Ninety Seconds by David Campany
© David Campany/Contrasto, from William Klein: Paintings, Etc
Published September 2012. All rights reserved, may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission.
Explore images and further reference from the exhibition and book here
For over six decades William Klein has pursued a creative life all his own. He has learned on the job with next to no formal training, making innovative and influential work in photography, painting, graphic design, writing, television and film. His sensibility is distinctive, while his achievements are unparalleled and unlikely to be matched. He began in the late 1940s with figurative and abstract canvases of great graphic flair. Via the gallery he moved to the printed page where he reinvented two supposedly antagonistic fields: fashion photography and documentary photography. And for the screen he has made more than twenty groundbreaking documentaries, over two hundred commercials and a handful of wildly iconoclastic fiction films.
As a New York-born resident of Paris he somehow created a highly productive kind of exile, pitched between two cultures, adhering to neither. The urge to see and engage with societies around the world has also kept him rootless. This limbo has been vital to his art but it has
vexed critics and commentators. His audience is comprised of various pockets. Those who
know Klein the photographer are rarely aware of his films and vice versa. Klein the visionary
at Vogue magazine is often quite unknown to admirers of his gritty and direct street pictures.
And the early work that started it all has been little seen since it was first made and exhibited.
Quite rightly he has been less interested in explaining himself than getting on with his work. Nevertheless the things he produced in his first decade as an artist contain the seeds. On these pages and for the first time, we can see Klein’s sensibility emerge, taking different forms across a range of media.
Born on the edge of Harlem in 1928, Klein’s early exposure to serious culture was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. From the age of twelve he was there frequently, often with his friend Jack Kroll who became the film and drama critic for Newsweek. Significantly it was not a museum of art only. It showed design, architecture and photography. The fine arts and the applied arts, from all around the world. And MoMA had a cinema too. So there was Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, Moholy-Nagy and Matisse, Dada and commercial posters, all under one roof. MoMA had discrete departments but a young and curious mind does not.
Aged eighteen he got himself sent to Germany as a military radio operator on horseback, but was in Paris by 1948, funded by America’s postwar G.I. Bill. He enrolled at the Sorbonne, finished a degree and soaked up whatever culture he could. He met and married Jeanne Florin, who became his closest collaborator for more than half a century.
Klein also met important artists such as André Lhote (who he found a little uptight and overly
academic) and Fernand Léger who blew his thinking wide open. Léger was forward-looking,
encouraging and quite uninterested in clinging to the heyday of the interwar Parisian avantgardes.
His points of reference were not early modernism or the canvas narrowly defined, but architecture and film, the street and the scale of frescoes pioneered in Quattrocentro Italy. Some of Klein’s early figurative paintings, from the very end of the 1940s, do have the compressed space and flattened figures similar to Léger’s style. Across the picture plane Klein would scatter his schematic depictions of objects as if they were loaded signs from the culture around him. They were not the typical French School objects—guitars, flowers—but angular modern forms. A metal potato-masher, an industrial looking lamp. Human figures would be simplified and presented either naked or in corporate/criminal suits and ties, going about their obscure rites and rituals. The canvases started simple but soon became formally complex diagrams, somewhere between Cubist bricolage, Dada anarchy, Surrealist dreamwork and the graphic cool of the Pop Art to come.
But Klein also became friends with the hard-edged American abstract painters Jack Youngerman and Ellsworth Kelly, who had also come to Paris on the G.I. Bill. Kelly was established and exhibiting early on, Youngerman a little later. At the beginning of the 1950s the canvases of all three had much in common. Bold and simple colors, geometric shapes and the iteration of graphic forms into sophisticated compositions. Yet Klein was not convinced by the high modernist rhetoric that came to dominate abstract painting, with its emphasis on purity of means and the zealous separation of media. His paintings soon started to look like assemblages of letters and numbers torn from street posters.
By temperament and intellect the idea of working across borders and on a number of fronts was much more attractive. He visited Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse, practitioners who were moving freely between art and design along the axis of abstraction. He identified with the ethos of György Kepes’ book The Language of Vision (1944), and László Moholy-Nagy’s posthumous opus of 1947, Vision in Motion. Moholy in particular advocated a “broad and general view of the interrelatedness of art and life.” That’s what Klein was after, even if he didn’t know quite how to get there.
