Pollock and Klein: A Bigger Splash at Tate

What makes Pollock and Klein the heroes of painting after performance?

Contemporary art came to do many things differently. Just one, was the manner in which painting re-aligned maker with product. Avant-garde art challenged capitalists’ claims to art as a commodity; and one way this was seen in the fifties, was Jackson Pollock’s refashioning of process – his action painting weakened the power of the finished art object and so the ability of a buyer to take ownership over the painting in its fullness. Friends filmed Pollock at work (which – ironically – he complained made him subconscious and stiff), so that they could record the artist’s physical engagement with his product. The two were intimately linked – the artist’s body, and his art.

Pollock puts himself into the artwork – his handprint stamps his work. He enacts the painting in the way in which he paints, and in doing so he advocates the earliest form of performance art. He didn’t want to be, but he had to be (exemplified by the video), conscious of his body, for he involves it all. One wrong-step, and he upsets the whole balance of the piece; its energy driven by the thrust of his arm (foremost) from which the paint is spun off is a dazzling array of directions – any of which could be a mini disaster…but it isn’t. This is the bigger splash. The way in which the paint is applied is onomatopoeic. It sounds as well as sits on the surface. It arrives by surprise. It’s rhythmic, it’s textured; it’s dynamic, it’s alive.

That’s the innovation that Pollock brought on in painting. That’s the feeling that artists, critics, the general public had in front of Pollock’s work. They felt alive, and in that, painting was given a new lease of live. It was brought to new daring intimacy with the viewer. It approached, invited, beckoned, and seduced. It had all the powers a person had.

Yves Klein had a similar realisation a decade later. He stripped painting bare. Bare of its palette – restricting its range to one, and in Klein’s eyes; the only one: International Klein Blue. A striking blue. Rich, but bright. It’s about the most vivid colour you can find.

In choosing just one, he challenged the human response to colour which stands that polychromy is the perfect expression of life in its fullness. I believe his monochrome painting lack none of the vivacity of life established in Pollock’s vibrant action paintings of the decade previous. ‘Anthropometry of the Blue Era’ (1960) may be altogether monotone but it’s not boring.

Klein thoroughly challenged the role of colour in describing the dynamism of the world while Pollock had relied on it still. Without the breadth and boldness of Pollock’s colour, the slashes of paint would appear sinister. Painting had been clinging onto life by the skin of its teeth hoping that colour would be its saving grace. Synthetic colours – man-made shades from pre-mixed tubes – had desperately attempted to characterise the vibrancy of 20th century modern life with all the dazzle society told them it had. Monet found the rarest of sensations in light – ones as luminescent as the pigeon’s breast (one writer said) – in order that he might be able to paint something unseen in paint; something brighter, illustrious, and futuristic. The Fauves, the Futurists, and the Formalists – their work would be nothing without the powerful effect of colour.

Colour had revived painting, but now something else was to, it was a dramatic re-engagement with the body. Klein reshaped painting like Manet, Degas and Bonnard had begun to do in painting the scantily dressed French. But Klein, quite literally dressed his ladies in paint. In the aforementioned film – ‘Anthropometry of the Blue Era’ (1960) – Klein has nude models douse themselves in International Blue paint. Some stand, some roll, some slide in slick paint. But they do not smother, they paint they forms so that when they make contact with the floor – a paper canvas laid out to be filled – it is bodily forms and not paint that is described on the sheets. Is it sexy? Yes. Is it smarmy – one fine step from.

He started a revolution – ‘A Bigger Splash’ gathers much proof of it. Twenty years of [ever more erotic] action painting, the momentum only curbed because of Feminists’ outcries. For there came another turning point, a birth and rebirth, when the Viennese Actionists transformed Klein’s frivolous, but mostly harmless action painting, into sexual and artistic carnage – distasteful destruction. And here, I have to admit, is where I lost interest in the exhibition.

The Tate seemed unable to provide a great case for painting after the Viennese disaster. The art that came before was captivating. What came after, closer to a belly-flop than a big splash.



This article is based upon my visit to ‘A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance’ which is at Tate Modern until 1 April. Buy tickets online or at the gallery.




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