The Brilliant And Tragic Life Of Yves Klein

Extraordinary artist who combined conceptual art with spiritual yearning in a tragically short life

Christopher P Jones
Mar 5, 2019 · 8 min read
Portrait of Yves Klein during the shooting the documentary of Peter Morley “The Heartbeat of France”. Studio of Charles Wilp, Dusseldorf, Germany, February 1961. Copyright Charles Wilp / BPK, Berlin. Source

Some artists take decades to blossom; others appear to arrive fully formed. Yves Klein was one of the latter, an artist whose first and last works were only fifteen years or so apart.

Or is this just a trick of history? Somehow his early death, at the age of just 34, confers a sense of completeness over his art that seems to level out the beginning and end to even points of significance. There is not the luxury of decades; he died too quickly to fill a lifespan of ups and downs.

Whenever I think about Yves Klein, I tend to reach this same problem. After the excitement about his wonderful and distinctive career has calmed down, I hit upon the question: where was Yves Klein going to next?

Klein was born on 28th April 1928 in the south of France, and grew up near the French Riviera town of Nice, a city that glows with old-world affluence under a Mediterranean sun. Beloved of Chagall, Picasso and Renoir, Nice was also the home of Henri Matisse for much of his adult life.

The young Klein spent days with his friends, yearning for the adventure of travel, creation and spirituality. As a teenager, he befriended the artist Arman (Armand Fernandez) and the composer Claude Pascal. Together they visited the long pebble beach at Nice and with some bravura, divided the entire world between them: Arman chose the earth, Claude chose words, while Klein, lying on his back looking up to the wide expanse of blue, chose the sky.

It seems the purity and immensity of the sky appealed deeply. “As an adolescent,” he later recorded, “I wrote my name on the back of the sky in a fantastic realistico-imaginary journey, stretched out on a beach one day in Nice … I have hated birds ever since for trying to make holes in my greatest and most beautiful work! Away with the birds!”

In August 1948, he traveled to Italy and hitchhiked through the towns of Genoa, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples, Palermo and Venice. In the years following, he would also visit England, Ireland and Spain. He filled up notepads with photos and sketches from his travels.

Klein started his artistic career in the mid 1940s — aged 18 or so. Perhaps because both of his parents were painters, he seemed immediately liberated to move beyond the conventions of wall-hung art. In around 1948, he began working on one of his most notable works, a music composition on a single note followed by a long silence, which he called Monotone-silence Symphony.

This strange conceptual work was later performed in public: Some twelve years later, on March 9 1960, in front of an audience of around one hundred, a small orchestra and choir performed Monotone-silence Symphony: a “continuous high-pitched” sound that suddenly gives way to total silence. The audio-spectacle was accompanied by three nude models, who walked onto the stage, and using a sponge, covered their bodies with blue paint before printing themselves on a large sheet of part paper laid on the floor, a method he used in his Anthropometry series. Klein himself perambulated around the edge of the room, part conductor, part maestro, part circus ringmaster.

Yves Klein, Anthropometry of the Blue Period (ANT 82), 1960. Artwork © Yves Klein, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2017. Source

In 1960, a performance like this was unusual. Probably it still would be today. It has certain avant-garde elements that no doubt were intended to bestow the occasion with an edge of absurdity. Yet these aspects perhaps veil a more serious side to the performance. Klein spent most of his career searching for an aesthetic expression of “the void” — the totality of things, which being so vast becomes empty, a quality similar to the sky or the ocean.

As an artist, Klein was a pioneer, yet he also emerged out of a burgeoning tradition of concept art.

Through his so-called ‘ready-mades’ of the 1910s, Marcel Duchamp had created a divide between the category of art and its realization through a specifically crafted object. Duchamp gave artists the license to value their actions and intentions as primary tools, not just the objects they created. What the artist did, how they behaved, and how they influenced an audience, were the hallmarks of a newly emerging art form. The point was to break down the conventions of the artwork/viewer relationship, which was seen as too fixed and restrictive.

When, as a teenager, Klein took up the sport of judo, the collaboration between his body and the martial art led to the “discovery of the human body in a spiritual space” — as he later described.

