PRINT Summer 1995

Comic Relief

THE LARGE YVES KLEIN EXHIBITION currently on the road is by my count at least the eighth such traveling retrospective organized since Klein died of a heart attack, in 1962, at age 34. The main organizer of this version was independent curator Sidra Stich, who also wrote the nearly 300-page accompanying monograph. Like all major Klein shows, this one depends heavily on loans from the Klein estate. In terms of the more than 100 art objects included in the London installation (monochrome panels, assembled reliefs of various kinds, sponge sculptures, body prints, fire paintings, and so on), it did not differ substantially from the previous retrospectives.

What did differ somewhat was the installation. At the Hayward this was generally very well done, particularly for an audience of young people being introduced to Klein’s work for the first time. Martin Caiger-Smith, the exhibition organizer there, and the architect Paul Williams, of Stanton-Williams, who has had a lot of experience designing installations for the Hayward’s challenging concrete interiors, transformed the entire space, both lower and upper galleries, with ramps, scrim, and seemingly tintless white paint, a cold white reminiscent of the interiors of European artists’ studios in the late ’50s and ’60s. Stich’s notion of reconstructing a number of Klein’s original installations is almost impossible to achieve, however, and thus questionable as a project. The documentary evidence is limited, the testimony of witnesses is sketchy and often at variance, and the kind of wall-by-wall installation photography that is standard in museums today was not done even for the 1961 retrospective that Klein himself designed for the Haus Lange in Krefeld, although some useful photos of this show do exist. In addition, some lenders to the Hayward refused to permit the removal of Plexiglas coverings, which create a kind of visual death for the look of dry, unbound pigment that Klein sought.

That said, the first room—as opposed to vitrine—in the Hayward show succeeded quite winningly in re-creating what I believe to have been the scale and atmosphere of Klein’s second one-man exhibition, “Yves: Propositions Monochromes,” at the Galerie Colette Allendy, Paris, in February 1956. This show contained ten or so monochrome panels from 1955 and 1956, in different colors—red, green, white, blue, yellow, black, orange, violet, etc.—and in a great variety of rectangular shapes, from square to vertically elongated to landscape format. Few if any were in the more classic five-to-four proportion of height to width that Klein came to favor the following year and for the rest of his career, whatever the actual size of the panels.

Like Klein’s later monochromes, most of these early examples were made by stretching thin muslin over wood panels or composition board, the corners of which were rounded. Often Klein fixed four sides to the panels to create what are in effect shallow boxes. The panels sometimes have wood brackets on their backs so that they jut slightly forward from the wall into the viewer’s “real” space. The paint Klein used, developed for him by a Montparnasse retailer of chemicals and art supplies, was an early version of the “International Klein Blue” paint he later patented. It consisted of dry pigment, a transparent binder (an industrial polymerized vinyl acetate usually used by manufacturers of maps and books), and solvents (alcohol and ethyl acetate). The formula was not water soluble and dried very quickly, as Klein’s “living brushes,” the models who, in 1960, covered themselves with IKB and imprinted their bodies on stiff paper to make Klein’s “Anthropométries,” learned. Klein applied the paint to the front and sides of the early panels with housepainters’ rollers of differing naps, so the factures vary a great deal.

Klein later complained in writing about the first Allendy show that viewers did not place themselves in the presence of the color of each individual picture but instead "reconstituted the elements into a decorative polychromy.”1 In effect, as Klein described it, they made the show into a three-dimensional painting, a relational geometric abstraction. It was this, he wrote, that “provoked my Blue Period.”2 It was a habit of Klein’s to discuss issues about his work in terms of his version of audience reaction to it, but his complaint about the response to the Allendy show was also his way of separating himself from the painters of geometric abstraction active in Paris at the time. With the exception of the art of kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, a great buddy of Klein’s beginning around this time, the work of many of these artists lacked irony and other forms of humor. To the extent that they were interested in such historical precedents as Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of 1913, for example, it was that work’s capacity to move that intrigued them, not its wry conceptual status as an assisted readymade. Klein’s art objects, on the other hand, as well as his theatrical activities and his abundant writing, often contained a great deal of humor, although it is mostly overlooked by apologists such as Stich in the current show’s catalogue, and also by neo-Marxian criticism of the past decade.

