Excerpt from the exhibition catalog published by Aspen Art Press on the occasion of the exhibition David Hammons Yves Klein/Yves Klein David Hammons.
Similarly obsessed with the line between abstraction and representation, Hammons and Klein offer divergent and parallel avenues of accessibility and understanding in their work. Both artists have been particularly original in the translation of humble materials into poetic forms, yielding their art’s essential character as content-driven abstraction. By emptying it all out, if you will, each reached a pivotal statement of clarity in his art. Consider, for example, Hammons’s deft touch in juxtaposing seemingly disparate objects and ideas such as blocks of ice draped in furs in an Upper East Side gallery or cowrie shells falling out of a deflated basketball, and Klein’s ethereal painted monochromes. But before those statements were two monumental works, or spectacles, really: Klein’s La Spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état de matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée (The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility), known as Le vide (The Void) (1958), and Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue (2002).
Klein’s Void, presented at Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, announced his stance as a conceptualist and not just a painter of monochromes in a project that aimed to force people into new positions both physically and intellectually. For this exhibition, Klein completely emptied out the gallery, except for one piece of furniture, painted the walls white, and declared the resulting void full of “immaterial sensibility.” On opening night, thousands of spectators lined around the block to enter the gallery through blue curtains from the adjoining passageway; once inside, they were squeezed like sardines in a can to see nothing but an empty room. But of course there were cocktails (made of Cointreau, gin, and methylene blue) and Republican Guards in full regalia. Two months after the exhibition, Klein would begin his Anthropometries, paintings made with the human body as the instrument for dispersing his IKB (International Klein Blue) on paper and canvas. What had begun as a conceptual gesture for one night evolved into a practice of making paintings and drawings performatively. Employing women’s bodies, Klein used a recurring art historical subject—the female form—as spectacle in the process of performance. Yet, it is the Void, lacking in objects, that spawned continuing debate, as it had that evening so long ago. That is the work of art.
More than forty years later, invoking jazz, sound, and issues of identity in its title, Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue transformed the Ace Gallery in New York into a dark “black cube” filled with small beams of a wondrous blue light via little keychain-sized flashlights handed out to viewers at the door. The work was filled with double entendres and complex questions about race, cultural permission, and the cultural affliction of blindness (Saramago). It was also very much in touch with the void. Claire Tancons, reviewing Hammons’s installation, noted the parallels with Klein’s 1958 exhibition and the visual effect of his patented IKB: “It is that effect, ‘the pictorial climate of the sensibility of immaterialized blue’ that was sought [by Klein]—The Void.” Concerto in Black and Blue was Hammons’s pièce de résistance—no objects to market here—and similarly brought people together in the name of art.
At the heart of both Hammons’s and Klein’s artwork is the belief in the power of art to function broadly and to affect the way in which we all think and live. The conviction that art could rise to such heights is sorely missing most of the time, especially when the emphasis is on the marketing of the object over the kind of experience of time and space suggested in these two masterly works of art that could not be acquired and owned. Klein found his blue looking to the sky (nature in the real world). Hammons found his blue in the sounds of music suggested in his title. Together, they offer two ways of considering the vital importance of making art and what it might mean for a wide public.