‘The void’ was a concept Klein developed over years, associated with the arts of Japan where he visited in 1952. He spent 15 months in Japan giving French lessons to American and Japanese students, and whilst there became a judo judo, receiving the rank of yodan, 4th degree black-belt, an exceptional achievement for a westerner at the time. His studies at the renowned Kōdōkan Judo Institute, which was strongly influenced by Zen philosophy, brought Klein into contact with the ‘void’ of Japanese Buddhist thought.

One of the techniques of judo training is known as uchikomi, where the specific throwing move is practiced over and over again, but only ever to the edge of culmination and not beyond. It is thought that 20,000 uchikomi is required to perfect a technique. When Klein returned to France and began teaching judo to his own students, we was notorious for his emphasis on uchikomi as a way of mastering time and space.

At around 1950, Klein began making monochrome paintings — paintings consisting of a single color — in gouache. On his return from Japan, he settled in Paris, and in 1954 published two books, Yves peintures and Haguenault peintures, which were his first public displays of the monochrome series. The books featured apparent reproductions of paintings that, in reality, didn’t exist. His seriousness about his painted works was clearly ambiguous from the beginning: resolutely interested the profundity of direct experience, the books nonetheless emerge as conceptual parodies of the traditional art catalogue.

IKB 191, monochromatic painting by Yves Klein. Source

Klein’s interest in single-color painting later intensified, when from 1957, he began exhibiting canvases with the same identical blue color, a vivid ultramarine pigment which he later officially registered under the name International Klein Blue (IKB).

The British artist Michael Craig-Martin summed up the charisma of these paintings: “The power of a single blue painting to stay in ones imagination for ones lifetime, that’s quite something. There are not many things that leave such a vivid impression. Once you see an Yves Klein painting, you’ll never forget it.”

With these blue works, Klein was reaching for a purer mode of painting. His desire to capture the void turned into works that were in turn outrageous, humorous, and also deeply serious. In 1958, at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, Klein created scandal by inviting 3,000 people to a private exhibition in which he displayed nothing more than an empty cabinet in an otherwise empty room. As part of the spectacle the audience members were offered a blue balloon to carry and a blue cocktail to drink from. He called the exhibition ‘The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility: The Void’.

Le Vide (The Void) exhibition displayed at the Iris Clert Gallery. Source

After the conceptual void of the blue paintings and the literal void of the Iris Clert Gallery exhibition, in 1960 Klein took a leap from the ledge of a building in a quiet Paris suburb and called the event Leap into the Void. Captured by the photographer duo Harry Shunk and János Kender, it remains a startling image in spite of our modern-day familiarity with photo-doctoring. (In reality, Yves was caught mid-fall by a stretched blanket held at each corner by friends.)

Leap into the Void (1960) by Yves Klein. Source
© Yves Klein, ADAGP, Paris
Photo: Shunk–Kender © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

In March 1961, Klein visited New York, and with his wife-to-be Roraut Uecker, settled at the Chelsea Hotel and met many of the key figures of contemporary art during his say, including Duchamp, Johns, Kline, de Kooning, Newman and Rothko. Whilst at the Chelsea Hotel he wrote the Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, and explained the meaning behind his latest mode of working, to use gas flame-throwers to burn directly into canvases:

“[…] I have succeeded in painting with fire, using very powerful and searing gas flames, some ten to twelve feet in height, to lick the surface of a painting in order to record the spontaneous trace of fire.

[…] In sum, my goal is twofold: first of all, to register the trace of human sentimentality in present-day civilization; secondly, to register the trace of fire which has engendered this very same civilization. And this because the void has always been my constant preoccupation; and I hold that in the heart of the void as well as in the heart of man, fires are burning.”

These works testify to a new direction in Klein’s career, but is was to be a direction he would never fully realize. The end of Klein’s career came suddenly and tragically. In 1962, whilst attending the Cannes Film Festival, he suffered a heart attack during an airing of Mondo Cane (in which he featured). In June of that same year, he suffered a further heart attack; this time it killed him, at the age of just 34.

Klein was interested in breaking down historical conventions, and implied through his work fundamental questions and their possible answers. Wherever he was going to next, his bold attempts to explore these questions leave an impressive legacy: What does a person value? How do we make sense of the world around us? What lies beyond silence? What resonates with us, what alarms us, what frightens us, and what inspires us?

Christopher P Jones writes about art and other things at his website.

All artworks © Yves Klein.


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