"Recently my work with color has led me, in spite of myself, to search little by little, with some assistance (from the observer, from the translator), for the realization of matter, and I have decided to end the battle. My paintings are now invisible and I would like to show them clearly and positively, in my next Parisian exhibition at Iris Clert's."
Yves Klein is a French artist, famous with the Parisian Nouveau Réalisme movement championed by the French critic Pierre Restany. The only painter in the Parisian Nouveau Réalisme group, Klein was a highly influential artist whose radical techniques and conceptual gestures laid the groundwork for much of the art of the 1960s and ’70s. His media were pure pigments, fire, water, live nude models (his “living brushes”), actions, and events.
Yves Klein, Éponge Bleue Sans Titre, SE 168, 1959
Although Klein had no formal training in art, both his parents were painters, and he was raised in such an atmosphere. He developed a sense of colors at a very early age. In his early 20s, Klein was influenced by the mystic beliefs of Rosicrucianism, a worldwide brotherhood claiming to possess esoteric wisdom handed down from ancient times and that would also influence his way of making art. In 1955 Klein settled in Paris after a stay in London and travels to Ireland, Spain, and Japan. While in Japan, Klein studied judo, achieving the black belt (master) level. He taught classes in that system of unarmed combat for several years.
During just a few years in Paris, Klein developed an extraordinary range of avant-garde work. He rejected the linear and reconceived form as “value of impregnation,” the filling of space with “the pictorial immaterial sensibility.” Based on his mystical beliefs, the artist made monochrome paintings of evenly dispersed pure pigment. One of his unique techniques was to also display sponges he used to make the paintings as richly colored works in the paintings themselves. During this period he worked in monochromes of three colors - gold, which he equated with physical material transformed to the spiritual; red, which he called “monopink” and equated with flesh-and-blood materiality; and ultramarine, which represented space.
Yves Klein, Monochrome
In 1957, Klein entered his époque blue (blue period); this year a double exhibition of his work was held at the Galerie Iris Clert and the Galerie Colette Allendy, both in Paris.
Although Klein had painted monochromes as early as 1949 and held the first private exhibition of this work in 1950, his first public showing was the publication of the book that parodied the traditional catalogue raisonné, named Yves Peintures. The book featured a series of intense monochromes linked to various cities he had lived in during the previous years. Yves Peintures anticipated his first two shows of oil paintings, at the Club des Solitaires, Paris, October 1955 and Yves: Proposition monochromes at Gallery Colette Allendy, February 1956. Public responses to these shows, which displayed orange, yellow, red, pink and blue monochromes, deeply disappointed Klein, as people went from painting to painting, linking them together as a sort of mosaic.
From the reactions of the audience, the artist said he was realizing realized that...” viewers thought his various, uniformly colored canvases amounted to a new kind of bright, abstract interior decoration”. Shocked at this misunderstanding, Klein knew a further and decisive step in the direction of monochrome art would have to be taken...From that time onwards he decided he would concentrate on one single, primary color alone - blue.
The next exhibition, 'Proposte Monochrome, Epoca Blu' (Proposition Monochrome; Blue Epoch) at the Gallery Apollinaire, Milan, (January 1957), featured 11 identical blue canvases, using ultramarine pigment suspended in a synthetic resin 'Rhodopas', described by Klein as "The Medium". Discovered with the help of Edouard Adam, a Parisian paint dealer, the optical effect retained the brilliance of the pigment which, when suspended in linseed oil, tended to become dull. Klein later deposited a Soleau envelope for this recipe to maintain the "authenticity of the pure idea." This color, reminiscent of the lapis lazuli, used to paint Madonna's robes in medieval paintings, was to become known as the patented color of Klein - International Klein Blue (IKB).
The paintings were attached to poles placed 20 cm away from the walls to increase their spatial ambiguities. Interestingly, all 11 of the canvases were priced differently. The buyers would go through the gallery, observing each canvas and purchase the one that was deemed best in their own eyes specifically. Klein's idea was that each buyer would see something unique in the canvas that they bought that other buyers may not have seen. In this way, although each painting visually looked the same, the impact each had on the buyer was unique.
