07/28/2010 05:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Yves Klein: With the Void, at the Hirschhorn

I recently visited the Hirschhorn Library in Washington last week and saw an exhibit of the French artist Yves Klein's work titled "Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers". Hardly anyone outside the art world remembers Klein anymore -- he died at age 34, but during his brief career he created something of a stir with his experiments in painting, sculpture, performance art, film and architecture. If you do remember him it's probably because one of his photographs, "Le Saut dans le Vide", was tacked onto countless dorm room walls during the late sixties. In it, Klein is taking a swan dive off a high wall "into the void" of a cobbled Parisian alley. The expression on his face is rather transcendent and certainly ecstatic.

Contemporaneous with Klein's career (1954-1962) were the careers of several Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Hetti Jones and the beginnings of the classic rock and roll era leading up to Woodstock. These people were a lot of fun to read and the music was starting to get interesting.

I thought the Klein exhibit was terrifically exciting and it captured the time perfectly. Several pieces were from the Anthropometrics series where nude female models were smeared with blue paint and used as "living" brushes on paper. The accompanying film of this "work in progress" was, needless to say, riveting.

My enthusiasm for "With the Void" was tempered a bit by the palpable indignation of my companion, a more classically minded person who was barely able to contain, summarily, writhing contempt for Klein and the horse he rode in on. Naked blue ladies were empathically not her cup of tea.

Arguments about the worthiness or even validity of modern and postmodern art are even less productive than the old "Does God Exist?" to and fro. So: my forty-five minutes of fun with Klein was followed by ninety excruciating minutes of 1) "You've got to be kidding!" 2) "People like you are the tools of intellectual pranksters." 3) "What is Klein compared to FAMOUS ARTIST(s)?" and 4) etc., etc.

Approximately every quarter of an hour I would mutter, "Art is a house with many rooms" or "People used to feel that way about Van Gogh." No impact of course, unless my companion's derisive snorts and whistles contributed to global warming.

Two people may agree that Art is Good and that God Exists, but there are a lot details in each supposition, including politics, inherent preferences and one's underlying spiritual orientation. One of the qualities of art ought to be that it liberates one from self-consciousness. And when you think about it, liberation from self-consciousness effectively applies to religion too -- at least if the religious person is high church like a Catholic or an old fashioned John Cheever sort of Episcopalian. Characteristically, if high churchers have doubts about themselves and the universe, or even about the existence of God, they generally keep it to themselves, or are told to work harder... because they will eventually stumble into an answer since God (and art) is everywhere.

Low church folk on the other hand seem to abhor complexity and difference, and they feel more comfortable living in a binary universe where one believes or doesn't believe, is saved or isn't saved, and has faith or lacks faith. Here, one must always be conscious of and focused on the degree to which Self is saved or believes or has faith. Their only option is the binary option and art, to be art, must first go through a Pass Fail examination. No artist gets judged on a curve.

Klein obviously is a dessert one ought to share carefully, or to keep whole and on to oneself. I suggest you go alone.

"Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers" at the Hirschhorn, Washington DC through September 20th.