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June 30, 2010

The International Klein Blues

A former colleague at Newsweek, a really sharp guy with some favorably reviewed books to his credit and a wider-ranging connoisseurship in music than anybody else in the Arts & Entertainment department, would gaze conscientiously at the press kit for a contemporary art exhibition I was showing him. After a few seconds of silent contemplation, he'd say quickly, but with the same flat lack of inflection one might reserve for announcing that it's yet again a problem of the pilot light being off, "He's a fraud."

Art critics often have to negotiate the gap between their own open-mindedness--instructed by a century and a half of the avant-garde's seeming excesses turning out to be right--about what's good contemporary art, and somebody else's seemingly commonsensical skepticism (to put it mildly) about an all-white canvas, a ditch dug in the ground, or having oneself shot in the arm with a twenty-two being regarded as, respectively, a good painting, a legitimate piece of sculpture, or a culturally significant performance. Most of the time, I'm on the side of the de trop work of art, and much of the time I can manage to make a dent in the skeptic's dismissal of it. But sometimes, I'm not down with the program and agree with the doubter. On rare occasions, something that I thought was hot stuff previously in my professional life reveals itself as, if not exactly the "fraud" my former colleague might label it, at least pretentiously near-empty. And once in a blue moon, when I happen to re-acquaint myself with the work of two very different artists, one example seems better than ever while the other causes me to utter to myself, "What was I thinking?" The blue moon was hovering in the sky last weekend in over the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

Yves Klein (1928 - 1962) is one of those figures in modern art who--once the avant-garde leapfrog mechanism (A is out-radicalized by B, which is turn is taken further by C, in whose principles D finds impurities needing expunging, causing E to dispense altogether with..., etc.) was put into play--was inevitable in one personage or another. The one-color painting, the painting made by having the model not just pose but cover herself in paint and roll around on the canvas to make the picture, and the exhibition consisting merely of empty space are things that simply had to happen. But they could have happened in consistently good-looking form, with some modesty or self-effacingness or wit surrounding them. Alas--on evidence of the Hirshhorn's current Klein retrospective (on view through September 12)--not.

Klein was one of those cultural dandies who hangs out with a few like-minded, self-important avant-gardettes at a nice restaurant (in this case, La Cupole in Paris), smoking and drinking and congratulating each other on how their big ideas (e.g., Klein's becoming "the painter of the void" and his "immaterial architecture" in which a horizontal sheet of wind functions as a roof) are going to revolutionize the whole world. Since Klein operated in the desperately heady atmosphere of postwar Paris, his activities naturally involve beautiful naked women (you wouldn't want those canvases smeared by fat ol' hairy guys, would you?), public performance (the models writhe in front of an audience, accompanied by a chamber orchestra), melodrama (Klein "fire paintings" done with a kind of flame thrower demand the presence of a helmeted pompier to hose things down occasionally), and elegance (Klein wears a tux while the babes do their tachiste thing). The Hirshhorn only heightens suspicions that the show is a Leonard Pinth-Garnell skit with an engaging documentary film that (inadvertently?) captures the fatuousness of it all. The pudding carrying the proof of Klein's overrating is that most of the stuff in the show looks awful: thin, overreaching, a lick-and-a-promise. (Unfavorable comparison to make: Klein's "Untitled Anthropometry" [1960] frieze of figures, with Andy Warhol's "Elvis" paintings of just a few years later. One artist knows how to hold a surface, the other doesn't.)

Not to say Klein was a "fraud." Far from it; he believed. And not to say he didn't make a few pieces of arresting art--some of his monochrome paintings in his patented, super-saturated "International Klein Blue" are stunning, and the final work in the show, an IKB relief-sculpture portrait of his fellow nouveau realiste, the "aggregationist" Arman, mounted on a gold panel is, lusciously spooky.

Fred Sandback, on the other hand, hardly ever missed. A philosophy student as an undergraduate at Yale, he traversed into sculpture--an almost "philosophical" sculpture--as a 23-year-old in 1966. "The first sculpture I made with a piece of string and a little wire," he said, "was the outline of a rectangular solid--a 2 x 4 inch--lying on the floor. It was a casual act, but it seemed to open up a lot of possibilities for me. I could assert a certain place or volume in its full materiality without occupying and obscuring it." Granted, Sandback's pragmatic modesty is appealing to an American such as I, but the sculpture he made up until his relatively early death in 2003 is almost unfailingly beautiful. Though his most conspicuous technique might seem as much of a shtick as Klein's female-nude-as-paintbrush, the results are tenfold more tender. Sandback makes sculpture by "drawing" in space with straight lines made of string/cord/yarn stretched between and among wall, floor and ceiling with whatever fastens and holds them concealed beneath or behind the surface.

Sandback's "Untitled (Sculptural Study, Twelve-Part Vertical Construction)" (1990), in the Hirshhorn exhibition "ColorForms" (which continues into this coming winter, with the works rotating out and in) is gorgeously less-is-more. Suffice it to say (and this is about all that "saying" can do with this work): Vertical lines of colored yarn stretched taut, functioning as chords of visual music. In short, you have to be there.

My old Newsweek buddy would probably have as much skepticism about Sandback's work as he would Klein's. But although a lot more words can be, and have been, thrown around in exegesis of Klein as opposed to Sandback, I'll bet I would have stood a much better chance of convincing him about "Sculptural Study" than I would have about "Anthropometry." Mostly by saying nothing.

June 30, 2010 1:32 PM | | Comments (0)

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