Where true colours peep through the haze

    The Barbican’s new show has flashes of brilliance — but they can never make up for that accursed space, says Waldemar Januszczak

    You have to feel sorry for the Barbican Art Gallery. Most of the time, it appears merely inadequate: messy, bitty, graceless and a bit grey. When they attempt a genuinely ambitious exhibition in here, however — something as delicate and mood-sensitive as Colour After Klein — the full horror of this gallery’s curse becomes vividly clear.

    I was darting backward and forward for ages in front of the entirely orange painting by Yves Klein that begins these proceedings, trying to see it, rather than me, reflected in its glass. But I never quite managed it. Nothing ever looks entirely right in here. So, sensitive curators stay away from the place, and their positions are occupied instead by the makers of huge mistakes: like whoever it was who decided to attempt this particular exhibition in here; like whoever it was who wrote the unhelpful wall text that welcomes you to the chaos. “Colour After Klein is first and foremost a testament to colour’s immanence,” it says here, “its pervasive quality of being in the world. The exhibition marvels in the fact that colour just is.” So now we know.

    But wait. A clever clogs in the back row has raised a hand to signal a question. Hasn’t the Barbican Art Gallery recently re-opened after an extremely costly rebuilding programme, during which the problems of the gallery were addressed? Well, yes, clever clogs, that is so. Colour After Klein is the first show to use the whole space since the rebuilding. However — and this really is difficult to believe — instead of improving the Barbican’s cramped and cursed museum spaces, the expensive rebuilding has actually managed to make them worse.

    In the old days, you knew at least where to go next: the Bar- bican was the only big art gallery with a hole in the middle, and the sole route round it was a circuit of the Polo’s perimeter. But the rebuilding has accomplished the filling-in of this hole and the creation of a new floor across it, around which are strewn various mighty obstacles: square columns as thick as buses, parked in front of the best sightlines, which cannot be removed because they hold up the Barbican; squat staircases, blocking the middle vista, which cannot be removed because they offer the only connection to the floor above. It’s a cruel and testing terrain. I defy anyone to achieve visual coherence in this setup. A selection of video pieces that need to be viewed in conditions of total darkness might perhaps survive these surroundings. But to attempt as delicate a display in here as Colour After Klein is folly indeed.

    I presume this particular show was chosen to mark the refit because of the promise of uplift it offers. Colour is perhaps an artwork’s most innately enticing component: the very word seems to raise your pleasure levels. And certain stretches of certain colours certainly have the potency of a mind-altering drug. I have felt dizzy staring at endless expanses of intense yellow in the fields around Arles, where the colour of the sunflowers played a part in the scrambling of Vincent Van Gogh’s mind. At the asylum in nearby St Rémy, where they locked him away, the irises that emerge in the gardens are coloured a remarkable blue, which appears pitch black from some angles and forget-me-not pale from others. A sensitive mind could knot itself up trying to see into that particular colour effect, and perhaps Vincent’s did.

    I cite him here not because he is in the Barbican show — he isn’t: the exhibition looks at colour in art since the 1950s — but to underline the potential and the problematics of colour with the broadest felt-tip I can think of.

    Colour is dynamite, but only if you find its fuse. Colour is uni- versal, but only at the right moment on the right day in the right corner of the right asylum.

    Modern art has known this since Van Gogh’s era and beyond; and various critical modern movements, from impressionism to expressionism, have built themselves around the extravagant possibilities of colour. So why this particular show has chosen to begin with the arrival of Yves Klein in the 1950s is as unclear as everything else in here. Klein did not invent the monochrome. Malevich was painting entirely red squares by 1919. But it is true that Klein’s monochromes have an agenda-setting determination about them, that the idea of the monochrome interested him more than it interested many and that his appetite for large stretches of unmixed colour can fairly be described as fanatical.

    I have never been able to understand fully what the religious beliefs were that Klein sought to express through his art. The beliefs are foggy and a tad spooky. But anyone who has ever looked at the blue bits of a stained-glass window when the sun passes a cathedral will know exactly how and why Klein obsessed himself with the transportive effects of large stretches of glowing colour. Allow me a preposterous Kleinian observation: our souls are joined to the colour receptors in our retinas by hard wires. It cannot be a coincidence that some of the keenest colour purists in modern art, from Malevich to Mondrian, from Kandinsky to Klein, have sported thoroughly eccentric religious views. To believe in colour as fiercely as this lot requires a fierce faith in other realities.

    Thus, the show’s first mistake — a presentational one — is to begin with a wall-load of Klein monochromes, in which assorted colours squabbling for attention succeed, regrettably, in defeating their own purity. There is little point in being a specific monochrome when your multicoloured surroundings turn you into a contributing colour on a busy palette. I looked at the wall for a long time, and only a particularly pale pink achieved proper independence. The other hues blurred. Klein’s most noto- rious colour invention was the patenting of an unmistakable variety of blue, which he called International Klein Blue, to which he devoted picture after picture. There is a lovely example around the corner from the polka-dot opening: a fabulous blue rect- angle. That’s it. And it works.

    Little of the show ahead is able to do the same. It isn’t just the bad sightlines and the awkward spaces. The selection of artists is also a jumble. Having established some sort of agenda for the event with its dodgy Klein opening, the show immediately veers off this path and finds another to introduce; then another; and another still. Just past the Klein, a pile of black sweets pushed against a column, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ought surely not to be involved in a meditation on colour. On all the other occasions I have seen this notorious piece, the point was to create a gallery happening by encouraging visitors to take a sweet and eat it. But the happening cannot happen here: this time, you are not allowed to touch the candy.

    The claim that we have here “20 of the most significant artists of the 20th and 21st century” is also sheer fantasy. Bas Jan Ader, Spencer Finch, Helio Oiticica and Anri Sala are footnotes, gathered from madly differing chapters of the book. And the artists whose significance is unchangeable — Joseph Beuys, say, or Bruce Nauman, or Louise Bourgeois — are only viewable as colourists if you squint and try ever so hard.

    So, we are left with no more than an occasional contributor to the show who appears to belong here and adds tangibly to the argument. Warhol is one of them, with his monochrome disasters, in which iconic images of terrible traffic accidents are given an all-over colour mood and turned into blue nocturnes and the like. Dan Flavin’s neon-light bathings always bring a gentle set of colour pleasures to any minimalist gallery corner that accommodates them. Best of all is a genuinely wonderful installation by James Turrell, in which a huge blue rectangle of light has been miraculously conjured up in the lightless circumstances of a dark room.

    The edges of the rectangle change colour as you stare at them and bio-optics do their stuff. It seems an impossible effect. Witnessing it is indeed enough to make some turn to Rosicrucianism, or whatever mad cultist opinion it was that hijacked Klein’s lucidity and made him fascinating.