William Klein: YES, Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948-2013 @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, including paintings, photographs, films, drawings, books, and other ephemera, displayed in ten numbered sections on the second and third floors of the museum. The exhibit was organized by David Campany.

The following works are included in the show:

1 From Painting to Abstract Photography

  • 1 oil on wood, c1949
  • 3 oil on canvas, c1949, c1952
  • 1 gelatin silver print with transparent orange filter, c1952
  • 2 gelatin silver prints with yellow paint, c1952
  • 1 gelatin silver print with paint, c1952
  • 8 gelatin silver prints, c1952, c1952/2012
  • 1 gelatin silver print hand-colored, c1952
  • 2 gelatin silver prints with paper collage, c1952
  • 1 gelatin silver print on colored paper, c1952
  • 1 gelatin silver print with transparent red filter and paper collage, c1952
  • (in vitrine) 8 magazine covers, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1965
  • (in vitrine) 1 book maquette (gelatin silver prints mounted on cardboard with spiral binding), c1952
  • 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints mounted on double-sided wood panel, c1952
  • (in vitrine) 10 gelatin silver prints, c1952, c1953, 1960 (portraits, installation views); 1 exhibition card, 1952
  • 1 chromogenic print, c1952/2012
  • (in vitrine) 2 magazine spreads, 1952, 1954; 2 record covers, 1954, 1961
  • 1 set of preliminary sketches (mixed media on paper), c1952

2 New York

  • 1 ink, pencil, and colored pencil on paper, c1955
  • 51 gelatin silver prints, 1954/1996, 1955/1995, 1955/1996, 1955/1999, 1955/2012, 1955/2016
  • 1 pigment print facsimile
  • 1 video page through of photobook (shown in kiosk)
  • 1 single channel video, 1958, 10 minutes 19 seconds (shown on large video screen)

3 Paris

  • 10 gelatin silver prints, 1963/2005, 1964/2002, 1968/2005, 1972/1986, 1982/1986, 1982/2005, 1983/2005, 1989/2014, 2000
  • 2 chromogenic prints, 1986/2005, 2000

4 Rome

  • 15 gelatin silver prints, 1956/2005, 1956/2013, 1956/2016
  • 1 video page through of photobook (shown in kiosk)

5 Fashion

  • 17 gelatin silver prints, 1957/1994, 1960/2016, 1961/2016, 1962/2016, 1963/1994, 1963/2016, 1965/2016, 1992/1994
  • 6 pigment prints, 1956/2016, 1959/2012, 1960/2012, 1962/2016
  • 4 digital inkjet prints, 2001, 2003, 2006
  • 1 video page through of Vogue work, 1954-1968 (shown on video screen)

(Africa)

  • 1 chromogenic print, 1963
  • 1 magazine spread, 1965

6 Moscow

  • 23 gelatin silver prints, 1959/1997, 1960/1997
  • 1 video page through of photobook (shown in kiosk)

7 Tokyo

  • 14 gelatin silver prints, 1961, 1961/2005, 1961/2012, 1961/2013
  • 1 video page through of photobook (shown in kiosk)
  • 1 single channel video, 1961, 27 minutes 58 seconds (shown on large video screen)

8 Films

  • 4 pigment prints, 1966, 1968
  • 2 gelatin silver prints (by Jürgen Vollmer), 1965/1994, 1968/1994
  • 1 digital inkjet print poster, 1966
  • 1 set of 18 pigment prints (by Jürgen Vollmer), 1965-1966
  • 1 inkjet print, 1966
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1964-1974
  • 2 chromogenic prints, 1974, 1976
  • 3 offset lithograph posters, 1974, 1977
  • 8 felt tip pen on paper, 1967
  • 2 digital inkjet prints, 1980
  • 1 single channel video, 22 minutes 9 seconds, with short excerpts from various films (shown on three large video screens)
  • Various facsimile posters

9 Painted Contacts

  • 17 gelatin silver prints with applied enamel, 1955/later, 1961/later, 1963/1992, 1982/later, 1987, 1987/1993, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1998, 2000/2008, 2013

10 Brooklyn

  • 35 pigment prints, 2013

(Installation shots and film stills below.)

