Yves Klein

Blue and gold, emptiness and immateriality, the body and the elements: all typical themes and motifs for Yves Klein (1928–62), whose work has emerged as a key passage between postwar painting and the neo-avantgarde of the ’60s and ’70s. Klein’s blue (with which this retrospective opens and on which it dwells) is a radioactive ultramarine, intensified to the point of provocation, where, as the artist himself indicated, it transcends itself and suggests the universe, immateriality, the Great Void of pure sensibility. Klein interwove magical-alchemical traditions with ritualism and the Christian religious imagination (the idea of the icon, for example) and at the same time developed the lesson of Malevich. It is precisely for this reason (and seen from a historical perspective) that the objects (natural sponges, plates, and other, banal items) Klein covered with blue pigment in the late ’50s seem to reduce the philosophical breadth of the blue monochrome—in comparison with which such pre-Pop forms, approaching the nouveau réalisme of the time, feel constrained. The simple Duchampian presentation of a piece of found blue wool cloth, unaltered by the artist (Tapisserie bleue [Blue tapestry], c. 1956) is much more significant. It is a perfect example of mental-conceptual appropriation of the world as it is.

The same balance between concept and realization can be seen in the beautiful series of “Peintures feu” (Fire paintings), 1962, which were made by shooting a flamethrower at the canvas, leaving marks that are composed in varying fashion. Here the energy remains fundamentally impregnable, immaterial, while germinating aesthetic, perceptual, and concrete forms. Presence and concept, life and art achieve a point of unforgettable fusion. In the “Anthropométries,” 1960–61, Klein distanced himself even further from the strategies and traditional techniques of painting. He abandoned the brush and the paint-soaked roller and, after smearing the model’s naked body with color, had her make an imprint on paper or fabric (sometimes subsequently mounted on canvas), shrewdly directing her movements. The frequent subject of public performances in 1960–61, the “Anthropométries” hover curiously between nature and culture, chance occurrence and the heritage of the figure. While the imprints of the bodies (torso, thighs, and so on) are in part aleatory, they also recall primitive rock paintings or the Holy Shroud, or even certain abbreviations by Matisse or Chagall.

The same conceptual and operational attitude is revealed in the “Cosmogonies,” 1960–61, canvases containing imprints of rushes, tufts of grass, soaked plants, and so on, which were then exposed to rain and other atmospheric forces. This use of chance contrasts with the absolute and at the same time “phantasmal” precision of casts covered in blue pigment—torsos of Venus, a Michelangelesque “slave,” or the bodies of Klein’s friends Martial Raysse and Claude Pascal. The limitation of a retrospective such as this one is that while Yves Klein, the painter-producer of things, objects, concrete works, clearly emerges, his more intrinsically conceptual and mystical-prophetic dimension, his charisma, and the utopian-immaterial aspect of his poetics remain in the background. But perhaps it couldn’t be any other way, given the objective difficulty in fully revivifying a figure of such complexity.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.