Prophet of the Blue Revolution

// A blockbuster retrospective at the Walker reintroduces us to the flaky, New Agey, irresistibly enigmatic Yves Klein //

To really appreciate the work of Yves Klein, it helps to have an appetite for antics. The great postwar French artist was full of them. There are the stunts that everyone remembers: He patented his own color, a rich, velvety blue, which he named after himself, International Klein Blue (IKB).  He aggressively hyped a Paris exhibition that turned out to be a room full of absolutely nothing, which he rapturously filmed for posterity. He convinced nude women to act as his paintbrushes, slathering them with his trademark blue and instructing them to writhe about on canvases and gauze. And (our favorite) he once fed cocktails to visitors of a Klein exhibition that gave their urine a temporary blue tint.

Then there are the lesser-known audacities: He wrote a “Monotone Symphony,” consisting of a single note held for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of silence.  He claimed the infinite blue sky above a beach in Nice as his own artwork.  He published his own version of a Sunday newspaper, a dozen or so pages dedicated exclusively to himself and his “blue revolution.”

All of these and more will be displayed at a blockbuster retrospective of Klein’s work opening on Oct. 23 at Walker Art Center. “Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers” travels to Minneapolis from the Smithsonian’s Hirshorn Museum on a tidal wave of praise. Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik liked the show so much he reviewed it, gushingly, twice.

So before you write Klein off as some neo-Dadaist prankster, endearing only for his goofiness — and here we should warn you that most of the show apparently consists of one-color abstractions — give the retrospective a shot. Its curators, the Walker’s Phillipe Vergne and Hirshorn’s Kerry Brougher, promise it will solidify his place in the American art canon.  Early indications suggest that they have wildly succeeded.

The brilliance, it seems, stems from Klein’s cultish reverence for the void. The guy fetishized empty space. He studied Judo to learn how to inhabit it. He joined mystical religious orders to get closer to it. He patented IKB to depict it and to worship it. He pushed his art constantly to be more ethereal, more cosmic; he was a conjurer of sorts, casting aesthetic spells to awaken the gods of the immaterial.

One thing he was not, Vergne reminds us, is an abstract painter.

The inky oblivion of IKB is not a metaphor for meditation, Vergne says. It’s not painting’s best attempt at describing the void. It actually is mediation; it is the void.

“It’s an actual representation of what he calls ‘immaterial sensibility,’” Vergne said.  “It started with this idea coming from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote ‘First there is a void, then there is a deep void, then there is the blue.’”

A Klein monochrome, then, is exactly what you’d see if you could hold a mirror up to the tranquil, thought-free mind. Stand before one and you’re transfixed, ensconced in a womb-like, sensory silence. The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl called it “rocket-fueled Rothko.”

And this ephemeral calm is what Klein was constantly after, the real art. Those things hanging on the walls are just prompts. Klein was a postmodernist — and a persuasive, instantly accessible one at that.

“The work has an immediacy which is extremely mesmerizing,” Vergne said. “The work is extremely seductive, extremely beautiful. There’s also a mythology behind Klein. His whole character. He has a very strong aura.”

‘Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers’
Oct. 23 through Feb. 13
After Hours party Oct. 22
Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave.