Yves Klein and the art of blue -- plus a fresh look at Grandma Moses
New York — I'm fascinated by the fact that something considered of little interest or importance for thousands of years can suddenly attain the high status of art.
Who before the Constructivists, for instance, would have held that a work of art could consist of nothing but a circle, a square, and a line? And who before Jackson Pollock would have insisted that art could be made out of dribbles of paint?
But even more important, what period before our own would have accepted such work as art?
The answer, of course, is none. We have the distinction of having dramatically extended the traditional perception of what can be considered art, the first to lift such things as paper cutouts, blobs of pure color, bits of wire and tin, splashes of black paint, and yards of paper ribbon from lowly anonymity to the exalted position of art.
Hardly a week passes that I'm not confronted by a new object claiming to be art. If it isn't an exhibition of paintings whose creator insists they be hung upside down, it's a long piece of string stretched across one end of an otherwise empty gallery. The list goes on, and it takes an increasing amount of patience, curiosity, caring, and thought to distinguish eventually the art from the nonart.
Even color gets into the act. When Ad Reinhardt started painting and exhibiting his ''black paintings'' a little over 20 years ago, we didn't at first know what to make of them. The same applied to the one-color minimalist creations that began appearing two or three years later.
It seemed logical to assume then (and it still does to many today) that a work predicated upon color required at least two distinct hues to qualify as art.
That view, over the years, has been modified somewhat. At least that was the impression I received while viewing the current Yves Klein retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum here. What had shocked so many when Klein first exhibited his solid-blue canvases and sculptures in the 1950s and very early 1960s now seems acceptable to most of the art community as art.
This exhibition - which opened originally last spring at the Institute for the Arts, Rice Museum, Houston - consists of approximately 100 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper gathered from more than 50 American and European collections. Scattered among them are numerous photographs and other forms of documentation.
Klein's career was short but very influential. It began in the early 1950s, and ended with his passing in France in 1962 at the age of 34. During that period, his theories and art pointed the way toward Minimalism and Conceptualism and influenced the development of environmental, space-light, and body art. He is best remembered, however, as the ''inventor'' of International Klein Blue, a particularly rich and deep ultramarine blue which he used exclusively in large numbers of his works, and for which he actually received a patent in May 1960.
Klein's favorite blue is very much in evidence in this exhibition. It can be found in small sketches and good-size paintings, on various sculptures and objects, and even on a large portion of the museum's ground floor - which has been turned blue through the agency of powdered ultramarine pigment. The effect is quite striking, with a series of solid-blue sponge paintings, in particular, making an excellent case for the theory that art can consist of only one color.
I was less impressed, however, by what else Klein had up his creative sleeves. Most of his ''Cosmogonies,'' fashioned by allowing natural forces such as rain and wind to act upon painting surfaces with little or no interference by the artist, are just plain dull. And all but one or two of his ''Anthropometries ,'' produced by pressing the paint-covered bodies of nude women against paper or fabric, are more decoration than art. Even his ''technique'' of creating images by applying fire to painted surfaces produced little but novelty effects.
In addition, quite a few of Klein's pieces seem rather trite, and his overall attitude toward his art just a bit pretentious. After all, what matters in art is what is communicated from creator to viewer, not the nature of the medium.
Even so, it's an interesting show, because it reminds us of what the international art community was deeply concerned about 20 to 30 years ago. After its closing at the Guggenheim on Jan. 9, it will travel to the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris (Feb. 17-May 1983). Grandma Moses revisited
I've never, over the years, taken the primitive paintings of Grandma Moses very seriously. They were attractive enough, and celebrated life in a manner I admired, but there was an excessive sweetness about those I saw that kept me at a distance. And the extraordinary publicity her ''discovery'' at the age of 80 stirred up didn't help, either. Anyone paying serious attention to it would have thought her one of the great finds of the century, and as important a ''primitive'' as Henri Rousseau.
Over the past few years, however, I've seen a few of her paintings here and there that caused me to question my earlier opinion. And just today I saw a loan exhibition of her most significant works that threw an entirely new light on the matter.
The exhibition is ''Grandma Moses: The Artist Behind the Myth,'' on view at the Galerie St. Etienne here. It includes a large selection of her best paintings, together with numerous sketches, pictorial sources from which she drew inspiration, and tracings.
What comes across in this show is a wonderfully pristine and warmhearted accounting of rural American life toward the end of the 19th century and during the first few decades of the 20th; also, the fact that Grandma Moses, at her best, was an excellent painter with a remarkably subtle sense of color and an outstanding gift for compositional placement and design.
Each of her paintings is a tiny world populated by everything she remembered or fancied about the life she had lived or was living. Each of them has a charming innocence that reminds me of medieval and early Renaissance depictions of the Garden of Eden. They are so full of life that even such a common event as taking in the laundry has the appearance of a celebration.
In this respect, she resembles Pieter Bruegel. In fact, of all the great figures of art history, Bruegel would have understood and appreciated her best. The two artists viewed humanity and its relationship to landscape in much the same way, and both viewed painting as a celebratory act. One may have been an artist of genius and the other an artist of talent, but in the simplest sense, they shared the same artistic vision.
It's a delightful show - especially for those who still have doubts about Grandma Moses' qualities as an artist.
At the Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, through Jan. 8.