Artist Profile: Yves Klein
Yves Klein was born April 28, 1928 in Nice, France. His mother, Marie Raymond, was a leading figure in the Art Informel movement, and his father, fred Klein, was associated with the Post Impressionists. Despite coming from a family of painters, Klein was not given and formal art training from his parents.
From 1942–1946, he attended the Ecole Naionale de la Marine Marchand and the Ecole National des Langues. Klein claimed his first real artwork as the sky in 1947, and in the same year he composed Monotone Silence Symphony, marking the beginning of Klein’s artistic journey and search for the infinite.
In 1948, Klein left France for military service in Germany. Upon his return the following year, Klein traveled Italy England, Ireland, and Spain. Klein moved to Japan in 1952 to study judo martial arts. It was with judo that Klein first experienced “spiritual” space. Inspired by his experience, Klein wrote a book about the art form when he returned to Paris in 1954, titled Les Foundations du Judo. A few months later, Klein published a second work in collaboration with print artist Fernando Franco de Serabia, titled Yves Peintures, consisting of a collection of printed monochromes.
Klein had his first solo exhibition, Yves: Propositions Monochrome, in Paris during 1956. 1957 marked the beginning of Klein’s Blue Period, with the Epoca Bleue exhibition at Galerie Apollonaire in Madrid. By 1960, he had patented his own color, “International Klein Blue.” During the same year was Klein’s infamous Anthropométries demonstration in Paris, and the founding of Klein’s attributed artistic movement, Nouveau Realisme.
January 21st, 1962, Klein married Rotraut Uecker. 34 year old Klein died later that year of a heart attack on June 6th, 1962.
Yves Klein was one of the key members of Nouveau Realisme, the French art movement that came together for their “collective singularity” and common basis for their work as a ”poetic recycling of reality.” The original group, including Klein, Pierre Restany, Jean Tinguely, Arman Fernandez, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Raymon Hains, Francoise Dufrene, and Jacques de la Villegle, gathered in Klein’s Paris apartment on October 27th, 1960 and wrote their manifesto on one of his blue monochromes, stating that “New Realism = new perceptive approaches to the real.” Klein’s major contributions to the group’s efforts were his monochrome paintings, which were recognized for the poetic meaning that they contained. Klein ultimately tried to dissolve the movement, as he disliked the close similarity to Dadaism, and did not want to show conformity to any pre-existing movement.
Klein set the stage for many artists and artistic movements after him. His monochromes have been linked to minimalism and conceptual art, his commodification of the immaterial in Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility and his kitschy Blue Venus can be thought of as a precursor to Pop art. Klein dabbled in installation art with his massive Gelsinkirchen reliefs, and his Anthropométries have been considered happenings as well as performance art.
Yves Klein was a very unique individual who is very difficult to characterize, as he himself did not wish to be classified, nor to be compared to any other artist. As far as I have seen in my research, Klein denies any artistic influences on his work. This aside, the comparison to Marcel Duchamp is inevitable, and it is highly unlikely that Klein was not even slightly influenced by Duchamp’s ways. Like Duchamp, Klein’s art relies on the viewer’s presence to complete the work. Klein’s intent is to “spread the energy of pure color into a space, and impregnate the viewer with it.”
Klein surly was influenced early on by his two best friends Claude Pascal and Arman Fernandez, after all he was with Pascal the poet and Arman the sculptor when he had an epiphany and claimed the sky as his first art piece. But Klein was truly an individual who followed his own artistic style, finding inspiration in other aspects of his life, including esoteric literature, such as that of Gaston Bachelard; Catholic ritual, which he himself practiced; eastern philosophy, which he developed an interest in after living in Japan; and judo martial arts, from which he applied the “principle of the fighting spirit” to his art, stating “each defeat must be seen as an important step towards the final victory.”
THE SKY / THE VOID
Klein had his first artistic breakthrough in 1947. 19 year old Klein was lying on the beach with his artist friends Claude Pascal and Arman Fernandez talking about life, when the three friends decided to divide up the universe. While Arman claimed materiality of earth and Pascal claimed language and words, Klein claimed the sky — ‘the void’ — the planet empty of all matter. Klein claimed the sky as hist first real artwork and symbolically signed his name in the sky.
Originally created 1947, Klein’s Monotone Silence Symphony was a composition containing a single chord sustained for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of meditative silence. Klein claimed that the Monotone Silence Symphony was to sound what the monochrome was to painting, in that it symbolized the sound pitch emitted from the monochrome blue sky (or ‘the void’), and emphasized universal harmony.
Klein introduced his monochromes to the world in his first solo exhibition Yves: Propositions Monochrome in Paris. The exhibition included 20 monochromes in many different colors. He considered pink, blue, and gold, to be his primary colors. He favored these colors for their symbolism with the theological mystery of the Trinity, and also for the aesthetic connection to fire, an element which Klein would later experiment with in his work. “Fire is blue gold and pink, the bases of my monochrome paintings. I see it as a universal principle for the explanation of the world.”
In the Manifesto of the Monochrome, Klein defines the monochrome as an “open window to freedom, as the possibility of being immersed in the immeasurable existence of color.” He believed the monochromatic surface released the painting from materiality through totality of pure pigment.
In 1956 Klein developed his own color from his favorite shade of blue, ultramarine, a color evoking the expanse of the infinite sky and depth of the oceans. He was inspired to do so after traveling to Assisi, Italy and viewing the rich blue color used in Giotto’s frescoes on the interior walls of St. Francis Basilica. With the help of a chemist, Klein was able to produce the color he imagined by mixing ultramarine pigment with petroleum extract, so the pigment would remain powdery and the color would not fade. In 1960, Klein patented the color, calling it International Klein Blue (IKB). Klein believed that IKB was an ideal way to elaborate his belief in spiritual powers and the immaterial.
