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Writer to Writer: John Yau on Yves Klein

You may know John Yau as the arts editor for The Brooklyn Rail, for his books on artists–A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns (D.A.P., 2009), The United States of Jasper Johns (1996) and In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol (1993), or his collections on poetry Paradiso Diaspora (Penguin, […]

You may know John Yau as the arts editor for The Brooklyn Rail, for his books on artists–A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns (D.A.P., 2009), The United States of Jasper Johns (1996) and In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol (1993), or his collections on poetry Paradiso Diaspora (Penguin, 2006), Ing Grish, with Paintings by Thomas Nozkowski (Saturnalia, 2005), Borrowed Love Poems (Penguin, 2002), Forbidden Entries (Black Sparrow, 1996), Berlin Diptychon with Photographs by Bill Barrette (Timken, 1995), Edificio Sayonara (Black Sparrow, 1992), Corpse and Mirror (Holt & Rinehardt, 1983) to name a few. This list doesn’t include his novels or artists’ books, but the point is that Yau is a prolific writer who’s work isn’t limited to one genre. Same is true of the artist Yves Klein, who Yau will be “channeling” in his talk this Thursday as part of a Free Verse/École de Klein program copresented by Rain Taxi Review of Books. If you’re curious to know more about the Klein-Yau connection come to the talk. Below is an interview to whet your appetite.

Portrait of John Yau. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

What is it about Yves Klein that you admire?

The particularities of the dance between eye and mind his work starts.

How and when did you first get into writing?

I started writing in high school and so far I haven’t stopped.

You write art criticism, poetry, prose, and fiction–can you speak to how you balance your many-sided practice and how one type of writing informs another?

I don’t know that I balance them. It seems that each calls to me in a different way, and it is my responsibility to pay attention to the questions that are being asked.

The critic Pierre Restany was a champion of Klein’s work and helped bring him notoriety in the art world. How has the role of critic changed or stayed the same since the Restany/Greenberg era? How has your own relationship/attitude to criticism changed over the years?

It has often been repeated that critics have no power, meaning they don’t effect what takes in the marketplace of art. I am not interested in that reality. I am interested in the conversation that art engenders, and I participate in that. I am interested in the history of art that is submerged by the story that is being told. Even when an artist is well-known, the story that is being told about his or her work often submerges another story.

Can you talk about what was happening in the avant-garde literary circles of Klein’s era?

A lot was going in America between 1950 and 1962, much of the effort focusing on how to make the poem modern and responsive to the world after World War II. There were older poets such as William Carlos William; poets associated with Black Mountain College (Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn); independent figures (Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov); poets associated with the New York painters (John Ashbery, Frank OHara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest); poets in and around San Francisco (Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser); Allen Ginsberg. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

How does this experimental poetry connect with Klein’s work and your own?

They were all trying to get beyond the habits of thinking that were pervasive and repressive.

What artists and poets have been most influential to you and your writing?

The list is so long I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Can you give any teasers for what you might read next Thursday?

So far—and this of course may change—I am thinking of reading a new piece that is neither an essay nor a poem. It is a monologue and/or daydream in which Yves Klein talks to someone (you, whoever you are) (thinks to himself) about art and life.

Given your history of working collaboratively on artists books, is there someone you’d like to collaborate with on a future project?

There are many artists I would love to work with.

A new limited edition artist's book written by John Yau, artwork by Max Gimblett abd published by Granary Press, New York in 2010 left: Max and John Yau at Max's Bowery Studio (December 2008) photo: Matt Jones, NY