When I visited the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, I was particularly drawn to the work of Yves Klein, specifically The Leap Into the Void, first featured in his compilation Dimanche. The photomontage, for which Klein’s friend Harry Shunk is responsible, is comprised of a number of photos that contribute to different elements in the work. For example, what appears to be Klein vaulting himself chest first into empty space was created by him jumping onto a large tarpaulin held up by several people in the street. The empty street itself was later added on from another photo.
When I first looked at the image I assumed the obvious: some dedicated artist had turned his suicide into a final flourish while a dedicated friend stood by, camera in hand, to document the passage. Under this interpretation, The Leap Into the Void seemed dramatic, impressive, a little excessive. I felt as though this was the ultimate mark of the artist: continuing the creation of art even in the process of destroying himself. The remarkable thing about its execution was the photographer’s capture, the way he seized just the right moment in Klein’s fall. So afterward, when I read the background story that asserted Klein staged the entire affair and did not, in fact, kill himself doing it, I was actually a bit disappointed. Some part of me had wanted this to be the real thing, the final bow, the real into the void.
Indeed, it looked too stylized to have been an accident. Klein’s head is tilted up, his arms raised to the sky in a near embrace, back unnaturally arched for someone taking a suicide leap, his feet seemingly firmly attached to the wall. Though his lower half is mostly perpendicular to the ground, his upper half is curved upwards as if swimming to the surface. But the most striking thing about the image is how absolutely still it looks. Everything is genuinely suspended in space. The man in the void and the man on the bicycle are both in the same immobilized state, set against a postcard-Parisian street backdrop. Generally, one would expect a leap into the void to be reminiscent of a leap into a whirlpool, tumultuous, suggestive of motion at the very least. Not so in this work. Klein’s body is graceful and acrobatic, serene, elongation offset by the man on the bike down the road.
I realized that by transferring my own ideas and expectations onto the work I had completely changed its meaning. I had wanted it to be an accident. I had wanted the photographer to happen to capture Klein in this exact pose, with his face turned up in that exact way, while the man on the bike just happened to be riding by. I wanted to read in it the possibility that, had Harry Shunk been a few seconds late with the capture, the picture on the wall would be of a graceless freefall, a broken body bleeding out of a three-piece suit on the asphalt. I was taken in by the idea of a randomly captured event that looked premeditated but wasn’t, the semblance of meaning within the absence of meaning, an image that fooled the viewer by looking highly stylized while being unplanned, unpolished and raw. An image that was momentous because it was not intended to be.
However, after learning what Klein had in mind with the piece, I began to appreciate the details I’d initially wanted to reject. The “Painter of Space,” Klein attempted to not only represent space, as he did in his monochromatic paintings, but to actually put himself in space. He wanted to create conceptual art, where concepts or ideas take precedence over aesthetics, where the work’s execution is only a mechanical necessity. Contrary to my initial accidental-art interpretation, the meaning behind the work is the only meaning to be read in it: a man placing himself inside the void rather than merely falling, an artist delving into the deep space where only with the removal of external influences the mind can go.