JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 paintings and 13 photographs, variously framed and unmatted, and hung against light brown walls in the main gallery space, the book alcove, and the back transition gallery. All of the photographs are gelatin silver prints, taken between 1949 and 1962 and printed later. Physical dimensions range from 20×24 to 60×64; editions are either 15 or 30, except for the hand painted contacts which are unique. The paintings were made between 1948 and 1964 and range in size from 21×30 to 91×182. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Contrasto Books (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: While William Klein’s brash street and fashion photography have already cemented their rightful place in photographic history, this show digs back to the very beginning of his career, where his transition from painter to photographer was taking place. It provides clues to Klein’s evolving graphic sensibility and chronicles his early experiments using photography to achieve gestural, painterly results.
Klein’s paintings from the late 1940s and early 1950s are full of stark lines and hard edged geometries. Still life objects and tabletops are pared down to abstract black and white forms, eventually giving way to layers of colored shapes and interlocked lines. His early photographs from the same period follow a similar trajectory. His pair of 1949 barn sides are a positive/negative inversion of high contrast black and white, reducing the structure to lines and edges. That same year, he began playing with light drawings, creating thick, loopy movements of black on white and more frenetic, squiggly compositions of white on black; both are reminiscent of Barbara Morgan’s light drawings from the early 1940s, but are clearly part of Klein’s ongoing investigations of how photography could be used for abstraction. Images from just a few years later find Klein using blurred multiple exposure squares to create movement and bright verticals to create high impact linearity. In the early 1960s, Klein returned to the light drawings, this time hybridizing them with fashion imagery, with models appearing to juggle balls and blow smoke rings made of gestural white light. And this mashup idea comes full circle in a selection of his recent contacts, where enlarged photographic sheets have been overpainted with vibrant, active marks.
I think this show provides an important backstory to the larger Klein narrative and helps to explain some of his later artistic decision making. These photographs are big and muscular, more loose than the paintings. They show Klein incorporating his learnings from painting and extending them into the vocabulary of photography, in the process, bringing fresh immediacy and vitality to the medium. With the intermediate steps now visible, his original sense for the bold and graphic now seems entirely understandable.
Collector’s POV: The photographs in the show are priced between $14000 and $30500; the paintings are generally NFS, except for the huge mural, which is $105000. Klein’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets for photography, particularly his later prints. Prices have ranged between roughly $1000 and $145000, with the top end of that range reserved for vintage prints of his most iconic images.