Sunday, September 12, 2010

Figurative painter of the void

The most known works by Yves Klein are probably the blue monochromes. But the French artist refused to be labeled as an abstract painter. Instead, he claimed himself to be a painter of space. Space is abstract, but it's real. It's empty, but it has depth. In order to paint the void space, you need physical traces. You have to be a realist and be in the void. A retrospective at the Hirshhorm Museum shows many examples of Klein's search of media, tools, and techniques to express the void throughout his short but prolific career, including amazing videos of the making of the artworks.

Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void), 1960

For Klein, the void, unlike other subject matters, has the quality of immaterial spirituality. You can't say this has nothing to do with his practice of Judo (he was a 4th-dan black belt). He started in the early 1950s with various pure colors, and eventually settled on an ultramarine blue of his own invention: International Klein Blue (IKB). This "color of the sky and the sea" produced the sensibility of freedom through which the artist felt "the sentiment of complete identification with space." When I stared at the blue in the gallery, I felt a difficulty to focus. It was precisely because of this inability to fix my focal point on a singular flat plane, I felt immersed into a void - space of expanse, depth, and infinity.

Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 67), 1959

Klein developed many different ways of applying IKB: with paint rollers, sponges, and ultimately "living brushes" - the human body. In his Anthropométries series, Klein directed nude female models smeared with IKB to press their bodies against paper on the wall or drag each other on the floor, while an orchestra played Klein’s own 1949 composition "Symphonie Monoton." The paintings were not merely pigment on paper, but rather results of an act of performance. With these precise yet spontaneous processes, Klein attempted to distance himself from the artwork, and create a physical record of the body's immaterial cosmic energy and temporary presence through the intermediaries of the others. Energy and time are abstract. But what could be more figurative than a literal registration of the body?

Untitled Anthropometry (ANT 82), 1960
Untitled Anthropometry (ANT 84), 1960

Yves Klein continued his exploration of "living materials" and discovered fire. He considered fire "the universal principle of expression," a combination of human civilization and elemental cosmology. "Where the void is found there also lies fire." In his Fire Paintings, Klein used a gas gun as the new brush and burn marks as the new pigment. The process of making became a balance between control and contingencies, a dialectic combination of destruction and creation.

Untitled Fire Painting (F 67), 1961
Untitled Fire-Color Painting (FC 1), 1961

Yves Klein was not just an artist but a visionary inventor. The innovative media and techniques he used constantly and radically expanded the definition of art. His work marked a pivotal transition from traditional art’s focus on material objects to the contemporary notions of conceptual nature of art. Through the experiments to capture the void, he has paved the way for many movements of the postwar avant-garde, including minimal art, conceptual art, land art, pop art, and performance art.

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