The one thing most people know about Yves Klein, if they know anything at all, is that in 1960 he had himself photographed swan-diving off the ledge of a roof in Paris, hovering in midair above an empty street. It may be one of the most concisely telling self-portraits ever made. One reason is that Klein was devoted to the idea of venturing into the ineffable and leaping into the void. The other is that the picture was faked. Friends in the street who caught him before he hit the pavement were doctored out of the photo. But the fakery is one more thing that makes it a perfect image of Klein. He was a consummate trickster, and nearly half a century after his death in 1962 at the young age of 34, we're still not sure how seriously to take him.
Over the years, Klein's reputation has grown steadily in Europe, where he's regarded as a key originator of conceptual and performance art. But in the U.S., he remains something of an art-historical curiosity a famous name but with none of the iconic heft of that other European artist-performer, Joseph Beuys, with his signature hat and gaunt charisma. "Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers," a new show that runs through September 12 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington and then moves to Minneapolis, is his first retrospective in the U.S. since 1982.
Though both of Klein's parents were painters, he resisted the idea of painting as an end in itself. His art was a means to an end. Its purpose was to use material canvas and paint to open the way to a realm of pure spirit. Or even better, to use no material, as when he made art from fireworks or flames. Born Catholic, he studied for a time the mystical Christian theology of Rosicrucianism. His yearning for the ineffable may have been encouraged during the 15 months in the early 1950s that he spent in Japan, where he obtained a black belt in judo. (Klein is certainly the only 20th century artist to have published a book titled The Foundations of Judo.) But he would turn out to be a very worldly mystic. A merry prankster and shrewd self-publicist, Klein was a singular combination of spiritual seeker and shameless showboat an artist of metaphysical bent, but with none of Mark Rothko's majestic gloom or grumpy self-regard. It seems exactly right that during a trip to the U.S. in 1961, he made sure to stop at Disneyland.
All the same, Klein's lighthearted art emerged from serious circumstances. France in the late 1940s was still a nation traumatized by World War II. The cultural center of gravity had moved across the Atlantic to New York City. The artists who remained in Paris, or at least the good ones, were producing postapocalyptic work, like Jean Dubuffet's childlike scrawls on what appeared to be caked magma and Alberto Giacometti's emaciated bronze men. Out of the same rubble came the much younger Klein. Of course he leapt into the void. When so much of the civilized world has disappeared, what else can you do?
As with Marcel Duchamp before him and the conceptual artists who came after, Klein believed that the idea behind a work was more important than the execution. "My paintings," he once said, "are the ashes of my art." Among his earliest projects were two booklets he produced in 1954 that supposedly contained plates of his monochrome paintings canvases covered over entirely in a single color. But while Klein by that year had produced some small monochromes, the particular paintings the booklets pretend to reproduce probably never existed. Klein simply pasted in cut-out squares of solid-colored paper, each of them duly assigned a city and date. His "collected works" were actually chapbooks of imaginary pictures.