From 1957 on, Klein produced nearly 200 blue monochrome paintings. Each was produced using paint rollers to apply dry IKB pigment in synthetic polymer medium on cotton over plywood. These monochromes focused on the pigment material itself and the texture that the reactions of materials produced.
Click here for real footage from Klein’s Epoca Blue exhbition at the Iris Clert Gallery, including his theatrical fountain of fire, interior of the gallery space containing Klein’s artworks, and close ups of the textural qualities of his monochromes.
With The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility (The Void), Klein wished to represent ‘the void’ itself. In preparation for the exhibition, Klein removed everything in the gallery space (except for the built-in cabinet and curtains) and painted every surface in monochromatic white. Klein believed that by inviting the audience into an empty gallery space, “The invisible [would] become effective through the perceptible.”
Click here for real footage from the interior gallery space of Klein’s exhibition ‘The Void,’ held at the Iris Clert Gallery in 1958.
Klein believed in the immaterial substance he referred to as “pure pictorial sensibility.” Essentially, this substance could be injected into artwork by the artist who carries this sensibility in himself (Klein truly believed he had this in him). It could be experienced in a work of art so long as the viewer too carries this sensibility. Art is not a sensory experience, rather it is extrasensory, so if a sensitive viewer is presented with two identical works and only one contains this sensibility, then the viewer can make a distinction between the two.
With the idea of pure pictorial sensibility in mind, Klein did a series of pieces from 1957–59 called Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, which commodified that idea. Through a ritualized ceremony, Klein would meet with interested buyers on the river Seine. The buyers of pictorial sensibility paid Klein in gold leaf, and in exchange received a receipt. Klein then threw half the gold into the river, and the receipts were burned so (almost) nothing material remained from the transaction.
Inspired by how sponges when soaked in paint would become “impregnated” with color, just as he wished his viewers to be impregnated with color, Klein decided to incorporate sponges into his monochromes. Klein also experimented with IKB sponge sculptures, believing that they expressed cosmological ideas of infinite space.
The Gelsinkirchen Opera House is one of Klein’s largest installations. It consists of four 10 meter IKB sponge reliefs, and two 20 meter blue monochromes mounted on the walls of the auditorium space. It can still be viewed today in Gelsinkirchen, Germany.
One of Klein’s more controversial series, his Anthropométries remain to be some of his most notable works. This series is one of my favorite works by Klein, because not only are these works aesthetically interesting and visually dynamic, but I believe Anthropométries is the synthesis of what Klein was all about, and truly represents him as an artist and the divine creator he believed to be.
The idea for his Anthropométries stemmed from his experience with judo martial arts and the imprint left on the mat after a judo fighter fell. His 1960 Anthropométrie de l’Époque Bleue in Paris was the public debut of the series, involving nude female models who painted their bodies with IKB paint and proceeded to press their bodies on the gallery walls and roll around on the floor according to Klein’s directions, leaving blue anthropomorphic imprints. In the background, a small orchestra played Klein’s “Monotone symphony.”
Klein was always visualizing a higher purpose for his works and saw this project as the evocation of earth. Klein’s Anthropométries toyed with the idea of bodies as human brushes. This removal of the artist’s hand acted out Klein’s belief that the true creator directs energies and materials from a distance.
The controversies following Klein’s Anthropométrie de l’Époque Bleue performance revolve around the idea of the male gaze and objectification of women. Julia Steinmetz, a present day feminist stated that “Klein has full control over his female subjects, thus limiting the female body not only as an object for the male gaze, but also as a tool for presenting, expressing, and enforcing patriarchal values.” Although I agree with Steinmetz and completely understand how Klein’s work could be interpreted in this way, I don’t believe that this was in any way Klein’s intention. Klein aimed to capture the energy and spirit of the models with the blue imprints representing the model’s momentary presence via the absence of their bodies. From my extensive research on Klein and my slight understanding of how Klein’s mind worked, I truly agree with French critic Pierre Restany, who claimed Klein “took art beyond the at of painting. The work moved beyond incorporation of architecture, and beyond vibration as a sign of life.”
Click here for a combination of real footage documenting Klein’s Anthropométries and Fire Paintings.
To prove to the world his claim that he had the power to defy gravity, Klein designed a faux newspaper that went out on every newsstand across Paris. Leap into the Void was a controversial photomontage of two separate images; one being Klein’s body leaping into space, and the other, an empty street scene. Klein states “…to paint space, I must be in position. I must be in space.”
Klein loved fire for its unvarying beauty and contradictory ritual value. In 1961 he conducted a series of fire research sessions at Gas du France research facility. Klein was interested in confronting the forces of flame and water. Klein applied water to a cardboard surface and then proceeded to aim bunsen burners and flame throwers at the surface, producing a unique effect. Klein took his fire paintings even further by combining fire with his Anthropométries idea, claiming that “the mark of fire will frame the curves of life.” Nude models would cover themselves with water and make wet imprints on the cardboard surface. The invisible trace of the women’s bodies would then appear at the instance of combustion.
Klein loved gold, believing it was symbolic of the absolute, divinity, and infinite space. He used gold intending to direct his audiences to the cosmos, whether or not they actually followed this direction. Klein did a series of gold monochromes, applying gold leaf or sheets to a surface.
All essays in this post are from a college research project I did on Yves Klein. Check out my original project here!