New York

Yves Klein


Yves Klein’s legendary Leap into the Void—a 1960 photomontage of the artist jumping off the ledge of a Paris building—has colored our perception of him no less than has his signature International Klein Blue. For Klein the void below that ledge opened onto what he called the “indéfinissable,” an ineffable, mythic state that transcended any fixed notion of time and space. The concept, however, did not exclude the constraints of the world: the artist’s act, defiant and dramatic as it was, resulted in an actual, albeit minor injury—a sprained ankle. Thus Klein’s leap invoked the notion of an invincible, superhuman artist at the same time that it embraced a painfully concrete reality. Both poles, the transcendent and the vulnerable, were startlingly visible in this small, choice exhibition, organized with Galerie Gmurzynska in Cologne, from the series Klein called the “Anthropometries,” which had not been seen in New York since the artist’s major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1982.

The paintings on view derived from the performance called Anthropometries of the Blue Period, which took place at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris in the year of the leap. With this performance, the artist attacked the sacrosanctity of the act of painting. Forgoing brush and palette, Klein conducted the movements of three nude female models as they covered themselves in blue paint and pressed their bodies onto paper to the one—note intonations of the Monotone Symphony he composed for the event. While the canvases in the recent exhibition were executed in the artist’s studio after the performances, they paralleled and refined the performative process in achieving complexity with an economy of means.

The “Anthropometries” arc records of intricate, often intimate moments of bodily contact. Conversely, as the forms that comprise them become more abstract—through repetition, fragmentation, color, or overlap—a wide spectrum of allusions comes into view. The works transcend their specific, nominal reference to the body to become fantasies of another order and scale: from ballet to sexual play to vaporized victims of the atomic bomb to cosmogony. The magical properties of fire, a central motif in Klein’s oeuvre, could be seen in the synthesis of blue, pink, crimson, and gold that appears in several works in the show, such as ANT 68, 1961, or ANT SU 7, 1960. Hovering between document and art object, abstraction and figuration, these works elude simple categories. While Klein was practically raised on the dialectical condition (his parents, both artists, constantly debated the issue of figuration and abstraction), his “Anthropometries” clearly circumvent the limiting debates of the avant-garde of his day.

In the digitized, information-driven world of today, the range of Klein’s symbolism and his spiritualism arc evocative of another era; the mythic and visionary nature of his work speaks directly to our most repressed wish to believe. Indeed, according to his art-historian friend Pierre Restany, Klein was a Christian who believed in the resurrection of the body. An obvious religious overtone does, in fact, pervade the perfectly symmetrical cruciform figure in ANT 91, 1960, which rises ethereally, its untethered skeletal appendages floating away from the imprint of a foot, its earthly mooring and the work’s only corporeal body part. The likeness to the Shroud of Turin is echoed further in the torso’s abstract resemblance to a face and by the immaculate halo of lipstick that hovers above it. Yet throughout Klein’s oeuvre, it is the overarching presence of an anonymous humanity that speaks through these forms in the larger-than-life terms of myth. In the presence of such imagery, the artist’s concluding words at the Anthropometries performance—“the myth is in the art”—assume new meaning. For it is both the splendor and the horror of humanity that the “Anthropometries” measure: the timelessness of the body and the grotesque silhouettes of Hiroshima.

Mason Klein