I'm a fan of Yves Klein's art. There is something unique about his messed-up theology & outlandish cerebration, his ability to reinterpret, reinvent and re-appropriate the avantgarde that is very telling of his time. Above all, I enjoy Klein's perverted sense of humor. He may have pursued his art with an obliged doses of [avant-garde] "seriousness."1 But one would surely miss a great deal in Klein's "actions" if one is looking for a pellucid correspondence between what he said and what he did -or what he did and what he meant.2 So, I was baffled when, in recapping some of the existing literature on Klein, I found Benjamin Buchloh's Klein and Poses, an article for Artforum International (Vol. 33, Summer 1995).
Buchloh’s tone betrays ideological ressentiment:
The property claim and the administrative, legalistic approach are a measure both of his mania and of the misery to which the neo-avant-garde would advance in postwar Paris (and by no means would he be the last in the decrepitude of his art).According to Buchloh,there is a moment, after World War Two when the avantgarde could've -as in the Munchausen paradox- pulled itself from its straps out of the swamp of late Capitalism. Buchloh's discussion conflates “ought” with “is” in matters of art-making. Art history (as well as Capitalism) has its Black Swans, no matter how much one milks the Sacred Cow, revising and reinterpreting in order to accommodate one's ideological paraphernalia.
The dubious distinction of having claimed a natural phenomenon (the blue chroma of pigment, or of the sky) as private property, a brand name, and of legalizing this preposterous pretense by a signature or by the quest for a patent, is Yves Klein's. The property claim and the administrative, legalistic approach are a measure both of his mania and of the misery to which the neo-avantgarde would advance in postwar Paris (and by no means would he be the last in the decrepitude of his art).Precisely! "Inventing" certain chroma of blue pigment makes perfect sense in a post-World War Two epoch where technology is driven by manic administrative/legalistic approaches and incipient shortermism.
Klein's gesture is akin to "serious" art presentation, as in Manzoni's Merda d'Artista:
As with Marcel Duchamp (whose legacy Klein pilfered freely, with no concern at all for the property rights of earlier avant-garde paradigms), it has sometimes been difficult not to resent the messenger for delivering the message (…) While Duchamp announced his decision to abandon art in favor of chess only late in his career (while clandestinely elaborating one of the most important works of the postwar period), Klein would from the start insist on an alternate public persona, identifying himself with a non-artistic activity.Who? Duchamp, Mr. Appropriator himself, inventor of the objet trouvé?
In which Art Constitution -of an epoch as topsy-turvy as the avantgarde- is Buchloh's "breach of morals" stipulated?
Buchloh's "who-copies-who" account reminds me of the Derrida/Searle debate, over the nature of "unserious."
So, Duchamp's public "serious" announcement of abandoning art for chess earns the German critic's blessing; not so Klein's "unserious" announcement after –as Buchloh puts it- "his plans for a career in judo failed."
Does it matter?
I do however agree with Buchloh here:
Klein is the quintessential disenfranchised European male artist of the postwar period: images of him (accompanied by a pompier) searing a "virgin" canvas with a giant gas-torch, or harassing nude models as they smear themselves with blue paint to become "living brushes" before a gaping audience, secure him a place in an art history of protagonists desperate to resuscitate the lost tools and torments of artistic virility.And here:
For they had in mind the needs of a specific segment of France's postwar reconstruction culture: the art world's elitist bourgeois consumers, whose political leanings seem to have oscillated between a nostalgic royalism and authoritarian, antidemocratic impulses eventually absorbed by Gaullism.Buchloh's politico-disciplinarian approach to Klein the charlatan and Klein's art are treated indistinguishably. Why? Wagner the antisemite changed the course of Western music. Heidegger was a great philosopher and a Nazi. Balthus was a pervert and his perverted art turns out to be unique. François Mitterand turned a vichyste coat for a socialist coat.
In a climate as ideologically charged as post-World War II France, many art reversionists, revokers and backsliders have been exempted, excused & forgiven –depending the judge's political persuasion.
Buchloh's negligence to address the distinction between Klein's art and Klein the person is deliberate, of course -as this paragraph makes very clear:
Klein's ostentatious association with Rosicrucianism and with the writings of its 19th-century popularizer Max Heindel (which he acquired by mail order from the Rosicrucian headquarters in Oceanside, California), as well as his subsequent induction as a knight in the order of Saint Sebastian, have an analogue in Beuys' alignment with the anthropasophy of Rudolf Steiner.Who cares? As if Symbolists like Les XX, Expressionists and other avantgarde avatars, including Mondrian, did not fall for the Rosicrucian conjuration?
Klein as haunted by a paranoid fear of the predecessor: wherever evidence of continuity or contact between his work and some earlier example was irrefutable, he effaced his traces, renewing claims for originality and authenticity that manifestly contradicted the actual conditions of his painterly practice as production and as design. Duchamp's rotoreliefs, Jean Dubuffet's eponges, Man Ray's rayo-grams, Ellsworth Kelly's monochrome paintings, Robert Rauschenberg's blueprints from 1949-51, all resurface in Klein’s opus, covered in a homogenizing layer of IKB, and with an average delay of about ten years.
Buchloh's detailed account of Klein's ethical/aesthetic violations misses the point.
Without "sampling" there would be no Hip-Hop culture. Are the DJ's from the hood to blame for Capitalism's ponderous "legalistic and administrative" system?
Buchloh, the rigorous and superb critic of the neo-avantgarde cannot understand that art is an endless playing of inventions and reinventions, appropriations and re-appropriations?
Klein’s shrill claims of originality are almost a standard condition in the responses of the neo-avant-garde to its predecessors. He is almost unique, however, in his capacity to reinvest strategies and concepts of the historical avant-garde, from Duchamp through Ray to Rodchenko, with irrationality, a dimension of metaphysics, and a rabidly affirmed claim for the validity of cult and ritual, be it that of the genius artist or of the spectatorial experience.What is to be learned from Klein?
Among the lessons to be learned from Klein is that not a single semiotic “revolution” of the avant-garde - neither the readymade nor the monochrome, neither non-compositionality nor the indexical procedure - is secured by its own radicality, or protected against subsequent operations of recoding and reinvestment with myth.
Paradoxically, the German critic now gives Klein more than any poseur would expect: How can a charlatan teach the avantgarde on revolutionary issues such as "radicality" or "reinvestment of myths"?
Buchloh's veiled ambivalence with Klein only reveals ressentiment.3
He cannot forgive Klein for being a neo-avantgardist charlatan.
1One has to be stuck to take Klein "seriously". 2 The fallacy to assume that behavioral states can be scrutinized from mental states. 3 Ressentiment can be defined as Theory's Pyrrhic drive: "Work hard to win the front, just before losing the rear."