Art in Review: Yves Klein
The New York Times
Michael Kimmelman
25 November 2005

The coincidence of these two handsome shows is a reminder of one of the more colorful figures of the postwar era. An aspirant judo instructor turned artist in 1955, Yves Klein died in 1962 of a heart attack at 34. ''A Career Survey'' at L & M Arts has brought together 32 monochrome and other painted works, along with charming video clips and a catalog of Klein's brief but eventful career. ''Fire Paintings'' at Michael Werner sticks to the paintings he made in 1961 and '62, using a blowtorch. 

Klein was a dreamer. A self-described heir to Delacroix as a colorist, he talked about rescuing painting from line (the legacy of Cubism) and from its general condition as a ''prison window, with the lines, contours, forms and composition determined by the bars.'' He saw color as a boundless cosmic field stirring primal emotions and mystical thoughts. His shaped panels painted in solid blue or pink were fragments of infinity anchored by texture, which the colors impregnated. The sponge sculptures, which came about one day when he noticed that the sponges he used absorbed their colors, were like ''portraits of the viewers of my monochromes who, having seen them, having voyaged into the blue of my paintings, returned totally impregnated with sensibility, like sponges.'' 

He also used pebbles and relief maps of the earth and moon as surfaces to paint on. He tried gold leaf, in overlapping sheets that made a fluttery grid. He also exploited naked women: Klein painted their bodies and pressed them onto, or dragged them across, paper or canvas, and sometimes he sprayed paint around them to capture their silhouettes. There was nothing erotic about it, he insisted, but he staged black-tie performances of his naked models -- French versions of happenings, I suppose -- which dovetailed with his interest in ritual. (Judo, like Zen, has its own ritualized choreography.) 

From paint he tried out blowtorches, wetting his nude models, impressing their bodies onto cardboard, then blasting the cardboard with fire, scarring the dry areas and leaving bodily traces like ghostly outlines. 

Neither show can include ''The Void,'' of course: Klein's notorious exhibition in an empty Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, for the opening of which he handed out cocktails specially prepared by La Coupole that caused drinkers to urinate blue for a week. Klein said that he imagined the white gallery was like his blue pictures, enveloping visitors in fields of colored space. Clearly he also knew how to tell a joke. 

Klein was endearing, subversive and attuned to his day's most radical ideas. His legacy now is a distinctly Continental mix of hyperelegance and high-minded provocation. His paintings look like eye-popping baubles, exquisite to a fault; at the same time they attest to the minor genius of a Conceptual pioneer who pushed material experimentation toward immaterial ends. This was the inherent paradox in his art. 

To be particularly reminded of his ''Fire'' paintings is to see how, even at his most outlandish and comedic, he could achieve a kind of haunting otherworldliness, which can bring to mind Redon. Klein is the ghost in the room for all sorts of young art today, and these shows should inspire further looks into what he accomplished.