It would be going a little too far to call Yves Klein’s death at the age of 34, in 1962, a “career move,” but as the exhibit With the Void, Full Powers—at the Walker Art Center through February 13—and its elegant catalog make clear, Klein had moved so swiftly and effectively toward immateriality in art during his seven-year career that for the artist to take the next step and become immaterial himself seems perfectly consistent. With Klein himself gone, we are left with only the idea of Klein and the relatively few, but transcendent, objects he left behind.
It speaks to the integrity and effectiveness of Klein’s project that the thumbnail notion of his work most museumgoers carry around in their heads is fairly representative. What do you think of when you think of Klein? You think blue—the Yves Klein International blue that the artist invented. It’s one of the best examples of personal branding in 20th century art: it’s not only memorable, simple, and representative (you’ll see a lot of blue in the exhibit), it actually represents something substantive. Klein used blue as a metaphor for…what? Everything. Fill in the blank. Spirit. Consciousness. Intention. Art. Sociologists have noted that the most aggressive culture vultures are inclined to see aesthetics in everything (fonts, faucets, farts), and Klein suffused his work and the world with his personal blue—going so far as to develop a still-secret method of adhering pure pigment to canvas, so that one could experience the color without any of the more practical components of paint getting in the way.
What other associations does “Klein” trigger? Images of nude women pressing their blue-painted bodies against canvas. There, too, the quick association is representative. Klein’s “Anthropometries” were a way of creating permanent documents of fleeting human actions. Like so many artists before and after him, Klein figured that if you were going to create permanent documents of human actions, you might as well document the actions of curvaceous young women. (Surprisingly, to my knowledge no artist has tried to find Klein’s “living brushes” in their old age and ask them to reprise their actions on new canvases. I’ll bet they’d totally be up for it.)
The attractive and tidy exhibit co-curated by Philippe Vergne of the Dia Art Foundation (formerly of the Walker) and Kerry Brouger of the Hirshhorn Museum devotes a gallery to pure YKB; presents a gallery of the Anthropometries; and allocates other spaces to work including Klein’s early monochromatic paintings in other colors, his gorgeously blue-saturated sponges, and to his visionary sketches for an architecture comprising air, fire, and water.
Before his death, Klein turned fire and water on canvas in a series of late Anthropometries that are presented in a stunning gallery at the exhibit’s conclusion, glowing gold and brown as if the paintings were in the process of following the artist into the hereafter. These epochal and profoundly influential pieces are not likely to be presented together again in your lifetime, certainly not in the Twin Cities; if you at all care about or are moved by contemporary art, you’d be a fool to miss the opportunity to see this essential exhibition.