It's hard to know what to make of Yves Klein. The retrospectives don't really seem to help, despite their prolifigacy: The Rice Museum, Houston, 1982; The Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1983; the Seibu Museum, Tokyo in 1985 and now the Hayward Gallery, London. Each of the shows in the 80s, and their accompanying catalogues, have offered new perspectives on both the man and the work. Thomas McEvilley gave a startling insight into Klein and Rosicrucianism in his essay for the Rice Museum, while the Pompidou Centre presented a comprehensive collection of texts - both structured and informal, lengthy and concise - by those who had known Klein, studied his work or just hung out in the bar where he drank. But each new revelation further complicates matters, as if exposing the fragmented personalities of a severe schizophrenic. Many of the analyses put forward are entirely convincing, yet all seem to be mutually irreconcilable. Sidra Stich's essay in the Hayward Gallery catalogue pulls the threads together, but into a ball of string rather than a fabric - nothing really new is added and, despite the benefits of accumulated prior research, no real sense of what made Klein tick emerges from the weight of the text.
As for the work itself, the Monochromes, the Sponge Reliefs and the Anthropométries have been so thoroughly dissected that there seems little more to say about them, except that for some reason many of the examples at the Hayward Gallery were looking a little worse for wear. While there are very real concerns about the fragility of much of Klein's work, and hence difficulties in persuading owners to allow its transportation, it seems a pity that the artist of the immaterial should be represented by works that are slowly oxidising like the darkened edges of an old cheese slice. I suppose we just have to imagine...
Something that tends to be forgotten about Klein is the controversy his work produced at the time it was exhibited. While the more materially tangible parts of the Klein oeuvre have been subsumed into the 'spiritual in art' debate over the last decade, his contemporaries viewed much of his activity with a certain degree of scepticism. This is equally evident amongst Klein's close friends and the artists he worked with, as Jean Tinguely described:
'It was his personality which prevented him from being taken too seriously. He was too alive. An artist cannot be so charming, so powerfully persuasive; an artist can't articulate ideas that well. It was almost inconceivable that an artist could be like Yves Klein.'
This is a fatal mixture: Klein as visionary cut with Klein the mover and shaker, unapologetic self-publicist and creative documentor. Yet, it is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of this mix that Klein has unwittingly become the role model for a particular type of artist. There is something familiar in the activities of Jeff Koons, for example. For both of them, the artist somehow takes on an privileged role: Koons gets to butt-fuck an Italian Member of Parliament in the fantasy world of a porno set; Klein, dressed in white tie and wearing the Order of Saint Sebastian, got to touch-up paint-covered girls to an orchestral accompaniment in front of an audience of Parisian socialites. Only the means are different: whereas Koons is able to co-opt the authority of the media, Klein worked with a different vocabulary - that of official hierarchy (political, social or artistic) and its paraphernalia.
Undoubtedly inspired by Hans Namuth's photographs of Pollock in the studio, Klein was frequently photographed at work, but always in a way that made Pollock look like a painter and decorator. Klein had a fascination with regalia and quasi-official acknowledgement of his activities, which he shared with the French gestural painter Georges Mathieu, his sometime sparring partner in the slightly forlorn Parisian art monde of the post-war years. In the early 60s, Klein appeared in photographs standing in front of his work while wearing the dress uniform of the Knights of Saint Sebastian. Similarly, in many of the performance events around the production of Anthropométries, Klein began to distance himself from the physical, wearing white gloves and orchestrating events rather than getting his hands dirty.
There are frequent examples of a similar borrowing of official symbols: the documentation of the fire paintings presents the artist (still immaculately suited) with attendant fireman in full uniform; the composition of his ultramarine pigment IKB® (International Klein Blue) was patented; invitations to gallery openings were sent out bearing blue monochrome stamps that appeared to be an official issue - Klein had to take them all to the post office to be individually franked. In an age of corporate sponsorship and Gilbert & George beer bottle labels, there is nothing very surprising in all of this, but in the post-war Paris of the 50s it was unheard of. It is a strange mixture of aspirations: on one hand, there is a claim that art is important, that it does have the capacity to change lives, if only in a very small number of individuals. On the other hand, there is the less generous feeling that it is Klein who is at the centre of it all, like a miracle worker - he is probably the only artist to have produced a one-off newspaper solely about himself and then to have had it photographed on newsstands to give the appearance of a regular issue.
Klein was not averse to rattling-off the odd letter to President Eisenhower, proposing that the entire French Government be replaced by a cabinet comprising Klein and the members of his 'party' - the 'Blue Revolution' - under the jurisdiction of the U.N. in New York. This is typical of the kind of thing that makes Klein so hard to pin down: the tone of language and the seriousness of the content make it painfully clear that the letter was not a complete put-on, but the very idea that he might have been serious is hard to take in. Ultimately, Klein comes across as flawed yet engaging - his childlike intensity more endearing than the earnestness of Beuys - and despite the conflict between ego and aspiration, Klein at least had a vision.