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Yves Klein’s Art of the Intangible

Yves Klein burst onto the French art scene in 1954 with a series of edgy, esoteric art exhibitions in which he tried to capture the immaterial. In doing so, he also captured the imagination of a weary postwar population hungry for diversion. But in the same sudden way he arrived, he left, struck down by a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 34.

Klein remains in his hundreds of paintings, sculptures, writings and videos, on display now in the largest retrospective of his work in the United States in nearly three decades.

The much-anticipated “Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers,” a translation of the phrase Albert Camus inscribed in Klein’s guest book at a 1958 Paris exhibit, opened Thursday at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.

“He really focused on the imagination, everything you can’t see and touch, but it’s there,” said the artist’s widow, Rotraut Uecker. “The art itself is immaterial. The artist is there to give a body to it so it can be visible.”

Shunning the term “abstract,” Klein preferred to be thought of as a “painter of space.” He began his task with a series of monochromes, in which he tried to capture what he called an “immaterial sensibility.” They come in stunning yellows, reds, greens and pinks.

“What he was painting was representational in some strange sense,” said exhibit co-curator and Hirshhorn Deputy Director Kerry Brougher. “It is a place you move through to get somewhere else.”

But Klein is perhaps best recognized for patenting his own color, International Klein Blue, or IKB, a slight departure from aquamarine. In 1956, Klein entered his “Blue Period,” which spawned monochromes strictly of his IKB concoction, evoking, as he once wrote, “the spirit and sensibility that the color of the sky and the sea alone can produce.”

Several of these are on display, the last of which, 1958’s “IKB (Godet),” has a distinguishable materiality about it that sets it apart from its contemporaries. The thick paint dribbles into a darker IKB hue, the product of Klein’s first foray into the use of “living brushes,” or nude female models doused in paint. It would become a staple of his craft.

“The purpose of this was to be able to attain a defined and constant distance between myself and the painting during the time of creation,” the artist explained in a 1961 manifesto.

He perfected the anthropometric technique in his later paintings, including the enigmatic “People Begin to Fly” and “Hiroshima,” both from 1961. The female forms float across a vast canvas, conveying a certain levity, a reaction to both the stodgy artistic norms of the day and the grave condition of France and the rest of Europe during and just after World War II.

“What you have is an artist who comes on the scene in a postwar environment … thinking through the war and creating something uplifting,” Brougher said.

Klein later reprised the anthropomorphy, replacing paint with fire as his medium. He would outline models standing in front of a canvas with water, then torch the liquid, scorching a charred female image into place.

These fire paintings are severe. Round breasts and hips are seared into the composition, capturing beauty with intensity.

Among Klein’s lesser-known feats are his sponge sculptures, which he completely immersed in his patent color.

The sponges protrude from their canvases and pedestals, resembling in sum a placid ocean scene. In a way, Klein’s blue seeps into the very essence of each creature, bringing the inanimate to life. But a pervasive stillness evokes the stagnancy of fossils.

The expansive circular halls of the Hirshhorn are a welcoming setting for Klein’s art. “Pigment pur blue (Pure Blue Pigment),” a more than 20-foot-long wood tray filled with dry pigment, is a recreation of Klein’s 1957 original — but twice the size.

Atop one end sits Klein’s 1957 “Paravent,” an IKB folding screen. “Pluie bleue (Blue Rain),” a series of painted wooden dowels, hangs above the other.

“He really is an artist that requires lots of space,” said Daniel Moquay, who oversees the Klein estate. “It is probably the first time … that we do have the luxury of space, which is for Yves Klein, the basis of everything.”

Yves Amu Klein, the artist’s son, agreed.

“Here, you can look at every painting not being disturbed by the others,” he said. “You live in the painting.”

But it would be a lie to say something is not missing. It is Yves Klein himself.

For the consummate showman, the product was but half the art. The process is just as, if not more, fascinating. Elaborate showings and public spectacles marked his prolific career.

Fortunately for patrons, videos of Klein using his “living brushes” and creating his fire paintings are projected onto walls in the exhibit. Klein parades his models to and from the canvas like a circus ringmaster, once even with a string quartet in tow. And Moquay produced an hourlong documentary about the artist that awaits visitors at the entrance.

“He wanted people to see how he is working. He really wanted to invite them into the studio,” Uecker said. “He really wanted to give them the most possible understanding.”

In the same spirit, Klein wrote prolifically about his own work. His own words almost exclusively accompany the art. And to channel the departed artist, the curators will be posting quotes and videos throughout the exhibit’s run on the museum’s Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube feeds.

The exhibit runs though Sept. 12.

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