The show was a critical and commercial success, traveling to Paris, Düsseldorf, and London. The Parisian exhibition, at the Iris Clert Gallery in May 1957, became a seminal happening. To mark the opening, 1001 blue balloons were released and blue postcards were sent out using IKB stamps that Klein had bribed the postal service to accept as legitimate. Concurrently, an exhibition of tubs of blue pigment and fire paintings was held at Galerie Collette Allendy.
Yves Klein, Monochrome bleu sans titre (IKB 81), 1957
Also the same 1957 year, Klein began using nude models as “living paintbrushes,” covering them in paint and instructing them in the pressing and dragging of their bodies across paper and canvas. These works, called Anthropometries (Anthropométries), recorded gestural impressions and the physical energy of the body. Also in 1957, Klein undertook a project for the decoration of the entrance hall of the new opera house in Gelsenkirchen, West Germany. He signed the first manifesto of the group Nouveaux Réalistes (New Realists, 1960–63), written in 1960 by critic Pierre Restany.
Yves Klein, Portrait relief PR3 (portrait of Claude Pascal), 1962
Klein was made famous but this same rich colored ultramarine blue that was even patented in the year 1960 as the “International Klein Blue”, or IKB. Klein was inspired to develop IKB after searching for a shade of blue that effectively unlocked the endless void of space, eradicating the division of earth and sky. IKB, heavy in ultramarine, used a clear, colorless carrier (unlike traditional binders, which had a dulling effect) to suspend pure, dry pigment, maintaining the pigment’s original intensity.
Yves Klein, IKB74, 1958
Besides paintings, Klein made also live performances. In 1958, as part of a live performance, Klein choreographed female models who applied his paint to their bodies and then pressed their painted bodies on canvas or paper spread on the wall and the floor and that very experiment paved the way to the use of his “living brush” paintings. His Anthropométries series employed the models in a variety of motions and left the canvas with arrays of gestural impressions. On March 9, 1960, Klein conducted a 20-minute performance of his Monotone Symphony while his models “painted” new pieces of art. The artist had his ventures into conceptual art as well. For his work The Void (1957) he emptied the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, repainted its white walls white, and presented the empty space as a work of art.
For his work Leap into the Void (1960) he staged a photograph showing the artist leaping, arms spread, from a building. Capturing the artist suspended in space, the photograph appears to show him levitating by his own spiritual power. Klein died at age 34, but the variety of work he produced in his brief life and his many manifestos made him one of the groundbreaking conceptual artists of the 20th century.
Leap into the Void, 1960
Artistic action by Yves Klein, Makers Harry Shunk and János (Jean) Kender
Alongside works by Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, Klein's painting RE 46 (1960) was among the top-five sellers the Post-War and Contemporary Art auction in May 2006 at Christie’s. His monochromatic Blue Sponge painting sold for USD4,720,000. Previously, his painting RE I (1958) had sold for USD6,716,000 at Christie's New York in November 2000. In 2008, MG 9 (1962), a monochromatic gold painting, sold for USD21,000,000 at Christie's. FC1 (Fire Color 1) (1962), a nearly 10-foot long panel created with a blowtorch, water, and two models, sold for USD36.4 million at Christie's in 2012.
In 2013, Klein’s Sculpture Éponge Bleue Sans Titre, SE 168, a 1959 sculpture made with natural sea sponges drenched in blue pigment fetched USD 22 million, the highest price paid for a sculpture by the artist.
Yves Klein, Relief éponge (RE 46), 1960
Yves Klein, MG 9, 1962
In 1961, Klein was given a retrospective at the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, West Germany, and his first U.S. solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. He and architect Claude Parent collaborated that year on the design for fountains of water and fire, Fountains of Warsaw (Les Fontaines de Varsovie), for the Palais de Chaillot, Paris. In 1962, Klein executed a plaster cast of Arman and took part in Antagonismes 2: L’objet (Antagonisms 2: the object) at the Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris. Shortly before his death, he appeared in the film Mondo Cane (1962). Klein was the subject of a posthumous retrospective at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Germany (2004–05), as well as the major retrospective Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers (2010–11), which was presented at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., as well as the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Klein died on June 6, 1962, in Paris.
Yves Klein, FC 1, 1962