Feature

Exhibit of the week: Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers

The work of the French painter, who died from a heart attack at 34, anticipated future movements such as minimalism and conceptual art.

Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.
Through Sept. 12

Sitting on a beach with friends when he was 19, Yves Klein ostentatiously “‘signed the sky’ as his first work of art,” said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. By the next decade, starting in the mid-1950s, he had gained fame and critical acclaim by creating “smoldering ultramarine” canvases that were among the world’s first monochrome paintings. Only a few years later, he was dead of a heart attack, at 34. Yet along the way, the French artist “made all kinds of important art” that prefigured that of future movements. The monochrome works “are among the cornerstones of minimalism,” but Klein also anticipated conceptual art. He once “displayed” an empty gallery as a work of art, and “sold collectors chunks of invisible pictorial sensibility (thin air).” The Hirshhorn Museum’s dazzling retrospective brings together almost 200 artworks and documents from Klein’s short career, making an important case for him as a pioneering artist “full of contradictions.”

He was also quite frequently full of bull, said Pepe Karmel in Art in America. An artist-showman who imitated Marcel Duchamp and anticipated Andy Warhol, Klein once staged public sessions in which he “painted” canvases by having naked women covered in paint roll around on them. In truth, Klein’s pretentious, proto-postmodern works of conceptual and performance art often seem like “nothing more than a series of provocative, neo-dada gestures.” His monochrome paintings, on the other hand, are works that will last. “The seductive intensity of their colors and textures can be experienced fully only firsthand.” The blue ones really do imitate the sky, filling your field of vision and “drawing you inward with textures that mimic the wavering caused by atmospheric diffraction.”

Klein quickly became synonymous with this particular shade of “blissful ultramarine,” said Blake Gopnik in The Washington Post. He even patented it, under the name International Klein Blue. The idea of a monochrome painting might initially have been just another of Klein’s gimmicks: “The Hirshhorn shows him trying it out with red and orange and black and green.” But with the blue paintings he truly hit on something—perhaps because, as researchers have shown, “humans have a huge preference for blue over any other color.” You don’t need to understand the theories behind Klein’s paintings: They’re like direct injections of joy into your brain’s pleasure centers. By bringing so many together, for the first time in decades, the Hirshhorn has created “one of the most important shows” in its history.

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