The G.I. Bill supported Klein’s first two years in Paris. He continued to experiment and began to exhibit, paying his way with design work for a pharmaceutical company. In 1951 he showed in Brussels and at the experimental Piccolo Teatro in Milan. In January 1952 he installed paintings on the walls, columns and above the doorways of the Galleria del Milione, one of the key Milanese galleries. On the show’s invitation card the furniture designer Agnoldomenico Pica wrote that Klein epitomized the growing alignment of advanced art, design and architecture (fig. 1).
fig 1. Invitation card for William Klein’s exhibition at
Galleria del Milione, Milan, January 1952.
Likewise, Klein saw that the cutting edge of Italian culture had great energy and vision, while Paris was still struggling with itself. In Milan and Rome artists and designers were collaborating freely. Italian cinema was the best in Europe, moving from the boldness of Neo-Realism into something more playful. Federico Fellini’s first feature, Lo Sceicco Bianco 1952, a sweet and slapstick tale of a frustrated director trying to shoot a photo-story (or fumetto) remains one of Klein’s favourites.
Angelo Mangiarotti, a successful high-tech architect, saw the show at the Galleria del Milione. He commissioned Klein to produce a mural of rotating/sliding panels to divide a large room in a modern apartment. Klein put irregular black stripes on white, reversing the tones for the other side. The panels could be interchanged as well as rotated, making around 2800 possible combinations. And then, while documenting the installation, Jeanne spun the panels so that they blurred in the camera’s long exposure. It was a turning point, in more ways than one. He grasped straight away how the camera records and expresses, how it naturally depicts and abstracts in the same action. Hard-edged painting could turn into soft-edged photography. Here were images made in real space that recalled the cameraless photographic inventions of the Bauhaus.
He took more commissions for such panels and went into the darkroom, evolving his own language of photo-abstraction. He experimented with great energy, making hundreds of tests. Most of these retained the lightness and space of those images of the moving panels. But in the history of abstract photography they are unusual. Since the 1920s photograms were typically whitish shapes on brooding dark backgrounds, made by placing discrete objects on the photographic paper under the enlarger. Klein was using sheets of black card into which he cut circles, triangles, squares and slots. Holding the card still on the paper would give solid dark shapes but sliding it around in a long exposure would leave wispy traces in shades of grey on white (figs. 2 and 3). Half-mechanical, half free-from. The results were open and optimistic, quite unlike the claustrophobic chambers of the familiar photogram.
fig. 2. Moving horizontal lines, Paris 1952
fig. 3. Blurred curved lines, Paris 1952
But what could be done with these experiments? He exhibited some, and they sat politely enough at the small size that was the precious preference of art photography. He sequenced the best of them as a beautiful spiral-bound book, still unpublished. They could be overpainted in selective patches or washes of pure color. They could be re-photographed and blown-up, even turned into murals or room dividers. And beginning in November 1952, they became a series of striking covers for Domus, the Italian architecture and design magazine. Established by Gio Ponti in 1928, Domus had long championed advanced photography. Its editors also commissioned Klein to design the cover for a book on Italian furniture and interiors.
In his early years Klein had seen important photography at MoMA and other places. Edward Weston’s nudes impressed him, although more for the flagrant nudity than their art. The Farm Security Administration photographers seemed bold and direct in their concerned reportage. Later, Klein stole the copy of Walker Evans’ 1938 book American Photographs from the American Library in Paris. By contrast Henri Cartier-Bresson’s poised delicacy seemed the work of a rich man. In general Klein preferred the earthier, less effete attempts to make photography significant. On his shelves next to the Evans are La Banlieue de Paris, Blaise Cendrars’ 1949 book about the working class city limits, with photos of street life by RobertDoisneau; and one of Brassaï’s books of Paris nightlife. The latter inspired Klein’s first attempts at photography outside the darkroom: long exposures of the city lights, made with a Rolleiflex on a tripod. He would return to the lure of lights soon enough.
The point to stress here is that before he had entered the darkroom or picked up a camera
Klein was already an artist of complexity and sophistication. This was a great advantage.
