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As we approach the Centre Pompidou from the direction of Les Halles, we suddenly see, suspended from the outside of the building, the most famous photographic image of Yves Klein that was ever contrived by this man of multiple contrivances and surprises. Klein seems to be flinging himself out from some upper window into the air above a Paris street, his arms spread wide like a bird.

“A man in space!” reads the headline. The photograph itself appeared on the front page of a newspaper entitled Dimanche. It was published on one day only, November 27 1960, and it served as a vehicle, artfully contrived by Yves Klein himself, to publicise himself and his work. Two years later this tumultuous, eye-catching man who, in his brief, seven-year career, managed to pioneer several different kinds of art-making practice – body art, installation art, performance art – was dead, at the age of 34, killed not by some self-
generated stunt, but by a heart attack.

This show at the Pompidou Centre is the most
thorough-going examination of Klein’s life and work that has ever been staged, and it is important that it should examine the man and his work side by side, not only to see what he made but also to hear how he spoke, and watch – in archival film – how he behaved.

The man and his work were inextricably intertwined. Klein regarded himself as his greatest artistic creation. Without all this visual and auditory evidence of his humour, his histrionic behaviour, his relentless and often completely wacky schemes, his work would mean less than it does and would be enjoyed less than it deserves to be enjoyed.

The name of Yves Klein will for ever be associated with a particular shade of intense blue, which was his own invention, and which he named IKB (International Klein Blue). What he did with this particular blue, the many different uses to which he put it, are in evidence in many of the rooms here. One room is almost entirely devoted to his sponge sculptures, many of which are blue; another shows us blue wall paintings and blue wall reliefs.

The reliefs and the sponge sculptures are enthralling. The blue itself draws the eye in; it absorbs and thickens the gaze to such an extent that the surface impregnated with the colour seems to have a richer, fuller and stranger identity than it might have had if the particular painting or relief had been treated with any other colour.

For example, a sponge relief called “The Tree” of 1962 seems, quite undeniably, to be in the shape of a tree, but it is a tree form that has been mediated by someone with a sensibility akin to Max Ernst’s. The sheer density and depth of the colour seem both to weigh it down and to give it a fuller presence – in spite of the fact that the tree itself seems not to be quite of this world, but to be some nightmarish dream of a tree. Klein believed passionately in the idea of the monochrome, the single, unsullied colour. He thought it a kind of spiritual absolute.

The many examples of archival film to be seen in the show give us a clear view of the kind of role-playing in which Klein indulged when in the public arena of his own art-making. He looks a little like Buster Keaton but his dapper dress sense (he is often to be seen painting – or overseeing the creation of his own artworks – in white suit and bow tie) aligns him with the dandyish bourgeoisie. Here is a mage, a prestidigitator – his visual presence seems to be demonstrating – who revels in the humour of playing at looking different from the average, paint-smeared artist.

The most extravagant of these films, and the most visually enthralling, show Klein supervising naked models as they prepare themselves to paint, with their own bodies, one of his “anthropometries”, huge canvases imprinted with nothing but the shapes of parts of their naked selves. We see the models, all elegant, all young, all lovely, smearing themselves from top to toe in the thickest of thick blues before they lean against, or lie on, the waiting canvas. It is quite a
spectacle.

Parts of this show are less interesting. Klein developed a passion for painting with fire, and an entire room is devoted to scorched canvases in smoky, singed brown. Audiences pass through this room fairly quickly: one singed canvas, we discover, is much like another. Another fault of the show is that it tends to take Klein’s ideas, even the battiest, with too great a seriousness, and that leads to over-long, poker-faced examination of ideas that perhaps deserve to be quietly forgotten – Klein’s schemes to create an architecture out of air, for example.

That said, the world suddenly lost some of its most intense colour when he died so unexpectedly.

‘Yves Klein’ is at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, until
February 5.
Tel +33 1 44 78 12 33

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