Comments/Context: By design, retrospective exhibitions offer us the opportunity to step back from a photographer’s best known or most beloved works and see the broader arc of his or her whole career. And in an artistic career that might span half a century or more, there are inevitably going to be highs and lows, as well as moments of both intense productivity and risk-taking transition. What superlative retrospectives do is synthesize all of that creative complexity down into a clear through line, amplifying the artist’s most durable successes (now much more visible, with the benefit of hindsight) while providing a thoughtfully edited summary of the artistic progression that took place along the way.

But for prolific, multi-talented artists like William Klein, their sprawling spread of interests, directions, and approaches only adds to the confusion about how we might define or succinctly bound which of their many artistic achievements might be the most durably important. And while this retrospective is hosted at the ICP, which would naturally imply a focus on Klein’s photographic output, in Klein’s case, while photography was undeniably one of his strengths, an equally strong case can be made for Klein’s talents in film, graphic design, and other mediums. This truth forces us to dig deeper, beyond simply a parade of great photographs, in search of something more fundamentally original about Klein’s artistic vision (and personality), and how he then leveraged that unique eye in a lifetime of different artistic pursuits.

An artist’s early work is often tricky to wrestle with, as it typically predates a more mature artistic style, but might very well include critical impulses and ideas that will surface much later. Klein’s story begins with painting, in the late 1940s in the studio of Fernand Léger in Paris, where Klein was a student. Klein’s paintings from that time are filled with an effort to find flatness, to reduce representational three dimensionality down to two dimensions of abstraction. And while Klein’s canvases got more pared down and geometric in the following few years, Léger counseled him to move on from painting and embrace the newer mediums of photography, film, and design. This turned out to be a lightning strike insight for Klein, as in 1952, he burrowed into the darkroom to make a feverishly obsessive run of abstract photograms.

The first section of this show is filled with examples from this body of work, and what comes through is that not only was Klein inherently interested in the simplified geometries and graphic qualities of triangles, circles, diamonds, chevrons, and rectangles (in both black and white, and with pops of primary color), he was particularly enthralled by introducing motion into this controlled world of abstraction, which had been difficult in the realm of painting. In these photograms, Klein set up graphic arrangements and then deliberately interrupted them with energetic gestural motion, creating expressive drifts, sweeps, blurs, swirls, connectors, and other chance artifacts. Klein then repurposed his bold compositions for magazine covers and interior design elements, crafting an inventive set of spinning wall panels for an architectural client, where Klein’s monochrome dots and diamonds seem to shimmer and dissolve with unexpected vitality. These early works feel sharply cool and effervescent, filled with graphic intelligence and timeless verve, and a set of early painted sketches reveals that Klein was pre-visualizing these arrangements before he made them in the darkroom – his internal artistic eye was building them up and arranging them ahead of time.

With the encouragement of Alexander Liberman, who was the art director of Vogue at the time, Klein moved back to New York in 1954, and embraced the city with his honed eye for graphic energy. His pictures from these years are filled with graphic power, as seen in the movie marquees, storefront signage, neon, lettering, and advertising that provide the vibrant backdrop to life in the city. Klein then pairs that boldness with a lively sense of open connection with the people of New York, who respond to his advances with their own brash personalities. He captures brides and stickball playing kids, women at the grocery store and cops on the beat, socialites in dresses and businessmen in overcoats, all with a democratic playfulness and charm that is contagious. Klein’s New York is constantly in motion, but his frames are carefully arranged, often stacking haphazard faces into layers and grids, putting foreground blur against background clarity, or juxtaposing people, gestures, and graphic elements that seem to seethe with the pulse of the metropolis. These pictures ultimately took form in Klein’s groundbreaking photobook Life is Good & Good for You in New York, and their installation here (as both prints and a photobook flip through video) recreates the endearingly inclusive magic of Klein’s gloriously overstimulated eye. In the years after the publication of the book, Klein also made what would later be deemed the first Pop Art film, a jittering study of the lights in Times Square accompanied by a jazzy score, furthering Klein’s artistic investigation of the combination of graphic elements and cinematic motion.

