Hirshhorn exhibit offers multiple sides of artist and performer Yves Klein

Falling flat: Yves Klein's "People Begin to Fly" (1961) is one of the low points of the Hirshhorn Museum's exhibition, but the artwork offers a glimpse into the cheesy side of the famous French painter.
Falling flat: Yves Klein's "People Begin to Fly" (1961) is one of the low points of the Hirshhorn Museum's exhibition, but the artwork offers a glimpse into the cheesy side of the famous French painter. (The Menil Collection, Houston; Artists Rights Society, New York; Adagp, Paris)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

"Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers," now halfway through its run at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, is as fine a show as anyone has seen, anywhere, ever. I've lost track of how many times I've visited -- six, maybe seven times, with more trips probably to come. Friends and colleagues return from the show raving, and each time I've gone, other visitors seemed to be taking as much pleasure as I -- even though you'd think a spread of one-color abstraction and no-color conceptualism, created by a Frenchman who's been dead for almost 50 years, might be a tough sell.

Friday night, when crowds pour in for the Hirshhorn's summer "After Hours" bash -- the last of 2,000 tickets sold out Thursday -- there might even be a chance that a few of them spend as much time looking at Klein as partying in the courtyard. That's how good this exhibition is.

I'll give the artist some of the credit. During Klein's eight-year career -- he died at 34 in 1962 -- he achieved an almost perfect balance of sensuality and intellect. He also threw in more than a little playfulness and self-satire. Whose eyes can fail to wallow in the velvety depths of the paint he patented as International Klein Blue? Who can resist pondering what his empty white gallery, filmed as a work of art, is really all about? And who can help chuckling at the absurd footage of the always-elegant Klein, dressed in white tie and po-faced as Buster Keaton, using paint-covered babes as art brushes?

But I think Klein has to share credit for his show's success with its curators: Kerry Brougher from the Hirshhorn and Philippe Vergne from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where the show heads next, as well as with their entire installation team. This exhibition's objects mean so much to us in part because of how they're shown.

The first piece in the exhibition, given a wall to itself in an introductory room, is "The Leap Into the Void," Klein's famous photo of himself swan-diving from a building's eaves onto the pavement below. It's a standard move to begin a show with its best-known work, but this time the object's just a small, unassuming black-and-white, so it took courage to give it pride of place. It took brains to also close the show with another print of the same piece -- and to trust viewers to notice that the little differences between the two photos' backgrounds prove that both are photomontages and that the whole leap was a deliberate fraud. Absurd daring and silly fakery -- the two poles of Klein's career, summarized in the two photos that bookend the show. That's curating for you.

Once you're into the suite of galleries that makes up the exhibition proper, which is presented in more-or-less chronological order, you're again confronted with a start that is both humble and brilliant. The first object you see, in a room that's full of impressive painted monochromes, is a modest colored drawing made by Klein in 1954, which depicts three one-color abstractions -- in yellow, red and green -- looming huge above the footlights on an empty theatrical stage. Right from the start, that is, this show suggests that Klein's career is as much about his public performance as an artist as about the works of art he produced -- they might almost be his props or the backdrop he performs against.

I use the phrase "this show suggests" advisedly, because the one thing you won't find in this exhibition is anyone telling you to think of Klein in terms of his theatrics, or in terms of any other single take on him. The exhibition is blessedly free of the didactic panels that pollute almost any other show you'll see. The organizers trust Klein's work to be potent enough, with enough contemporary relevance and staying power, to speak to us without their help. And they trust us to be smart enough to stand alone in getting something from that work -- something that might even be different, smarter, better than the ideas they've come up with already. They know Klein's art demands labor, and they're willing to trust us to do it. They don't want to turn it into a bunch of easy-on-the-brain one-liners.

The Hirshhorn so respects the integrity of Klein's art that it won't even label many pieces with their titles, dates and owners. Those labels are mostly ganged up at the end of each wall, so they don't interfere with the artworks themselves.

The only more substantial wall texts in the show are a few quotes from Klein's vaporous writings, kept some distance from the objects they may, or may not, account for. We are allowed -- maybe even expected -- to take his airy proclamations with a grain of salt, as he may have wanted us to. More Kleinisms are being made available, as of Friday night, in a reprint that the Hirshhorn has made of a spoof newspaper produced by Klein in 1960. That reprint is another bold curatorial move.

Here's maybe the bravest thing this show's organizers did -- something almost unheard of in the world of curating. They left some of Klein's bad work and bad thinking in, so we could see him in full.

At their best, Klein's naked-body paintings, known as "Anthropometries," can be gracious and intense. The Hirshhorn owns an excellent one, a double portrait of sorts in which Klein and his wife acted as the work's blue-smeared paintbrushes, leaving records, almost like fingerprints, of their presence as a couple. The worst of the "Anthropometries," such as the huge, goofily named "People Begin to Fly," can be inane and tacky -- close to the silhouetted girlies that introduced James Bond in the movies that came out close to the time of Klein's paintings. But it was important to include that dud -- or the cheesy footage of the tuxedoed Klein at work with his nude "brushes" -- because cheesiness and the burlesque are clearly part of what he's all about.

Two months ago, when I first reviewed this show, I argued that the greatness of Klein's art lies just as much in its failures as its successes. I'm not sure I could have gotten to that truth through any other Klein survey.

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

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