There was no agonizing over whether photography was art or not. No rescuing of the medium
from the clutches of commerce or the mass media. Without the historical baggage that burdened painting, photography was free. It was flexible and versatile, with near limitless potential. He knew the gallery was not the sole arbiter of artistic matters, and that it could never contain photography’s spread across culture.
In early 1954 Klein presented enlarged abstract photographs alongside kinetic panels in the
Parisian annual Le Salon des Réalités Nouvelles at Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Again the theme was media convergence. They were seen by Alexander Liberman, the Russian émigré art director of American Vogue, in town for the fashion shows. Klein was invited to Vogue’s office and showed Liberman many other things he had been doing. These included some starkly minimalist photos of barns on the Dutch coast. Jeanne had inherited a house in Flanders, opposite the island of Walcheren, where the painter Piet Mondrian had spent the First World War. The barns had dark facades with bold white trim. Klein also made negative prints. Vogue published two from the series in its April issue (fig. 4).
fig. 4. ‘Mondrian Real Life: Zeeland Farms’,
Vogue, April 1954. Photos by William Klein.
Liberman was a sculptor and painter who art directed for the money. He saw in the young Klein something of his own restless creativity. Despite a lack of training Klein was hired as a photographic odd-job man. Working with assistants in the studio he learned to shoot still lifes using a large format camera and took commissioned portraits of PG Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, among others.
With the promise of more work and funding to shoot on the streets of Manhattan, Liberman lured Klein back to New York. In October 1954 he set sail with Jeanne. The city he had left eight years before was now much louder, brasher and brighter. It was also more paranoid, anxious and derelict. He wanted to photograph it. Perhaps Vogue could publish the results. For a few months Klein re-explored the city of his youth, shooting what he found on the sidewalk.
Groups of people hanging out. Storefronts, signage and the cacophony of commerce. The dirt, the joy and the seething tension. It was raw and confrontational work and Klein was willing to trash every convention of ‘good photography’. The results were too much for the still genteel Vogue. Klein already had his eye on putting them together as a book. But when no American publisher would take it on, he brought it back to Europe. He showed a box of prints to Chris Marker, the young writer, filmmaker, and editor at Éditions du Seuil. Immediately Marker insisted it be published just as the author wanted. Klein was just as uncompromising with the hectic design, printing the often savagely cropped images in high contrast and full bleed. He added a separate caption booklet of quasi-tabloid wisecracking, peppered with borrowed graphics. He titled it all with a shrieking news headline: Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels. With just the words ‘New York’ in candy-colored multi-exposure, the jacket design was a Trojan horse to smuggle in the far less palatable content (fig. 5). It recalled his deft and stylish Domus covers and prefigured Broadway by Light 1958, his short color movie of the illuminations of Times Square. In Rome, Klein knew the publisher Gian Giacomo Feltrinelli who put out an Italian edition. Fellini was impressed by it (later inviting Klein to assist him), as were Pier Paolo Pasolini and Cesare Zavattini (Pasolini contributed to Klein’s subsequent book, Rome). In London it was published by Photography Magazine. Although there was never an American edition the sensation of the book soon spread to young photographers around the world, even to Japan.
fig. 5. Dust jacket for William Klein, Life is Good and
Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels
Three more city books followed. Rome was published in 1959. Klein was in Moscow 1959-60, then in Tokyo 1961. Publications appeared in 1964. While journalism was stagnating into sentimentalism and spectacle, Klein had found a new approach. Openly subjective photography combined with vivid captions of insight and thoughtful revelation, leading the reader to the deeper truths of four very different postwar societies.
At Vogue in 1956, Klein was encouraged to try his hand at fashion photography. He admired the controlled elegance and consummate technique of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon but on the whole he felt the studio was its own little bubble. So he pricked it, blowing up faces to emphasize the grain, asking models to suck on their cigarettes rather than holding them like quills. He understood the rhythms and edginess of the street so that’s where he took the models. Up on the roof of Avedon’s studio, tall and elegant mirrors multiply the tall and elegant women, echoing the skyscrapers behind. On the crowded black and white crosswalk of the Piazza di Spagna, Rome, two models pass each other in black and white dresses by Capucci. Painting a shop front shocking pink sets off the season’s outfits and the street becomes a studio. Posing models in front of a blown-up photo of the city, the studio becomes a street. Moving lights around the models in long exposure, Klein could revisit his earliest photo experiments. He sustained this level of invention until 1967 when his work for Vogue came to an end (his contribution to the multi-director film Far From Vietnam caused a scandal in New York).
