Yves Klein creating “Fire Paintings,” Center d’essai de Gaz de France, Sain, 1961.

Yves Klein creating “Fire Paintings,” Center d’essai de Gaz de France, Sain, 1961.

Yves Klein

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the Yves Klein exhibition curated by Olivier Berggruen and Ingrid Pfeiffer at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt made a stronger impression on me than the two retrospectives of the artist I had seen before. Both those shows—the first in 1969 at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the second in 1983 at the Centre Pompidou—had what I would call a mortuary atmosphere that was nowhere to be found in Frankfurt. This ambiance was in some ways justified in the first instance (an obituary of sorts, held just seven years after the artist’s death) and thus was not so noticeable, but its recurrence in the second show leads me, in hindsight, to the conclusion that the sepulchral effect was due to the emphasis placed on certain works, such as Ci-gît l’espace (Here Lies Space), a 1960 “monogold” horizontally placed on a pedestal and adorned with a bouquet of roses and a wreath made of sponge dipped in International Klein Blue (the artist’s patented mixture of dry pigment and synthetic resin); life casts of Klein’s friends Arman, Martial Raysse, and Claude Pascal also dipped in IKB; and plaster miniature reproductions of the Louvre’s Venus de Milo, Nike of Samothrace, and Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, yet again hypersaturated in IKB. Perhaps the absence in Frankfurt of works with such memorial pomp lifted the funereal pallor that had previously kept me from getting too close to Klein. I suppose I simply don’t have a taste for the “corny” or for “human sentimentality and ‘morbidism,’” qualities in which the artist professed an interest in his 1961 “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto.”

It’s not that in Frankfurt we entirely escaped Klein’s passion for fanfare and ceremony, evident in his early infatuation for Rosicrucianism; his hiring of two Republican Guards in full attire for the opening of his 1958 show “Le Vide”; and his knighting in the mysterious Order of Saint Sebastian (an honor that included a much-loved costume with a two-horned hat that he insisted on wearing at his wedding). But all the memorabilia of such follies were consigned to an appendix-like gallery off the main exhibition hall, which also contained excellent documentation of the artist’s whole career, including several hitherto unknown films. Thus, a concerted effort was made to allow the spectator to see the works first, free of the Grand Guignol–esque apparatus in which Klein enshrouded them throughout his life.

Bracketing Klein’s exhibitionism was not the curators’ only good idea. Another was to start with the artist’s first public act, the 1954 publication of the small book Yves: Peintures, the pages of which were prominently displayed in a horizontal case at the center of the first room, encircled by small monochromes of various proportions and colors from 1957 to 1962. This brochure is a mock exhibition catalogue, with a “preface” reduced to its essential role as gray filler (the text—signed Pascal Claude, a reversal of the name of the artist’s childhood friend—consists of horizontal black lines) and ten manually glued “plates” of variously sized colored rectangles pretending to reproduce existing monochromes (each of which bears a caption stating its dimensions and the location of its making from Tokyo to Paris—all places where Klein had actually sojourned). As if to undermine all claims of authenticity, several of the plates are labeled with identical dimensions, even though they differ obviously in proportion. Yves: Peintures has long figured in the annals of Conceptual art as one of the first post-Duchampian acts of postwar Europe, and rightly so. Scholars such as Nan Rosenthal and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh have attended to this brilliant object, and it is revisited by Nuit Banai in her essay for the catalogue, but this was the first time, to my knowledge, that it was shown as if containing in a nutshell all the contradictions on which Klein’s entire career would thrive. My only regret on this score was that the exhibition failed to fully expose Klein’s incisive pinpointing of a crisis of identity as the fundamental human condition in the immediate postwar period. This might have been more fully accomplished had the little volume been accompanied by its twin, published at the same time under the title Haguenault: Peintures (the name of an imaginary artist, derived, according to the décollagiste Raymond Hains, from the packaging of mass-produced pastries) and differing essentially in the captions, which indicated the whereabouts of the fictitious works rather than their places of origin.

While the monochromes filling the first room were as diverse as could be—in color, size, and proportion, if a bit less so in texture—and were thus in danger of “reconstituting the elements of a decorative polychromy” on the wall (as Klein himself aptly observed of his first exhibition in 1956), the next room, by contrast, contained eight works from the famous series of eleven blue monochromes presented at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in 1957. That historic show, which put Klein on the international map, is best remembered because all of the works there were priced differently, although they were identical in size, proportion, hue, and value. But despite this much-discussed simililarity, the excellent lighting conditions in Frankfurt emphasized that Klein had gone out of his way to texture their grounds distinctly, thereby ensuring that they receive light ever so differently, which in turn affects their hues. Nothing could be more typical of Klein’s constant balancing act between, on the one hand, the radicality of his clownish demystifications (here, his demonstration of the arbitrariness of market value) and, on the other, his recourse to a romantic mystification, resting on a traditional conception of art and “inspiration” (here, the ritualistic remotivation of his apparently arbitrary pricing by signifying that each work was actually the vessel of a unique and immaterial “pictorial sensibility”). This episode perfectly epitomizes Klein’s paradox, which grew out of his own ambivalent attitude toward theater. When asked, “Why not two colors together?” he answered: “Because I refuse in my painting to offer a spectacle. I refuse to compare and bring face to face several elements in order to highlight this or that stronger one in opposition to this or that weaker one.” Yet, ultimately, he could not conceive of any way of communicating this “refusal” of painterly spectacle other than through the most buffoonish showmanship.

