At a graduate student in art history, I was excited to be working at the Walker as a public relations and marketing intern when the Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers exhibition arrived here last October, after its presentation at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. Its challenge to viewers to experience the art of pure color as envisioned by Klein is alluring, but while taking a course last fall on feminist theory in art, I became particularly interested in Klein’s artistic philosophy with his Anthropométries. I decided to do some digging in the Walker library—which is open not just to Walker staff, but also to the general public by appointment—to see how Klein’s usage of nude females in these works — as both “living brushes” and “pure color” — might relate to feminist concepts of “the ideal” or “empowered” woman.
Klein’s idea for the Anthropométries stemmed in part from his practice in judo, as he became fascinated by the markings left on the mat as a judo fighter fell. His initial experiment into using the human figure as a medium dates back to June 1958 in a friend’s apartment. It was here that he first applied blue paint to a nude model and guided her in rolling across a sheet of paper that had been placed on the floor. Surprisingly, this initial work troubled Klein. To him, the heavily-coated paint traces left by the body on the paper were too much about the workings of chance and spontaneity. However, he continued to be intrigued with the idea of using “living brushes” and in February 1960 staged a live public premiere at his own apartment utilizing his new medium.Klein gave a signal to his model Jacqueline to first undress and then to cover her breasts, stomach, and thighs in blue paint. Under his supervision and direction, she pressed herself against a sheet of paper fixed to the wall.The torso and thighs of the female body had been reduced to pure essentials; to Klein, it was an anthropometric symbol that served as the pure canon of human proportion, and he called it “the most concentrated expression of vital energy imaginable.” He believed that the model’s impressions represent the “health that brings humans into being,” and that their presence in the work “transcends personal presence.”
My library research brought me to an article from Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, in a special 2006 issue, “New Feminist Theories of Visual Culture.” In “Behind Enemy Lines: Toxic Titties Infiltrate,” the collection of writers/feminist art collective known “Toxic Titties” compares a Vanessa Beecroft performance at the Gagosian Gallery with Klein’s Anthropométries, and they are quick to judge Klein’s artistic process. The collective’s Julia Steinmetz views Klein’s usage of nude females as “live brushes” as the artist distancing himself from his subject matter and thus his artistic process. As Klein attempts to create art in this detached state, directing his models to smear themselves with paint and roll on the floor or press against a wall, inevitably the artist-to-model relationship develops into a power dynamic.
Criticizing Klein for this “authoritative power struggle,” the article questions whether Klein considered the notion that those with power or authority often have the ability to remove or distance themselves from a dirty, uncomfortable environment. By “conducting” the motions of beautiful nude models, Klein has ultimate control over his female subjects, thus limiting the female body not only as an object for the male gaze, but also as a tool for representing, expressing, and enforcing patriarchal values.
Contrary to Steinmetz’s view, the critic Pierre Restany, who described his close friend Klein as a visionary who “charmed and stimulated [me],” took a chance on the artist in 1955 mainly because his artistic philosophy and process abandoned centuries of traditional, conservative, classic French art. It was Restany who came up with the title Anthropométries de l’époque bleue; looking at this body of work in more formal and even spiritual terms rather than social or feminist ones, he marveled at Klein’s usage of just one color in the Anthropométries because it “took art beyond the art of painting. The work moved beyond the incorporation of art into architecture, and beyond vibration as a sign of life.”
To Restany, the Anthropométries emptied all previous perceptions of line and form and focused only on color. It is here, he felt, that the spirituality of art is born; those who would see the Anthropométries as performance or body art simply did not understand Klein’s notions of energy or his ideas of “pure color.”
I see the value in both of these perspectives, especially as a woman. But I still find it difficult to disregard Klein’s artistry and innovation. He recognized and admired the workings of past artistic geniuses, but also felt so many traditions were far too academic and imprisoned the artist to just their studio and the subject. Klein’s use of “living brushes” was an effort to break out of this mold. He believed himself reincarnated not by the shape of the female body, but instead by the emotional atmosphere it embodied.
Perhaps a healthy compromise between these views on Klein’s Anthropométries exists in the artist’s own attempt to explain his use of the female nude: “Certainly the entire body consists of flesh, but the essential mass is the trunk and thighs. It is there that once finds the true universe hidden by our perceptions.”
(1) Yves Klein. Suaire de Mondo Cane [Mondo Cane Shroud], 1961. Dry pigment and synthetic resin on gauze. 108 x 118-1/2 in. (274.3 x 301 cm). Collection Walker Art Center. Gift of Alexander Bing, T. B. Walker Foundation, Art Center Acquisition Fund, Professional Art Group I and II, Mrs. Helen Haseltine Plowden, Dr. Alfred Pasternak, Dr. Maclyn C. Wade, by exchange, with additional funds from the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2004. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
(2) Yves Klein and a model during an Anthropometry performance at the Galerie internationale d’art contemporain, March 9, 1960. Courtesy Yves Klein Archive © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Shunk-Kender, Photo © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation
Klein, Yves, and Klaus Ottmann. Overcoming the Problematics of Art: the Writings of Yves Klein. Putnam: Spring Publ, 2007. 185-94. Print.
Ottmann, Klaus, and Yves Klein. Yves Klein by Himself: His Life and Thought. Paris: Editions Dilecta, 2010. 235+. Print.
Steinmetz, Julie, Heather Cassils, and Clover Leary. “Behind Enemy Lines: Toxic Titties Infiltrate.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 31.3 (2006): 1-30. Web.
Weitemeier, Hannah, and Yves Klein. Yves Klein, 1928-1962: International Klein Blue. Benedikt Taschen, 1995. 51-65. Print.