For many, Klein’s move from abstraction into the figurative commitment of street photography and fashion is confusing, and this may be why his early work has not been fully integrated into his known oeuvre. But this has been a misunderstanding. The popular peaks of reactive, speedy street photography and abstract painting coincided in the 1950s. Noting how the street photographer is intimately immersed and involved, Jeff Wall has remarked how “every picture-constructing advantage accumulated over centuries is given up to the jittery flow of events as they unfold”. It is a description that applies equally well to the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline or Willem de Kooning. The critic Rosalind Krauss suggests that in being such an energetic performance Abstract Expressionism “articulated the vectors that connect objects to subjects”, a phrase that certainly describes Klein’s visceral street photography. Ben Lifson wrote of the way Klein’s photos evoked the “insistence onphysicality” typical of Action Painting. 1
1. See Jeff Wall,“Marks of Indifference”: Aspects of photography in, or as, Conceptual art in Anne Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, eds.; Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-75, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass/Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995; Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, Thames &Hudson, 1999; Max Kozloff, William Klein and the Radioactive Fifties, Artforum, 1980; Ben Lifson, William Klein’s Arresting Developments,
Village Voice, 1980.
But it was Klein himself who got there first. Throughout the city books his camera finds the motifs of abstract art are all there in daily life. Scrawled marks, geometric lines, blocks of tone. On the page these are intermingled with snatched compositions of people in shifting array. And in Tokyo Klein folded the whole matter in on itself with a frenetic sequence of the Japanese action painter Ushio Shinohara throwing himself into his art (fig. 8). This is Klein’s own brilliant caption:
“He covers a 50-foot wall in paper, wraps his fists in rag, dips them in ink and squares off.
New York school of action painting caught on when Georges Mathieu showed, in a Tokyo
department store window [behind glass], how it was done in France. Local painters rushed
to renew with traditional callisthenic calligraphy that possibly started it all in the first place.”
fig. 6. Endpaper from William Klein, Rome
(Vista Books, London, 1959)
fig. 7 and 8. Pages from William Klein, Tokyo,
(Crown Publishers, New York, 1964)
This kind of painting had taken the performative more towards the complicit camera than the
canvas. It is well accepted now that most of the ‘works’ produced by action painters were
artistically worthless and junked after the cameras had captured their creation. Klein is not the neutral observer here. He’s as involved in making his imagery as Shinohara is with his. Klein is the prompt, the choreographer and the first audience.
In retrospect we can see the abstract paintings and photograms were the necessary bridge between the canvas and the camera proper. Klein turned to photography intensively in response to the chaos and complexity of daily life (while sensing that chaos and complexity were probably photography’s ideal subjects). Through his lens the world burst in with great force, immediately reconnecting him with the fascination and love of life, people and places. True, his photographs are layered, riffing ensembles concerned less with perfect technique than the charged physicality of the unexpected encounter and its crazy vectors. True, he preferred the ‘all-over’ compositions so central to abstract painting. True, he was radical in the extent of his embrace of chance, on the unfolding of events before for him. But what abstract art keeps at bay is the very stuff of photography: the sheer and direct embrace of the living world.
