- Retrospective: May 15–June 26, 2009
William Klein has spent six decades producing works that are raw, direct, and confrontational. As an artist, he has resisted categorization and worked within and across many mediums. His vision embraces a moral conscience and a passion for discord, and his films fall into two disparate but complementary categories: eviscerating social satires and illuminating documentaries. It is mostly through the latter that he betrays his fascination with outsiders—both heroes and outlaws.
Born in 1928 into a Jewish family living in an Irish neighborhood in New York, Klein grew up alienated from mainstream culture. After two years overseas in the U.S. army, he was discharged in France, where he has lived and worked since 1948. His varied career has included studying painting with Fernand Léger at the Sorbonne and shooting fashion spreads for U.S. Vogue. His book New York (Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels) (1956) broke many photographic rules and changed the medium; street photography flourished in its wake. Klein’s directorial debut, the impressionistic Broadway by Light (1958), has been called the first pop film. His first feature-length documentary, Cassius le Grand (1965), received the Grand Prix du Festival International de Tours and was eventually recut with later footage from the fight with George Foreman in Zaire to make Muhammad Ali the Greatest (1974). His first feature film, the satirical Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), was awarded the Prix Jean Vigo at the Cannes Film Festival.
Klein’s fierce independence is reflected in his work on numerous levels. He has been responsible for all that is displayed, printed, or screened, covering the graphic design and the photography of his books and also designing his films’ costumes, sets, and posters as well as writing their scripts and directing. The Walker produced the first U.S. tour of Klein’s films in 1989—Cinema Outsider: The Films of William Klein. In the past year, they have been the subject of several major retrospectives around the world. Such renewed interest in Klein’s filmography, along with the ever-increasing resonance of his critiques of America, from its consumerism to its foreign policy, prompts another look at his body of work. The Walker is pleased to welcome him back for the first time in 20 years.