In the trajectory of my personal art career there may be no more important artist than Yves Klein. His personal story and his incredibly prolific body of work moved me deeply early on. I remember in 1983 tucking into an over-sized chair and devouring the Rice University monograph for the Houston retrospective. I was attending a six-week master class in painting at Southampton College at the time and the die was cast. With essays by Pierre Restany and Thomas McEvilley, Klein’s life and work came alive in my imagination. His aesthetic enterprise is as fresh and relevant today as it was in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Whenever I encounter the paintings in person the work retains all of the shamanistic performance magic coupled with a tangible pictorial beauty. That he died in 1962, the year I was born, only further solidified my connection to him. And to contemplate that he was only 34 when he passed away is staggering.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Klein’s oeuvre I shall try to make a glancing attempt at an introduction without launching into the doctoral thesis I chose not to pursue. Klein was of his time and ahead of it at every turn. With a series of early monochromes, he chose to create abstract paintings rather than abstractions, a distinction that artists relentlessly wrestle with to this day. He imbued cosmology into the choice of color. He also understood intuitively that there was no line between art and artist. By this I mean that every action, choice or deed bore the full weight of his artistic enterprise.
Privately he was often racked with doubt and insecurity. Certainly he never saw financial security from his endeavors in his lifetime. Nonetheless, Klein became a cult of personality by unflappable conviction, optimism and productivity. Yes, his intellect and artistic curiosity lead to manifestos and bold, polarizing positions. But throughout he created tangible work (paintings, sculptures, performances, a symphony and murals) that set out to prove his far-flung ideologies.
Lastly, I believe one can see the blueprint of the last 50 years of art history in his oeuvre. He was a prophet who gave license to several generations of artists who would follow his lead. Simply put, he made the impossible, possible.
So it was with quite some delight that I stumbled upon a couple of wonderful videos on YouTube that make archival footage of my hero available. I was familiar with the range of B&W photographs which not only documented his career but also perpetuated his mythology. I had never dreamed that there were films as well. In the first of these videos M. Klein is seen conducting a performance of Anthropometries in which female nude models lathered themselves with his signature International Klein Blue paint and pressed their bodies against canvas. The second part is of a very rare session with two models using a fire painting technique. The first Part is in Black and White and the second is in Color. Together they last a little under 7 minutes.
The second video is a short 2 min piece courtesy of the Hirshorn Museum in DC. It, too, highlights the performative Anthropometries, this time with a single model rolling vertically across the canvas. I love the sight of him on a ladder for a different perspective, with a dangling cigarette.
As a final resource to the remarkable gifts of this lasting artist of magic and imagination I highly recommend the Yves Klein Archives which has a stunning assembly of his paintings and sculptures on-line. (hot link provided) There are numerous extra videos and 315 stills and exhibition invitations in the documents section. All available in both French and English. And as a final postscript, I do wish I could have traveled to either Washington DC or Minneapolis to witness the retrospective which just closed. Both the Walker Art Center and The Hirshorn Museum have excellent resources on their websites that I urge the curious to explore.
– Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, February 16, 2011