Theory of Modern Art Institutions

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It is like time travel to look at vintage images from the 1960s of Yves Klein creating art using the naked bodies of young women, blue paint, and paper surfaces. Watching his process of creation, it is easy to see why some members of the public threw up their hands in bafflement and disapproval at ‘modern art’, and still do so today.

It is also easy to understand the reaction of governments that provide funding for cultural activities. If the daily news is any measure, they often dismiss such displays as antics, immoral, trivial, or simply not constituting art at all.

Institutions of culture, such as museums, may have similar concerns. However, in our decade, they seem to wish to err on the side of accepting as art things that might not be art, rather than risking overlooking a work or an artist that history will show to have had merit.

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Klein himself seems to have been trying to detach the experience of art from anything that would engage the viewer, largely in an institutional setting, whether by eliminating multiple colors, focusing on blue to the exclusion of all others, by directing women to use other women’s bodies as paintbrushes, or by proposing buildings entirely without walls or furniture. However, as odd as all this can seem, he has been accepted by prominent institutions, such as the Hirschorn Museum.

His proposals fit into a continuum of detachment from the real and the concrete that has been evident in the art and the writing on art in the 20th century.

In his piece entitled “The Evolution of Art towards the Immaterial”, Klein describes how he arrived at the idea that even two colors were too many. He felt that the presence of two colors would involve the viewer in a visual exercise that he did not intend. After seeing that the viewers responded to a wall of paintings of different colors by trying somehow to form them into one coherent whole, even if he did not intend that to be the interpretation. This phenomenon reflects the institutional locale in which his work appeared.

After all, if viewers were seeing one painting at a time in a private home or a corporate office, they could not make this visual collation and re-interpretation of his paintings.

In reaction to this experience, he says, “I precisely and categorically refuse to present on one surface even the interplay of two colors”[1] In this instance, the support of institutions of art actually worked against his purposes.

When one looks at the footage from a subsequent decade, documenting his works using blue women, which are conveniently recorded in snippets on YouTube[2], it is very tempting to see this as a stunt. However, in light of the readings, this approach to art fits neatly, if bizarrely, into a progression of thought and practice over the middle decades of the 20th Century.

For example, consider Michel Foucault’s adroit questioning of the whole concept of authorship[3] in What is an Author? In the case of the blue women, there is a reasonable question as to whether the author is Klein, the woman manipulating the paint-covered woman, or perhaps even the paint-covered woman herself.

The whole institutions of publishing, where the name associated with a work is crucial, as Foucault notes[4], and the emphasis on attribution in museums are all called into doubt by the use of such a technique.

As another example of how Klein’s work fits into the mood of the time, consider Germano Celant’s encouragement of “an innocent art’[5] in his piece entitled Arte Povera. In the context of Celant’s insistence on utter simplicity, nothing could be simpler.

What does the ‘poor’ artist need except a bucket of paint, a surface, and a naked body? Klein’s technique neatly eliminates the need for the whole tradition of academic art training, and associated colleges, trusts, foundations, scholarships, internships, artists’ colonies, not to speak of the entire business sector of art supply stores.

Finally, Klein’s approach to art fits with the egalitarian stance of Joseph Beuys’ essay; I am Searching for Field Character. When he states, “This most modern art discipline – Social Sculpture/Social Architecture – will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor, or architect of the social organism”[6], he could be describing the ultimate logical working out of Klein’s technique. The artist could be the brush if need be.

There is no need for training, no need for fancy diploma. The individual can simply strip, apply paint to self, and apply self to surface. The random nature of the result is clearly acceptable. Neither talent nor training is needed. Everyone can be his or her own artist. No need for art authenticators, or auction houses, or forensic art experts, and all the institutions associated with them!

In light of these readings, the 1960’s work of Klein can be seen as a logical evolution away from art that one looks at and wonders about to, eventually, art that one lives, perhaps literally.

The readings make clear that the mid-century period was a time in which the relationship of art to all sorts of institutions was being called into question. However, it has been increasingly a time when museums have been more liberal and open to new forms than ever before. Without their support, any artist would have difficulty in publicizing their work and ideas.

This continues to be the case, even in the era of the internet. Thus, there seems to be a continuing tension, observable in the context of these readings and now as well, between a need for institutions and a wish to dispense with them entirely.


Beuys, Joseph. “I Am Searching for Field Character.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 929-930. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Celant, Germano. “Arte Povera.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 897-900. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 949-953. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

Klein, Yves. “The Evolution of Art Towards the Immaterial.” In Art in Theory: 1900-2000, by C. Harrison and P. Wood, 818-820. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

—. “Yves Klein’s Anthropometries: Selection from Yves Klein: The Blue Revolution.” Hirschornmuseum. Francois Levy-Kuentz. 2007. (accessed April 2011).

Klein, Yves. “The Evolution of Art Towards the Immaterial”, in Harrison, C., and Wood, P.. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Page 818.
(Klein, Yves Klein’s Anthropometries: Selection from Yves Klein: The Blue Revolution 2007)
Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?”, in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Page 950.
(Foucault 2002, 949)
Celant, Germano. “Art Povera”, in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Page 899.
Beuys, Joseph. “I am Searching for Field Character”, in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002). Page 929.

Categories: Artists


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