From everyday folks on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, Moscow, Rome, Tokyo, and Paris, to boxing legend Cassius Clay on the precipice of fame and Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver hiding from the FBI in Algeria, William Klein has said “yes” to brazen, unrivaled film and photography projects that reveal the most visceral and genuine aspects of humanity.
At 94, Klein was unable to travel from Paris to New York for today’s press preview of a comprehensive career retrospective at the the International Center of Photography on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but his revolutionary spirit filled the room. In January 2020, ICP opened its expansive 40,000-square-foot integrated center at 79 Essex Street, as part of the shift of Manhattan’s creative energy to the LES. The grit and glam of the neighborhood is ideal to display some 300 works, including 250 photographs by iconoclastic Klein, who imbued every project with irreverent perfection.
William Klein: YES; Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948-2013 is on view through September 12, with tickets available online.
“In a way, this is really a homecoming for Klein, who has lived most of his life in Paris. His father had a shop we believe on Delancey Street (near ICP’s new home) … So it’s so nice to have Klein back home here on the Lower East Side,” said David E. Little, Executive Director of ICP.
The exhibition showcases the myriad facets of Klein’s global oeuvre spanning painting, graphic design, street photography, fashion photography, documentary film, scripted film, and books. From subjects who reappear in intimate street photos over many years, to bold stylistic accents, fans will delight in Klein’s self-referential indulgences.
Klein pushed the envelope across mediums and subjects, from mischievous fashion photographs to cameraless abstract photography to widely-recognizable celebrity portraits, and with 27 documentaries and three feature films.
“This exhibition at ICP is a homecoming of sorts for Klein, who was born in upper Manhattan in 1928 and began his photography career on our city’s streets,” said ICP Director David Little. “He then became a truly international artist, living most of his life in Paris and capturing the unique character of global cities in his renowned photobooks. Klein is a living legend of image-making, and ICP is honored to celebrate a prodigious career that influenced and inspired generations.”
In 1948, Klein began his studies in the Paris studio of artist Fernand Léger, who implored the aspiring painter to pursue design and new media, such as photography, film, and publishing. On view at ICP is an apartment room divider made of rotating panels Klein created for an architect who was intrigued by his 1952 exhibition of abstract paintings. Klein experimented with abstract photograms, cutting circles, diamonds, and square-shaped holes in paper and shifting them around over the photographic paper during long exposures.
After eight years in Paris, Klein was called back to New York by Alexander Liberman, art director of American Vogue, who also was drawn to his abstract paintings and photographs. Klein’s New York City street inimitable photography captures the soul of the people and the pulse of the streets. An active observer, Klein engaged with subjects and their vibrant lives, allowing those connections to build the visual narratives. Publishers in the United States were too timid and closed-minded to publish Klein’s work, so he did it himself, selecting images and designing the layout and the cover. In 2013, Klein began shooting in Brooklyn for the first time since 1955, depicting cultural events and everyday life, exemplifying the city’s unmatched ardor.
“Immediately you get the sense of an artist with multiple careers happening at the same time. He becomes a fashion photographer, and he becomes a street photographer and that extraordinary set of walls with his New Yorker pictures, some of those photographs are among the best known street photographs ever taken in the city. That’s his first time on the streets. So the world just rushes (in) and you’ll notice he has a wide-angle lens most of the time,” said David Campany, curator of this exhibition and ICP’s Curator-at-Large. “It’s not hanging back from the world observing it at a distance. He’s throwing himself into the world. He’s meeting people, he’s talking to people, and he remains just this endlessly curious figure. And he never wants anything in the world to be alien to him.”
By the early 1960s Klein was renowned for his luscious covers and spreads in U.S., French, and British Vogue, created elaborate shoots that evoke his prowess as a filmmaker.
Klein’s first film, Broadway by Light (1958), a mesmerizing cinematic explosion of Times Square’s once-ubiquitous flashing bulbs and neons, compelled Orson Welles to proclaim it “the first film I’ve seen in which colour (sic) was absolutely necessary.”
Cassius the Great (1964), highlighting the young boxer preparing to fight Sonny Liston, is Klein’s most celebrated film engaging fists and lens with raw delight. The Algerian state commissioned Klein to represent the 24-hour celebration of post-colonial, post-imperial independence, leading to a radical shift into politics with The Pan African Festival of Algiers (1969). It was during filming that Klein encountered Cleaver, exiled minister of information for the Black Panther Party, inspiring him to film the exiled minister of information for the Black Panther Party over three days and nights, delving deep into white supremacy and the human psyche. Fifty-percent of proceeds from the U.S. screening of Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970) benefitted the Black Panthers.
Klein’s three scripted films Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), Mister Freedom (1968), and The Model Couple (1975) subvert and poke fun at fashion, politics, and consumerism. American film critic and author Jonathan Rosenbaum described Mister Freedom, the cleverly absurd satire replete with superhero tropes “conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made, but only an American […] could have made it.”
Indulge your obstreperous inclinations by viewing this joyful exhibition, cherishing Klein’s singular and uncensored perspective on every facet of life in global cities, oscillating wildly between quotidian and uncanny.
Expand your Middlebrow gaze at the world.