Few multi-hyphenates made as much an impact on their different fields as William Klein, who over the course of more than 70 years has influenced street photography, fashion photography, and documentary film. An ambitious full-career retrospective of his work at the International Center of Photography, William Klein: YES, aims to present every element of his career in juxtaposition, helping neophytes and aficionados alike appreciate the breadth and scope of his art. Beginning with samples of his earliest paintings and graphic design work from his days at the Sorbonne University in Paris, the exhibition continues all the way through to his 2013 series West Indian Day Parade, Brooklyn, New York.
In doing so it traces something like a full circle for his long life, as that series was part of a broader project that brought him back to photograph his hometown of New York for the first time since the 1950s. It’s in capturing such an arc within one show that the Center finds special resonances between Klein’s many projects. (More than 300 pieces are spread out over two floors in the retrospective.)
Klein is, ehm, a somewhat infamously cantankerous person. (Look no further than Steve Macfarlane’s incredible, informative, at times harrowing interview with the man for Hyperallergic from 2018.) He grew disillusioned with the United States years before it became a hip thing for artists to do — an antipathy he hasn’t been shy about expressing over the years, and which crystallized in his blistering 1969 superhero satire Mr. Freedom. Several years before, he went after a more specific target with the 1966 Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, which mercilessly razzed the fashion world he was so intimately familiar with. Klein’s gimlet perspective remains remarkable; it’s a rare quality to so easily both participate in and incisively critique the same art. His fierce political sensibility also comes to the fore in his documentary work, snippets of which are presented alongside scenes from his fiction features in the exhibition. Films like Cassius the Great (1964) and Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970) capture with blistering enthusiasm the radical activism of the 1960s and ’70s.
Also available in full is Klein’s very first documentary, 1958’s Broadway By Light, a much more impressionistic endeavor. As the title suggests, it is a panoply of glowing signs along Broadway, a catalogue of US commercialism and mythmaking. The film is projected on a wall in a large format, alongside his other photos of the period, filling space more as background, suggesting it as an installation that’s part of a mosaic rather than something demanding its own scrutiny. In contrast, the montage of his later films has a dedicated viewing space with seating, coaxing visitors to pay more attention. It’s one of several ways the exhibition cannily takes advantage of its spaces to emphasize particular elements of Klein’s art. With many great touchstones of his work and reams of supplemental materials like sketches, workbooks, and concepts for his film, YES is a substantive and worthwhile retrospective for an artist who stays doggedly relevant.
William Klein: YES is on view at the International Center of Photography (79 Essex Street, Manhattan) through September 12.