Monday, February 25, 2008

Anthropométries and Fire Paintings, Yves Klein - two performances, 1960

During the last two years of his life Yves Klein devoted himself to the creation of large-scale "Fire Paintings" and "Anthropometries"--body prints made by nude, usually female models covered in blue paint and directed in their movements by Klein. At the Ludwig, these works were shown in an immense, all-white concluding gallery. The room was divided diagonally by a free-standing white wall about 30 feet high, on top of which was set a vast horizontal disk of white scrim; the disk was dramatically lit from below so that, stretching out over the gallery, it seemed to hover weightlessly in space. The dazzling whiteness of the enormous room created a startling sci-fi setting for Klein's most flamboyant works.

The 10 "Anthropometries" on display ranged from modest single-figure works to a sprawling 9-by-14-foot canvas in which the human forms have become quite illegible and all that is visible is a central expanse of smeared blue pigment on a white ground. In their insistent figural quality, some of the works are strikingly reminiscent of Rauschenberg's blueprints of outlined bodies from the late '40s. Klein, however, continued to vary the details of his presentation: the works are carried out sometimes on linen, sometimes on unpigmented white silk. Some works are made by means of straightforward body prints, others by spray-painting around the models' bodies. Some works are meant to be hung conventionally on the wall, others are allowed to "float" upright within a light-blue Plexiglas box. As the constantly playing video monitor in the gallery confirmed, it remains difficult to separate these works from the film footage shot in 1960 of Klein in action at the Galerie Internationale d'Art Contemporain in Paris. The film portrays a dapper Klein in formal attire, accompanied by a small orchestra, directing three nude models before an audience of terminally jaded members of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie.

The dozen "Fire Paintings" included both minimalistic pieces created by singeing a bare canvas with the flames of Bunsen burners and epic-scale works whose dramatic molten forms were produced with the aid of a flame-thrower. There were also four "Fire-Color" works, all modest in size, in which flames were directed at pigment-covered canvases. The resulting distressed surfaces are animated by scorched and reticulated puddles of color. Klein's carefully staged making of these pieces, too, was shown via period film footage on video monitors in the gallery.

Despite their imposing size and unusual means of fabrication, Klein's "Anthropometries" and the "Fire Paintings" seem visually and conceptually a step backward--a return to the congealed formulas of French painterly abstraction and Tachisme of the early '50s. They are, in the end, rather conventional expressionist paintings arrived at by unconventional methods. The same can be said of Klein's late "Cosmogonies," works made by exposing painted canvases to the effects of rain, wind and flowing water. Like many artists in the 1960s, Klein may have sensed the possibilities of nonmanual mark-making procedures; unfortunately he never took the time to carry out more than a small series of very uneven works. Instead, during the last years of his life he relentlessly courted mass-media attention with ever more theatricalized performances; in the process he settled for increasingly predictable pictorial results.

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