Klein’s humor, particularly his play with the conventions of the art world, surfaced in his first public work, the booklet Yves Peintures, of 1954. It certainly reappeared in the very title—“L’Epoca Blu” (The Blue Period)—of his January 1957 show at the small Galleria Apollinaire in Milan. This show of ten ultramarine monochromes, virtually identical in size (roughly 30 by 22 inches) and in their lightly textured facture (made with a housepainter’s roller), was a sensuous, literal, explicit challenge to the ideology of art informel painting. It was comparable in its way to what Robert Rauschenberg’s Factum I and Factum II of 1957 proposed about American Abstract Expressionism—that the works of that school were potentially repeatable, rather than the products of an existential moment. Hung forward from the wall and painted on their sides, Klein’s panels coexist both as exemplars of pictorial depth and as solids in the space of the observer. The latter effect is also articulated later by Klein’s sponge relief panels of 1960 and 1961, arguably his most original and formally compelling objects. In these the sponges project forward from their grounds and in some cases project laterally beyond the edges of the same curve-cornered rectangles.3

The Milan Blue Period exhibition is legendary not only for containing blank pictures of the same size and hue but also for Klein’s later talk and text about it. He wrote, for example, “The prices were all different of course.”4 Of course? While the price of each work in the Milan show was actually a modest 35,000 lire (about $56), Klein conveyed the idea of different prices to critics during or soon after the show. This illuminates his interest in making an issue, rather than a living, out of the monetary value of works of art considerably before he began to sell admission to an empty gallery in 1958, his “Immaterial Pictorial Sensibilities” in 1959, and his panels covered with gold leaf in 1960.

Klein’s Milan show of nearly identical ultramarine panels was repeated in May 1957 in Paris, at Iris Clert’s even smaller gallery in the sixth arrondissement. Simultaneously, Klein mounted a second show at Allendy’s gallery in the 16th, where he installed a remarkable group of objects, most of which he made only once. In London an attempt was made to reconstruct these two shows. The room of paintings made do with five approximately 30-by-22-inch blue monochromes, several later in date than 1957, and they were not hung forward from the wall. A selection of the objects—“pure pigments”—were in an adjoining cubicle.

These works, interpretations or articulations or deformations of the monochromes, “illustrate” Klein’s imageless paintings, explicating formal characteristics and ideas that might not have been obvious to his audience from the monochrome panels alone. The blue folding screen, for example, hints at the environmental nature of his paintings, as do dowels hung from the ceiling and painted ultramarine, which Klein called “blue rain.” A box on the floor, in proportions of five to four, holding loose ultramarine calls attention to the powdery surface of the blue paintings that were on view at Clert. A stack of four wall-mounted blue boxes inevitably reminds American viewers of Donald Judd’s later stack pieces. The front faces of the boxes, which Klein called “blue reliefs” (they were designated “sculpture” posthumously), are in his favorite proportions of five to four, and they also ape the monochrome panels by having curved corners. Their greatest dimension is their depth—a literal treatment of painting’s illusion of space, and a suggestion that deep space resides in the monochrome paintings. As opposed to his practice with his paintings, Klein himself hung the blue reliefs directly against the wall. Unfortunately the Klein estate has mounted the reliefs together on a Plexiglas backing, so they are fated to hover in front of the wall instead of hanging right up against it. A large horizontal ultramarine painting owned by the Klein estate appeared in the London show with an excellent new backing so that it can hang some inches in front of the wall, as Klein would have hung it. Perhaps at some point a hanging device for the blue reliefs will be provided that permits them to hang as Klein hung them originally.

