PRINT Summer 1995

Klein and Poses

THE DUBIOUS DISTINCTION OF having claimed a natural phenomenon (the blue chroma of pigment, or of the sky) as private property, a brand name, and of legalizing this preposterous pretense by a signature or by the quest for a patent, is Yves Klein’s. The property claim and the administrative, legalistic approach are a measure both of his mania and of the misery to which the neo-avant-garde would advance in postwar Paris (and by no means would he be the last in the decrepitude of his art). As with Marcel Duchamp (whose legacy Klein pilfered freely, with no concern at all for the property rights of earlier avant-garde paradigms), it has sometimes been difficult not to resent the messenger for delivering the message. In Klein’s case the message would become increasingly unsavory.

Like his German counterpart Joseph Beuys and his American successor Andy Warhol (who was sublimely ironical by comparison with both artists), Klein signaled throughout his amphetamine-driven career that the project of avant-garde art would henceforth advance only through an obsessive promotion of the artist as the last public subject. This project would also increasingly be aligned with fraudulent claims—as was inevitable, given the dismantling not only of the parameters of competence that, until Duchamp, had determined esthetic interest according to artistic and cognitive skill, but also of the criteria that had defined esthetic experience according to the artwork’s complexity. Deception also emerged as a necessary strategy since the agenda and apparatus of neo-avant-garde artists would increasingly imitate the features of consumer culture. Just as in postwar product-propaganda (whose managers emerged as the new collectors and patrons of the neo-avant-garde), it was no longer perceived as unethical or illegal to generate false information and systematically infuse it into the public sphere. Klein’s claims to have “invented” monochrome painting, or, for that matter, to have invented "International Klein Blue”—the Symbolist azure, visible in the luminous pastels of Odilon Redon since the 1890s—are cases in point, with strategically placed disinformation appearing as legitimate artistic license.

The responses to the messages Klein delivered would become increasingly ambivalent and eventually incompatible. They range from the slightly lunatic Catholic interpretations by Paul Wember, author of Klein’s early catalogue raisonné, to Dore Ashton’s acerbic critique “Art as Spectacle,” delivered on the occasion of Klein’s first New York museum showing in 1967; from Nan Rosenthal’s first, magisterial attempt to come to terms with Klein in her doctoral dissertation of 1976 to the detailed, valuable, yet plainly conventional and therefore ultimately insufficient monograph by the curator of the current retrospective, Sidra Stich, who positions Klein simply as one in a never-ending succession of 20th-century masters. My own responses to Klein bear the marks of that ambivalence all too obviously, as I am quite aware. In fact I have attempted not to resolve these contradictions, for example through the imposition of a rigorous Marxist economic model (e.g., through the application of the notion of exchange value), but rather to trace the actually existing esthetic and ideological contradictions operative in Klein’s insufferable authenticity.

Stich’s indisputable accomplishments (and relative failures), in her catalogue as in her attempt to reconstruct Klein’s early installations in the exhibition itself, point to the difficulties facing serious critical studies and exhibitions that deal with the postwar period in Europe. First, the monographic essay itself, as a disciplinary category, cannot address any of the most crucial questions one confronts in reconstruction culture: its manifest, repressive disavowal of recent European history, and its radical transformation of the models of artistic identity and of artistic production as the increasing intertwinement of the neo-avant-garde and the culture industry becomes a determining factor of the artist’s public subjectivity. Second, the retrospective exhibition, with its inherent enforcement of the oeuvre status of artistic production, inevitably fails to address or even make apparent the new status of the artworks emergent during that period—their categorical instability, their status as “produced,” serialized objects, their subversive potential to dethrone long-held convictions about the uniqueness and singularity of the object and the oeuvre.

Roland Barthes, who analyzed the increasing mythification of everyday life in Myth Today—published two years after Klein’s first exhibition of monochromes, at Colette Allendy’s Paris gallery in 1955—could have found in Klein an exemplary case study: a means of tracing myth’s effects in the construction of postwar artistic subjectivity, and the resulting semiotic and structural changes in the paradigms of avant-garde production. In Klein we encounter the first “concept” artist, who also turns out to be the first “designer” artist: neo-avant-garde production from Klein on would be conceived and calculated according to seasonally adjusted campaigns and strategies of author and product recognizability. While Duchamp announced his decision to abandon art in favor of chess only late in his career (while clandestinely elaborating one of the most important works of the postwar period), Klein would from the start insist on an alternate public persona, identifying himself with a nonartistic activity. In fact, if we can trust Stich’s catalogue essay, he became an artist only by default, after his plans for a career in judo failed. (His black-belt status had been acquired under somewhat dubious circumstances.) Once chosen, however, the role of the artist needed to be exoticized: Klein’s aspiration to be perceived as a judoka/artist made him the neo-avant-garde’s first japoniste, one situated between the ancient culture of judo as a ritualistic performance of war and the contemporary condition after Hiroshima.