The rest of the exhibition’s galleries were larger, less-enclosed spaces, which allowed for more communication between various series and a looser chronology. The IKB-covered objects presented at his two Parisian shows of 1957 (folding screens, “minimalist” blocks, as well as generic post-Cubist abstract sculptures) were ignored, and one skipped directly to “Le Vide” of 1958, which was soberly represented by a short film, probably the only way this exhibition consisting of an empty gallery can be shown. (Klein himself “emptied” a room at his Krefeld, Germany, retrospective in 1961, but any attempt to duplicate that already rather pathetic duplication would look only more fraudulent.) The next section covered the full range of “Anthropometries,” including a large and fussy vertical Untitled of 1960 (number 101 in Paul Wember’s 1969 catalogue), replete with negative imprints of tree leaves between positive blue and gold imprints of female bodies; an even larger and starker Untitled of the same year (number 106), in which eight distinct imprints of female nudes are disposed in a friezelike fashion, as in some of Matisse’s later paper cutouts; and The Grand Blue Anthropometry, also from 1960, in which the furious traces left by Klein’s “living brushes” amount to unidentifiable tachist blobs. Again, the natural light allowed one to forget the whole circus surrounding the making of these works and to concentrate on the artist’s technical proclivity. Why do the blue imprints left by human flesh indeed look so much like brushstrokes? How did Klein obtain, for example, the ghostlike vaporization of Hiroshima, 1961? Despite the photographic and filmic documentation that is amply available on the “Anthropometries,” one will probably never know exactly how Klein secured so many varied effects, especially given his tendency to cook up stories that are piously kept alive by his estate. But the welcome attention afforded to Klein’s technique at this juncture has an unforeseen consequence: One began to wonder how a man who once boasted that he made his monochromes with a roller could arrive at the elaborate painterliness of his “Anthropometries.” Was it not perhaps the symptom of a terrible anxiety born of the successful spectacularization of their making, his biggest media coup? While the scandalized daily press highlighted nudity and bodily traces, as Klein no doubt expected (and counted on), the fastidiousness of his studio technique in many of these works could be read as an attempt to dismiss any “abject” connotation (pace Nicole Root’s essay in the exhibition’s catalogue) in favor of an utterly nostalgic—even reactionary—validation of craft.

The next section of the exhibition contained excellent specimens of the sponge reliefs and a grouping of the sponge sculptures—each a small tree mounted on a rock—in a forest formation that very adroitly imitated their presentation at Galerie Iris Clert in 1959. The slight distortion of chronology here (the “Anthropometries” for the most part follow the sponge works) unwittingly confirmed that matter, or objecthood, had become a problem for Klein. As his “Anthropometries” would signal—notably in the religious connotations of the subseries nicknamed “shrouds”—his whole enterprise had more and more to do with transfiguration than with institutional critique or Duchampian deconstruction. Klein’s sponge sculptures are, in a way, the abstract versions of Dubuffet’s: His mode of dematerialization was saturated color, while Dubuffet’s was figuration.

The sponge works undoubtedly culminated in the gigantic 1959 reliefs for the music theater in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, which were immediately followed by the first “Anthropometries” and the public brouhaha that ensued. The question of how to follow such acts must have been daunting for Klein, and his various answers were not really up to snuff, at least based on what the exhibition still had in store. There were several extraordinary objects, for example, the 1961 sculpture Blue Rain, twelve thin rods coated with IKB and suspended from the ceiling, or the White Planetary Relief, from around the same time, looking like a fragment of the moon’s surface and furthering the Dubuffet connection implied in the sponge section of the show. But the “Fire Paintings” were disappointing, as were the “Cosmogonies,” in that they looked like the Informel, tachist works of the so-called Jeune Ecole de Paris that Klein had sought to debunk from the outset with his monochromes. It’s as if Klein gave up his lifelong balancing act between the production of “pure,” “absolute” objects and the spectacularization of performance. In capitulating to the latter, he seemed at last to understand fully his early claim that his pictures were only the “ashes” of his art.

Klein knew that the “Fire Paintings” would not cause any commotion if their mode of making was not duly captioned, which is why he took the trouble of having a fully casqued fireman at the ready in the film that shows him burning cardboard with a mammoth phallus of a blowtorch. The “Cosmogonies” are even less impressive, and some are obvious fallacies: There is no way, for example, that wind could have itself coiled color into the brushed circles that populate Blue and Pink Cosmogony with Traces of Wind, 1961. Others are perfectly plausible as purely indexical traces of grass, but they look like Hans Hartung’s academic abstractions or, even worse, like some IKEA decorative fabric for a child’s bedroom. Three works in this assembly were an exception and provided a perfect summation of Klein’s dilemma. Made by leaving paper coated with IKB out in the rain, they are too modest in size to match the allover amplitude of Dubuffet’s “Texturologies,” which were begun three years before and had attempted to mimic the effect of rain rather than actually register it (ironically, Dubuffet’s fake index seems truer than Klein’s real one). In addition, their process is too controlled—the exposure to rain far too short—to result in any transfer of authorship to the cosmic elements, contrary to Klein’s grand claim. For such a symbolic suicide one would have to wait for Marcel Broodthaers, whose 1969 film La Pluie shows him trying to write—no doubt a Mallarméan poem—while rain constantly washes his penned inscriptions away.

Yve-Alain Bois is Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University and a contributing editor of Artforum.