All my life I have answered the question 'What is your favorite color?' with what I thought was a clear and unambiguous answer: blue. But after seeing the new Yves Klein exhibit at the Walker Art Center, I now realize what an idiotic and meaningless answer it is. I also have a new answer: International Klein Blue.
International Klein Blue, or IKB, is the velvety shade of synthetic cobalt blue that artist Yves Klein patented back in the 1950s, when he was the darling of the French avante-garde. Before seeing Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers with my own eyes, I admit I was skeptical. I had Googled the man, after all, and discovered how fond he is of rectangular blue paintings. Don’t' get me wrong: I've been to plenty of contemporary art museums in my day and seen more than my share of uni-colored geometrical shapes. Even so, it seemed to me that the man had taken the blue thing a bit too far. Klein was only an artist for seven years, of course, and died of a heart attack at the age of 34, but that's still plenty of time to riffle through the crayon box and play with another color—Banana Mania maybe, or Razzle Dazzle Rose?
But what do I know? The thing I didn't understand is how amazing Klein's blue looks slathered on a canvas ten-feet wide, or spread out on the ground, like sand, on a beach thirty feet long. In real life, Klein's blue is so intense that it's difficult not to stare at it. The blue is so richly saturated that it has an intoxicating, hypnotic quality. If you gaze at it for more than thirty seconds, the canvas in front of you seems to take on a third dimension, as if the wall is receding into infinity—which is precisely the effect it's supposed to have. And when it happens to you, it's really kind of amazing. Very Zen—and, according to curator Phillipe Vergne, a little Rosicrucian too.
It's said that Klein got his inspiration for IKB from staring at the sky, and that upon receiving that inspiration he wrote his name in the air, declaring the sky his first work of art—which sounds ridiculous, until you see Klein's blue with your own eyes. This illusion of formless depth, a blue "beyond dimension," is the "void" to which the title of the exhibit refers. Take a moment to look at the sky one day—and I mean really look at it—and it's an easy concept to get. In his own way, Klein was a naturalist; except that instead of trees and plants and animals, he was trying to capture the essential nature of sky.
Now, there are plenty of other reasons to like Yves Klein's work, and the Walker has gone to great lengths to elucidate them. After all, merely patenting a color doesn’t vault a man to the forefront of the French intelligentsia. But Klein also patented the process of smearing his special paint on the naked bodies of lovely young models and instructing them how to squirm ever-so-artistically on a canvas. Now that's a statement Frenchmen can appreciate!
The canvases painted by the flesh of buxom women are on display at the Walker, as are several other objects Klein bathed in blue, and an assortment of photographs, drawings, and sculptures that Klein produced in his short artistic lifetime. He's an easy character to like, a charismatic showman with a provocative sense of humor and the guts to see a gag through to the end. Well before Jerry Seinfeld came up with the idea for a "show about nothing," Klein invited a group of important and intelligent people to see his new work, "Surfaces and Blocks of the Sensibility of Pictorial Intention" (a short video of which is part of the show). When they sat down, he showed them a blank white wall. They were not amused—at least not immediately.
In addition to prefiguring Seinfeld, Klein is credited with nudging the whole post-modern world forward, shifting the artistic tide alongside such icons as Marcel Duchamps and Joseph Beuys, and well ahead of the performance and conceptual artists of latter half of the 20th century, including Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Lady Gaga, and any number of other artistic entrepreneurs who have capture the public imagination over the decades. The Walker's show is the first major U.S. retrospective of Klein's work in 30 years, so it's a must-see for anyone interested in modern art—and anyone who wants to gaze at the purest, deepest, most luxurious blue ever created by a mere human being.
Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers continues at the Walker Art Center through Feb. 13, walkerart.org