Yves Klein at the Tate Liverpool, UK
‘Let’s forget ART altogether!’ said Yves Klein, his retrospective at the Tate Liverpool is unmissable proof that he lied. Filling a zone between dazzling, dangerous and daft, Klein was as unforgettable as he was bewildering - torching paintings, scattering gold in the Seine, or the small gure in a photograph diving from a second oor window to an empty street. Such oddness is hard to express in a disinterested
museum setting: it’s a tough exhibition to pull of.
Klein was a curator who exhibited empty galleries or showed works of only one colour (blue). How can any exhibition do justice to a man who played with the
very concept of the gallery space? The risk with Klein is that when described objectively the Cartesian viewer might consider him suspiciously aky – the
solemn ringmaster directing naked women to slather one another in blue paint to a 20 piece orchestra – in his own words there is ‘just a dash of “DISHONESTY”. Nothing could refute the sceptic better than the Tate’s retrospective. This earnest exhibition convinces viewers that Klein was an artist first and a jester second; his works more beautiful than absurd. But I feel it tries too hard to convince and overlooks his complexity, the jubilant mischief, the innovative, experiential and immersive aspects of the work. We are left with a slightly antiseptic blue, Klein would have hated it.
Tate Liverpool exhibition, 2016 The show comprises of 40 major works acquired from public and private collections including Klein’s anthropometry pieces, re paintings, photographs and monochromes, some never seen before in the UK. There have been shows in commercial galleries but this is the first major exhibition of Klein’s work since the 90s. Following a plethora of exhibitions in the 80’s from Tokyo to New York, the common critical response was that they befogged more than they resolved, ‘as if exposing the fragmented personalities of a severe schizophrenic’ (James Roberts, Frieze 1995). This leaves a weighty task on the hands of the Tate Liverpool in choosing which aspect of Klein to revivify. I feel they have responded too cautiously. We see Klein the determined theoretician. The curation is clinical; the works are displayed in one large room progressing chronologically clockwise around the walls. It’s an educational overview showing a little of everything. However the space feels poorly used, art is lost in the void of the gallery and works fight with their neighbours on the walls. Footage of Klein’s performances appear limited by the small monitor screens. Today exhibitions are immersive, often spectacles, they can be Gesamtkunstwerk in their own right. To engage the viewer they should be more than simply informative. Klein was an artist who played with re and jumped o buildings, if any artist bets a sensational exhibition it is him. Although the space may be cramped and the curation clunky, I would argue that Yves Klein is an important show. Klein’s work is always a quality viewing experience – his blue pieces can neither be reproduced nor described, they just have to be seen.
It is also a valuable exhibition because Klein’s ideas are poignant and pertinent today. ‘The sky is my greatest monochrome’ declared a 19 year old Yves Klein stretched out on a beach in the Côte d'Azur in 1946. After the Second World War, while other artists were looking inwards Klein was looking up. Abstract Expressionism abounds in introspection scrutinising the self and the act of painting. Klein describes his contemporaries ‘shutting themselves in their studios in order to confront the terrifying mirrors of their canvases’. By contrast Klein’s own monochromes were hurtling in the opposite direction in a manner that makes ‘Pollock look like a painter and decorator’ (exhibition curator, Darren Pih). Klein rapidly moved away from painterly gestures, representation, and the material artwork to focus on the pure perception of colour: ‘a Blue in itself, disengaged from all functional justication.’ The blue takes on a purifying almost a meditative role. Klein didn’t behave like a painter should. His friend Jean Tinguely described him as ‘too alive. An artist cannot be so charming, so powerfully persuasive; an artist can’t articulate ideas that well.’ Unlike his contemporaries Klein was also a performer and action reverberates in his art work; we see the singed frames of his re paintings, and can feel the movement in his Anthropometries, the echo of a wiggle. Emphasising action and phenomenological awareness while many artists were struggling with paint Klein was communicating in an expansive sense. Whether a Shaman or Showman, his art is liberating.
For me the breadth of work on show reveals Klein still unpredictable, untamed and mostly incomprehensible. While the Tate retrospective’s sum is weaker than its parts; the saturation of blue in this exhibition enriches British culture. We might confuse our Koons and Kooning, Monet and Manet, but Klein’s blue once seen is always recognisable, dying our collective memory.