Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Blue (With Living Paintbrushes)

The word “decorative,” with its evocation of surfacey dazzle, is often a put-down in art. But Yves Klein, the legendary French avant-gardist who died of a heart attack in 1962, at age 34, proved it was possible for art to be both decorative and ocean-deep. He is best known for his all-blue monochrome paintings, those rectangles of unalloyed color that are invariably the first thing you notice when one is present.

Klein was so obsessed with blue that he named a shade of it after himself. International Klein Blue, or I.K.B. for short, is a combination of ultramarine pigment and a chemist’s polymer binder that keeps it from fading. It can strike you as quintessentially French, perhaps because it shares chromatic DNA with Matisse’s “Blue Nude” series of cutouts. Klein said his art was about “the link between spirit and matter,” a claim that might awaken your inner skeptic. But there is no denying that even his forays into décor — such as a commercially produced, now-popular coffee table that encases pounds of blue powder inside a plexiglass box — emit a celestial flavor.

The current show at Lévy Gorvy Dayan gallery in Manhattan, “Yves Klein and the Tangible World,” zeros in on a fabled part of the artist’s career, gathering about 30 large-scale works on paper with roots in performance art. “My paintings are only the ashes of my art,” Klein said. The claim was not pure hyperbole. The gallery show includes his rarely seen “Fire Paintings” of 1961-2, whose tendrils of smoke and blackened orbs — achieved with the use of a blow torch and the ancillary support of a fireman with a hose — have a startling elegance.

The heart of the show belongs to his quasi-figurative “Anthropometries,” which are inseparable from their controversial origins. They were made with the aid of female models whom Klein called “living brushes” — actually, it would be more correct to describe them as human printing plates. As Klein supervised, models slathered their bare torsos and legs in I.K.B. and then lay face down or were pulled across sheets of paper, pressing images as they went.

The show includes a short archival film, “Anthropometries of the Blue Epoch,” from 1960 that chronicles a performance and amounts to an amusing relic of the pre-feminist dark ages. Klein, handsome and muscular, dressed immaculately in white tie and tails, looks less like an art rebel than the host of an evening at the Playboy Club. As you watch three nude brunettes slather themselves in buckets of blue pigment, you might be uncomfortably reminded of female mud wrestling and the possibly deleterious effects of rubbing paint chemicals on exposed skin.

If the performance harks back to the willfully naughty events staged by Klein’s Surrealist forebears, the miracle is that the paintings that emerged transcend their sources. They manage to be both formally lean and visually sumptuous. From one work to the next, their trademark motif — a body imprint with pushed-up breasts and an egg-shaped midriff supported by thick, curving legs — might appear by itself or as part of a vaguely insectlike army.

Other Anthropometries (they’re all untitled) that began with the seemingly unpromising technique of dragging a paint-caked woman across paper laid on the floor ended up as ethereal abstractions, as in one listed as ANT 83, a marvelously airy composition whose blue smears and stains mass toward the center, as if swept by a Twombly-like breeze.

There is much else to admire in the current show, including an upstairs gallery filled with the soothing sound, or rather non-sound, of Klein’s “Monotone-Silence Symphony,” first performed publicly in the above-mentioned film. It alternates 20 minutes of an orchestra holding the tone of D major with as many minutes of Cage-ian silence. You may find yourself asking whether a monotone is the musical version of a painted monochrome.

Downstairs, in the entranceway, don’t miss an extra-ravishing Anthropometrie that stands 14 feet tall. It interweaves tilting bodies in gold leaf and ultramarine with the reverse imprints of plants, all of it appearing to flame upward a la El Greco. It can also put you in mind of Robert Rauschenberg’s early blueprints, in which he and his wife, Susan Weil, placed objects on photographic paper that was then exposed to light, to create all-blue tableaus swimming with figures and flora.

It is unclear if Klein was familiar with Rauschenberg’s blueprints or, for that matter, with his early monochromes in black and white. Did Rauschenberg anticipate Klein’s innovations? Their mutual friend Niki de Saint Phalle once recalled the sight of Rauschenberg’s art dealer, Ileana Sonnabend, pulling evidence out of her purse in Paris: “I remember she went around with pictures in her bag showing that Bob had done a one-color painting before Yves Klein,” Saint Phalle said. It’s a reminder that radical innovations can occur to several artists at roughly the same time. The art lies not in the idea but in the execution.

Yves Klein and the Tangible World

Through May 25, Lévy Gorvy Dayan, 19 East 64th Street, Manhattan; levygorvydayan.com. A “Sculpture Tactile” with a live artist on select Thursdays and Saturdays includes nudity.

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