As Klein moved into filmmaking he took with him what he had learned as a painter, photographer and graphic artist. After Broadway by Light, he was hired as art director on Louis Malle’s visually inventive Zazie dans le métro 1960. He made several documentaries for French TV, including the 90-minute The Big Store, with Simone Signoret. In 1964 he went to Miami to make a film portrait of Cassius Clay. The mercurial boxer turned out to be something of an alter-ego for Klein: unpredictable, sharp-talking, spontaneous and set on doing it his way. Then in 1965-66 he made the fiction film Who are you, Polly Maggoo?, a spot-on parody of the fashion world he knew so well. It is also a film full of understanding of human character and weakness, which sets it apart from the crude ‘exposés’ of the fashion industry. The look and feel of Polly Maggoo was total Klein. On all his films he is the cameraman, fully in control of the frame and the mise-en-scène (as Chris Marker noted, each and every frame of a Klein film is a Klein photo). He also designs title sequences and publicity material. Moreover the hundreds of marker-pen sketches for his second film, the delerious political satire Mister Freedom, recall some of his earliest figurative paintings. Made in 1967, its incendiary take on the ideological tensions of the era fell foul of the French authorities. It was released in 1969, way after the ‘events’ of May 1968 that it seemed to presage. Those cartoonish figures reappear in the poster design and titles for his third feature, The Model Couple, an uncannily prescient parable of consumerism and ‘reality TV’ (fig. 9).
fig. 9. William Klein, poster design for
Le Couple Témoin (The Model Couple), 1977
The progress made and the range Klein had covered by the 1970s was breathtaking. But the direct emotional charge of his way of seeing has always divided audiences. In this sense it was perhaps appropriate that he developed his fullest potential away from the art galleries. With a few exceptions galleries prefer the incremental evolution of a restrained sensibility. Apart from the occasional institution that somehow picked up on his dispersed work—the Stedelijk in Amsterdam staged an innovative show in 1967—it was not until the 1980s that museums began to catch up. Suddenly the invitations came thick and fast. Klein found himself simultaneously a contemporary artist and a ‘figure from the past’.
In 1989 Klein initiated Contacts, the inventive series of short films for French television. Well-known photographers discuss their working methods while the camera scrutinizes their contact sheets. He returned to street photography and to the world of fashion, which embraced him as a great figure and an image-maker still capable of pushing boundaries. He extended the review of his work by making In and Out of Fashion 1993, a film surveying the breadth of his career. He has to race along to get it all in, cutting between sequences of photos, spreads from publications and tantalizing clips from his many films.
In order to present retrospective exhibitions he had to return to the contact sheets from all corners of his work. Those 35mm frames, thirty-six exposures to a sheet, were the diary of his past, a kind of automatic writing produced spontaneously and put aside. Reviewing it all was revelatory, not just the sequences of photos but the grease pen annotations. Images crossed out. Images highlighted with bright red borders. An archive of choices made. Since he had rarely exhibited his photography, least of all at the 8x10 or 12x16 scale that galleries preferred, he had to find a new solution. Why not enlarge sections of the contact sheets, showing not just the ‘greatest hit’ but the moments before and after? As a filmmaker he understood well enough the relation between an instant and the ongoing situation. And why not use the sense of scale and architectural space he had grasped so well in his early years in the galleries of Paris and Milan? Instead of grease-pen he used paint on his blow-ups, in the bold colours that he had used all along.
I have been watching In and Out of Fashion on my laptop as I write these words. The very first thing Klein puts on the screen for us is a horizontal abstract design in black, white and red. It’s the one reproduced on his 1952 Galleria del Milione exhibition invitation. His voiceover begins: “In the early 1950s I was doing hard-edged geometric paintings and I dreamed of making them into murals.” He cuts to evocative photos of panels in that Milanese apartment, and then to the semi-abstract photos that document them in motion. He has set the scene and raced off to begin telling us about Dutch barns, photography in New York, fashion and filmmaking. All in the first ninety seconds. But in his Montparnasse studio Klein kept that mural design and something of that dream. Only now, in 2012, has it been realised as part of an exhibition of early work at Hackelbury Fine Art, London and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. He also kept several of his early paintings, dozens of boxes full of abstract photos, and even a set of rotating panels. So we are able to look again at the formative period of one of the most remarkable artistic careers. And it’s all there in those first ninety seconds.
© David Campany/Contrasto, from William Klein: Paintings, Etc
Published September 2012. All rights reserved, not to be reproduced without prior permission.
All William Klein: Paintings, Etc projects and events are co-produced with the Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. The exhibition will transfer there from 1 March - 12 April 2013.
For Press information regarding William Klein: Paintings Etc please contact Amy Barder at Four Colman Getty firstname.lastname@example.org or 2030239025.
Explore images from the exhibition and book here