Last year, the Hirshhorn put on about the best exhibition I’ve ever seen at any museum—which as a chronic museum rat, is saying a lot. Their Yves Klein retrospective, “With the Void, Full Powers,” was nothing if not spectacular, thought-provoking, and, for reasons I’ll get into later, terrifying. It was about as close to a perfectly curated exhibit as you could ask, with the exception of one thing.
The title was completely wrong.
“Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs” was the original Camus quote that the title was based on. Now, “full powers” is a perfectly valid, Robert/Collins Unabridged Dictionary translation of that guestbook note, but it misses the philosophical importance that “full potency” would have, for both existentialists like Camus* and interpreters of Klein’s artwork.
In philosophy, the concept of potency is one that encompasses a whole host of notions and associations. In classical metaphysics, act/potency is perhaps the most important dichotomy, with Aristotle defining “being” as “the act of all acts,” and Scholastics like Aquinas and Scotus claiming that God was the being of pure actuality, thus admitting no possibility for potency, change, division, parts, or names applied in ways that weren’t horribly complicated. For existentialists, the ideas of self-making and the priority of existence to essence both hinge on the act/potency distinction. If what the self is in its essence is determined by one’s acts, by the person one is responsible for having made over time, then the potency for further self-making ends where the actual essence of the self begins; one’s essence and essential nature are what are no longer changeable. To alter these, one would have to annihilate and negate the self, re-creating one’s essence ex nihilo. The void is where one can potentially act—and with the void, comes the full potency for self-creation.
Or, for that matter, create at all.
Thus, the key tension in Klein’s work between the void and potency on one hand and object and actuality on the other. With his New Mexico desert sky blue canvases and fire paintings, the synthesis of being and nothingness, act and potency, dominates Klein’s art—he is able to create voids, to make vacuums. By emphasizing the potency to act, the relation between fixed creation and the void where possibility lives, the seeming contradiction contained in every piece is laid bare.
That’s where things get interesting. Halfway through an exhibition and you’re feeling existential anxt? Someone did something right . . .