Two omissions from the London show bothered me particularly. The first, in the vitrines at the entrance to the show, was not exactly an omission but rather a seriously bungled presentation of the brilliant little work with which Klein initiated his public career as an artist in 1954, Yves Peintures. This is a booklet of carefully captioned reproductions of monochrome paintings that there is no evidence Klein had actually painted. (Its existence is sometimes evoked to support the idea of Klein as an early conceptual artist.) A three-page preface of blank lines, “written” by Klein’s poet friend Claude Pascal, is followed by ten plate pages. On each of these a different-sized rectangle of one-color paper, probably commercially inked and printed, has been pasted, one to a page. Beneath each tip-in is a caption, printed on the backing paper. The first plate page, for example, is captioned “Yves” to the left and “à Londres, 1950 (195 x 97)" to the right; the tipped-in rectangle is robin’s-egg blue and measures 195 by 95 millimeters. In each case the measurement in the caption, which conventionally in reproductions of European paintings would stand for centimeters, conforms in millimeters to the size of the pasted paper. This raises at least two alternatives: that the cut papers are reproductions of large monochromes Klein had been painting since 1950 (which we know historically they are not) or that the paintings do not exist, and what you see is what is there—an original that presents itself as if it were a set of reproductions.

The booklet Yves Peintures was shown in the 1982 Houston/New York/Paris Klein retrospective and is reproduced correctly in its catalogue (in which an essay of mine appears). But the booklet shown in London contained a jumble of different pages with captions that do not conform at all to the sizes of the pasted papers. It is clear from Stich’s catalogue that because raw materials exist in the Klein archive for a number of booklets that Klein never finished assembling—loose color plates, pages with different type styles, not to mention a version by a pseudonymous doppelgänger, Haguenault—she does not believe that there actually is such a thing as a correct version. Given that Yves Peintures is one of Klein’s wittiest and most complex works, this is lamentable.

I have written a good deal about instances of conspicuous fraudulence in Klein’s art, that is, fraudulence designed to show. In addition to Yves Peintures, among the most stunning examples of this is Klein’s famous self-portrait, crafted by the photographers Harry Shunk and Robert Kender, of himself soaring upward and outward from a high wall. This photograph is of course structured to call attention to the likelihood that what it denotes is a fiction, and the texts Klein first published with it—in his fake edition of the Paris newspaper Dimanche—further encourage any viewer to question how the image was made. However, lest there be any doubt that the photo of Klein in ascension is a photomontage, Klein himself published two versions of this same self-portrait prominently during his lifetime: one with and one without a man on a bicycle in the middle distance. In each the image of Klein remains the same.

Neither the exhibition, however, which included a large blow-up of the soaring picture (with the man on the bicycle), nor Stich’s catalogue contain an image of the second soaring picture (without the man on the bicycle). The omission may foster belief in Klein’s ability to fly, or encourage the notion that he was willing to die for his art, but it does not respect his artistry or the complexity of his strategies, nor does it engender serious analysis of his art. At this date, nearly thirty-five years after his death, we could use the third version of the flying photograph, which Klein did not publish. This is the version that is not a photomontage. It shows an image of Klein soaring, but underneath him are a group of pals from the judo school across the street, holding a tarpaulin to catch him in his leap.

Stich deserves credit for the new information her catalogue provides uninitiated English readers—about projects such as Klein’s “air architecture,” for example, and some previously unpublished biographical material. But Stich does not apply formal analysis to Klein’s objects of art, or close reading to his extensive writings. Nor does she take the opportunity of distance to situate him historically in the context of European contemporaries he knew quite well, such as Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni in Milan, or the Zero Group in Düsseldorf. What Klein studies in any case need at this point is not another monograph but publication of his complete writings. Ideally such a publication would appear in French and English, so the tendency of translators to clean up Klein’s prose—to make it sound more literary yet less punchy than it often was—would be dealt with. By giving us his writing in its entirety, not in excerpts that omit telling details, such a book would also eliminate the tendency of editors to honor one kind of Klein over another—usually the utopian over the dystopian, when this artist’s strength, and much of his interest for us today, lies in his consistent shuttling between the two.


1. Yves Klein, introductory essay in Le Depassement de la problematique de l’art, La Louvière: Editions de Montbliart, 1959, p. 3. My translation.

2. Ibid.

3. I discuss Klein’s “blue period” exhibitions and his extensive prose about them fairly exhaustively in “Assisted Levitation: The Art of Yves Klein,” Yves Klein 1928–1962: A Retrospective, Houston: Rice University, Institute for the Arts, 1982, see especially pp. 105–17.

4. Quoted in ibid., p. 105.