolution included prodding President Dwight Eisenhower to back him and his artist friends as the next French administration. (Klein's hilarious letter to the White House is in this show; there's no sign of a reply.) Klein's "universal" fire paintings were done under the patronage of Gaz de France, a connection to officialdom that Klein never hid. And that "Leap" was a faked photo, montaged from one picture of him jumping into helpers' arms and another of an empty streetscape. Klein's art doesn't rise above these contradictions between grandiose goals and their prosaic realization. It revels in them.

When Klein made his leap, he didn't levitate. He fell to Earth, as he knew he would. That inevitable fall -- and the courage to jump that precedes it -- is what his art is about.

Yves Klein: With the Void,

Full Powers

Through Sept. 12 at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, on the south side of the Mall at Seventh Street SW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu.

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