Klein is the quintessential disenfranchised European male artist of the postwar period: images of him (accompanied by a pompier) searing a “virgin” canvas with a giant gas-torch, or harassing nude models as they smear themselves with blue paint to become “living brushes” before a gaping audience, secure him a place in an art history of protagonists desperate to resuscitate the lost tools and torments of artistic virility. Hovering over Klein’s work at every turn are the ghosts not only of the historical avant-garde (Duchamp and Kasimir Malevich) but also of Jackson Pollock, the postwar example of the male artistic “genius,” once more—against all the Duchampian odds—gaining access to the phallus of painting. Parisians seem to have perceived Pollock’s painting simultaneously as another end and another beginning. Georges Mathieu was among the first to do so; Klein followed suit. What the two artists shared in their reading of Pollock was the paranoid intuition that only in exaggerating the ritualistic aspect of the American artist’s work to the threshold of pure spectacle could his legacy be embraced—and simultaneously travestied. Appropriately, in attempting to act out that ritualistic dimension, both Mathieu and Klein resorted to chivalresque costumes and aristocratic antics. For they had in mind the needs of a specific segment of France’s postwar reconstruction culture: the art world’s elitist bourgeois consumers, whose political leanings seem to have oscillated between a nostalgic royalism and authoritarian, antidemocratic impulses eventually absorbed by Gaullism.

Klein’s ostentatious association with Rosicrucianism and with the writings of its 19th-century popularizer Max Heindel (which he acquired by mail order from the Rosicrucian headquarters in Oceanside, California), as well as his subsequent induction as a knight in the order of Saint Sebastian, have an analogue in Beuys’ alignment with the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. Both Rosicrucianism and anthroposophy had been seen as badly needed spiritual resources since the Symbolist period, and had functioned as legitimizing discourses for abstraction after 1912. After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, however, as Klein and Beuys demonstrate, artists were clueless about their renewed identificatory needs. In fact Klein’s and Beuys’ public association with obscurantist religious sects and belief systems outside the discredited ideologies of bourgeois humanism and Catholic Christianity (which had formed their adolescence) allowed them a seemingly perfect reconciliation. On the one hand, sectarianism provided the semblance of an at least partially legitimate continuation of these ideologies. At the same time—and more important— it seemed to rescue the definition of the esthetic as irrational, and as one of the last socially legitimate forms to articulate spirituality and metaphysical aspiration. This latter function would be all the more necessary for an artist like Klein (and certainly Beuys too), who had failed to recognize that the belief system of art itself had already undergone a radical secularization, or who wanted to reverse that process.

Klein’s attempt to resurrect obsolete esthetic models of spirituality (e.g., that of Malevich), which he fancied as the historical horizon of his practice, seems also to have been intended to counteract the threatening prospects of a renewed radical secularization of cultural production formulated at precisely that mid-’50s moment by Marxists, phenomenologists, and Existentialists. These thinkers’ critiques answered to the sense that it would be impossible to redeem models of either humanism or Christianity as cultural matrices. Klein’s notoriously and aggressively voiced contempt for Jean-Paul Sartre, and for a political critique from the left, suggest his attitude to them. To have articulated the sordid conditions of reconstruction culture’s resuscitated spirituality, and its inevitable entwinement with reactionary political ideologies, is among Klein’s indisputable achievements. What makes his work so attractive, however, is its construction of a related paradox in public: the suggestion that the attempt to redeem spirituality through art at the moment of consumer culture’s rise to universal power would inevitably fashion the spiritual in (involuntary?) travesty.