With a signature street photography formula on its way to becoming refined, Klein spent the better part of the next half dozen years re-applying his voracious eye to different cities around the world, in a sense testing just how far afield he could go and still find a sense of his own unique brand of connection. His first stop was Rome (in 1956), where he was an assistant to Federico Fellini on the set of Nights of Cabiria; when he wasn’t at Cinecittà, he was wandering the streets, engaging with nuns and Vespa riders, soldiers and bus passengers. He then moved on to Moscow, with its ballerinas, student athletes, shoppers at the GUM department store, and fur-coated children, and soon after ventured to Tokyo, with its crowded stock exchange, busy hairdressers, avant-garde performance artists, and politely bowing guests. In each place, he found flashes of graphic energy and urban motion (although none of these more far flung locales proved to be as photographically vital for Klein as New York), and each body of work later became a notable photobook, building up both his photographic reputation and his book-making legacy.

Essentially in parallel with these various trips, Klein was also intermittently trying his hand at fashion photography, taking on commissions for Liberman. His approach, while unorthodox compared to the prevailing styles of the fashion industry, was pure Klein – throw the models into the streets, grasp at the energy of the city, charm everyone with his collaborative approach, and leverage the graphic possibilities presented by the combination of the dresses and the surrounding urban environment to create indelible imagery. As seen in the selections here, Klein was particularly good at making high contrast looks (with polka dots, stripes, and sharp black and white forms) jump out of the chaos that surrounded them; he shot on gritty rooftops with mirrors, in crowded crosswalks, and in the middle of traffic, and yet the images feel intensely present and ordered. In a few examples, we see Klein bringing back his experimental side, with rear projection imagery, long exposure light drawings, layered staging, and frontal interruption, digging into his now-full artistic toolbox to reveal yet another unexpected approach that could be re-imagined in a fashion context. By the early 1960s, Klein was one of the best known fashion photographers in the world, his unique eye having upended the industry.

By the mid-1960s, we might argue that Klein had already gone through at least three phases of extremely successful art making, but it’s here that he makes yet another bold aesthetic turn, pivoting much of his attention toward film making. Over next two decades and beyond, Klein would go on to make 3 feature length films and some 27 documentaries, and while this chapter in his career is similarly full of innovation, the retrospective skips through its highlights quickly, with a handful of posters, production stills, and other memorabilia, and a sampler of clips from some of Klein’s better known films, including Who Are YouPolly Maggoo? (from 1966) and Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (from 1964-1974). With just a few minutes from a subset of films, it’s hard to draw many conclusions about how Klein’s eye was evolving, except that he was more willing to wrestle in depth with the social and politcal issues of the moment than had been readily apparent in his street and fashion photographs. There is likely an entire separate show to be unraveled from Klein’s many films, but the broader significance of these cinematic efforts isn’t discussed with much lucidity here.

Klein’s later works (seen in the last two sections of the exhibit) find him returning to earlier photographic ideas, in a sense reprising, updating, and reinterpreting those approaches. In one project, Klein expressively overpainted enlargements from his original contact sheets, taking the markings of a grease pencil and remaking them with much more painterly authority. Signature Klein photographs are embellished with bold strokes in red, purple, blue, and yellow, with gestural Xs, circles, and blocks of color surrounding the selected images. In many ways, these works return Klein back to some of the ideas from early in his career, where graphic elements and painted flatness take center stage.

The most recent works in the show (from 2013) bring Klein back to a city-centric theme, with Brooklyn as his subject. Shot in color, the images have faint echoes of Klein’s original brashness and graphic feistiness, but feel less original and memorable than the earlier works. Klein follows various parades and festivals, tracks wedding parties through the streets, and turns his eye toward a broad swath of Brooklynites, including Hasidic Jews and cops, and often finds bright pops of color, but the framing feels less sharpened than before, as if the city was washing over him, instead of Klein taking charge and arranging it himself.

But the softness in these later projects doesn’t for a moment detract from Klein’s rapid fire pileup of photographic astonishments from the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, as presented here, Klein’s work from those first two decades is consistently remarkable, especially as his eye synthesizes the influences of graphic design, photographic movement, and the restless energy and diversity of humanity. In this case, the retrospective format provides a comprehensive framework for understanding Klein’s wide ranging artistic interests, but it also makes clear just how unconventionally brilliant and unrivaled those first several photographic projects were. In the end, this is a knockout show that should re-cement Klein’s rightful place in the 20th century history of the medium, while also introducing a new generation of viewers to his contagiously dynamic and dazzlingly inventive style.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. William Klein is represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York (here). 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.

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Read more about: William Klein, International Center of Photography

One comment

  1. Chris Bentley /

    Fantastic show that was the perfect size.

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