Bourgeois Life, Radical Art

The audacious and intense paintings of Yves Klein

The French artist Yves Klein seemed to be a verb from outer space. The son of two painters, he came to art after pursuing a mastership in judo. He believed that an artist should have a bourgeois life and make radical art. He had a meteoric career that lasted all of eight years. He died of a heart attack in 1962 at 34. His art still carries velocity and pungency. Klein’s objects and performed events are alive in their elegance, audaciousness, and coherence.

He is most famous for his paintings made by imprinting women’s painted naked bodies on raw canvas. These paintings were often produced during public performances. Klein wore a suit. A small orchestra accompanied the artist and his models. He denied the sexual element in these works, but it’s clearly present and the women, as evidenced in photographs taken at the time, are invariably beautiful.

Klein soon developed a method of spraying paint so that he could combine their silhouettes with the imprints. One of the things that is so amazing about Klein’s body of work is how he combined his diverse methods. One painting is a Dionysic array of imprints in blue, pink, and black. “Fire Color Painting (Untitled)” has blue drips made with his patented International Klein Blue. It was made from powdered pigment and a special medium. This particular blue gave his works an intensely tactile and retinal presence, cosmetic but immanent. His use of rose pigment and gold leaf underline the devotional aspect of his entire output.

The show just ended at L&M had a diverse array of monochromes, all dry, some sandy. Many seemed to have needed many coats of paint to be properly resolved. They were tablet-like, with rounded corners. A heavily encrusted blue relief reminded me of the late paintings of Ralph Humphrey. Some of the sponge and planetary reliefs were like an alien’s memories, to push the analogy, but also like rock gardens, and point up James Lee Byers’ strong similarities to this artist.

The fire paintings at Michael Werner have an interesting, somewhat violent just-after-the fact quality, different from the other works, which have the energy of an event taking place the moment you are looking at it, though they were made 40 years ago.

Klein seemed to possess a cosmic religiosity but it was cut with moments of randy glamour. In a catalog photograph of a nude model working with Klein on his studio floor, he presses her lower back into the canvas as she spreads her arms, Christlike, and you notice that she’s wearing sunglasses.

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