In 1957, in a notorious exhibition in Milan’s Galleria Apollinaire, Klein exhibited 11 monochrome blue paintings, noticeably different only in their surface texture and, also, in their prices. Surely inescapable here is the recognition of Marx’s prognosis that history occurs twice: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce (though travesty would seem closer to Klein’s makeup). In Stich’s otherwise meticulous reconstructions of Klein’s early exhibitions as in much of the subsequently published discussion of these works, a provocative element of the Milan show goes unmentioned: the paintings were presented on stanchions, suspended, that is, between the decorative panel and the signpost, the utilitarian object and the communicative tool. Klein’s reinvented monochrome presented painting as in need of a declamatory prosthesis. And it wasn’t just in the emphasis on seriality and repetition, on production, that his Milan show forecast the fate of painting in Warhol’s hands, it even anticipated Warhol’s own version of a prosthetic installation—the 32 almost identical soup-can paintings propped up on shelves, as Campbell’s-soup objects, in their first exhibition, at Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, in 1962. Klein’s subjection of his quasi-identical paintings to an abstract, hierarchical order of exchange value furthered yet another insight: the opposition that he established between “immaterial pictorial sensibility” and randomly differentiated price articulated the universal rule of sign-exchange value, ten years before Jean Baudrillard’s semiotic articulation.

Klein was haunted by a paranoid fear of the predecessor: wherever evidence of continuity or contact between his work and some earlier example was irrefutable, he effaced his traces, renewing claims for originality and authenticity that manifestly contradicted the actual conditions of his painterly practice as production and as design. Duchamp’s rotoreliefs, Jean Dubuffet’s eponges, Man Ray’s rayograms, Ellsworth Kelly’s monochrome paintings, Robert Rauschenberg’s blueprints from 1949–51, all resurface in Klein’s opus, covered in a homogenizing layer of IKB, and with an average delay of about ten years. Klein’s shrill claims of originality are almost a standard condition in the responses of the neo-avant-garde to its predecessors. He is almost unique, however, in his capacity to reinvest strategies and concepts of the historical avant-garde, from Duchamp through Ray to Rodchenko, with irrationality, a dimension of metaphysics, and a rabidly affirmed claim for the validity of cult and ritual, be it that of the genius artist or of the spectatorial experience.

Among the lessons to be learned from Klein is that not a single semiotic “revolution” of the avant-garde—neither the readymade nor the monochrome, neither noncompositionality nor the indexical procedure—is secured by its own radicality, or protected against subsequent operations of recoding and reinvestment with myth. It was to just such transformations, after all, that Klein himself, in his “Anthropométries” of 1959–60, subjected the apparently radical indexical strategy of replacing iconic representation and painterly gesture by semimechanical procedures—a strategy deployed by the Surrealists in the invention of the photogram and écriture automatique, and later reactivated by Rauschenberg in the extraordinary series of life-sized photograms of the human body that he produced on architectural blueprint paper with Susan Weil between 1949 and 1951, and in the Tire Print he made with John Cage in 1953. Klein’s work, then, pointed to a semiotic of cultural revanchism. Though the relationship went strangely undetected, Klein’s “Anthropométries” clearly came in response to Rauschenberg’s anthropomorphic photograms, which had been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in 1951 and had been covered by Life magazine that same year.1

In Rauschenberg/Weil’s blueprints, a precarious transition is created between the iconic representation of the body and the body’s indexical imprint through the photogram process. That precarious balance reads not just as a continuation of Man Ray’s idea of fusing pure indexicality with the readymade in the photographic field, but also, and even more, as a recording of the precarious relationship between the increasingly mechanized body and the organic appearance of mechanization. Rauschenberg’s series, then, has a subtle destabilizing effect on the art-historical category of the nude as much as on the semiotic structure of the iconic representation of anthropomorphic figures. In the transition from it to Klein’s “Anthropométries” we witness an extraordinary recoding of avant-garde terms for a culture of reaction—the nude women performing as “living brushes,” following directions from the master’s white-gloved hands. (The incorporation of this performance into Gualtiero Jacopetti’s sordid 1962 movie Mondo Cane as one of the world’s freak and floor shows seems to have contributed to Klein’s fatal heart attack in 1962.) Klein’s vindictive certainty that the reality principle of capitalist patriarchal power will ultimately prevail against the liberatory potential of esthetic practice and utopian thought aligns him historically on an axis that leads from Francis Picabia right down to the later Andy. It seems that what generates Klein’s lifelong infatuation with power (and inevitably also with its derelict visuality, kitsch) is the travesty of esthetic aspiration itself.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is an art historian and critic who teaches modern and contemporary art history at Barnard College/Columbia University. He is currently working on a monographic study of Gerhard Richter and preparing a collection of essays for publication with MIT Press.


1. See “Speaking of Pictures,” Life magazine vol. 30 no. 15, 9 April 1951, pp. 22–24.

#image 7#

#image 8#