One summer’s day in 1947, three young men were sitting on a beach in Nice in the south of France. To pass the time, they decided to play a game and divide up the world between them. One chose the animal kingdom, another the province of plants.
The third man opted for the mineral realm, before lying back and staring up at the ultramarine infinity of the heavens. Then, with the contentment of someone who had suddenly decided what course his life should take, he turned to his friends and announced, “The blue sky is my first artwork.”
That man was Yves Klein, whom the New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl described in 2010 as “the last French artist of major international consequence”. In a period of prodigious creativity lasting from 1954 to his death from a third heart attack at the age of 34 in 1962, Klein altered the course of Western art.
He did so thanks to his commitment to the spiritually uplifting power of colour: gold, rose, but above all, blue. In fact, his chromatic devotion was so profound that in 1960 he patented a colour of his own invention, which he called International Klein Blue.
Born in 1928 with two painters for parents, Klein always displayed a penchant for showmanship. He loved magic as well as the arcane rituals of the mystical Rosicrucian society, and the influence of both would later manifest itself in his work.
After spending a year and a half in the early 1950s mastering judo in Japan, where he earned a black belt, he eventually settled in Paris and devoted himself to art. His first exhibition of monochrome paintings in various colours was held in the private showrooms of a Parisian publishing house in 1955.
Yves Klein paintings on display as part of Blue Revolution exhibition at the Mumok Museum in Vienna in 2007 (Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images)
His short career was characterised by many radical gestures, often touched with his flair for spectacle. To celebrate the opening of a solo exhibition in 1957, for instance, he released 1,001 helium-filled blue balloons in the St-Germain-des-Prés district of Paris. The following year, an exhibition now known as ‘The Void’ consisted of nothing more than an empty gallery – yet it attracted a crowd of 2,500 people that had to be dispersed by police.
Leap Into the Void, his famous black-and-white photograph of 1960, presents Klein soaring upwards from the parapet of a building like a Left Bank Superman. Like all feats of magic, though, the photograph is actually a trick: in this case a montage, so that the tarpaulin held by some friends, which would have softened Klein’s landing, has disappeared.
Perhaps his most notorious performance, though, occurred in March 1960, at the opening of his Anthropometries of the Blue Epoch exhibition in Paris. On this occasion, footage of which can be viewed online, Klein appeared before an audience wearing a formal tailcoat and white bowtie. While nine musicians played his Monotone-Silence Symphony (a single note drawn out for 20 minutes, followed by a further 20 minutes of quiet), Klein directed three naked models as they covered themselves with sticky blue paint, before imprinting images of their bodies upon a white canvas. The models had become, he said, “living brushes”.
Klein photographed in front of one of his Blue Sponge Sculptures in the late 1950s (Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
“The genius of Klein is becoming more and more apparent,” says Catherine Wood, Tate Modern’s curator of contemporary art and performance. “He has been dismissed by some art historians as a charlatan or – because of his use of naked female models – as conventional and sexist, but his strategies were playfully critical and are becoming more significant in their influence for the younger generation. It could be argued that he was a critical prankster on par with Duchamp.”
Expanding the spectrum
For all his influence on conceptual art, though, Klein was most preoccupied with colour. As early as 1956, while on holiday in Nice, he experimented with a polymer binder to preserve the luminescence and powdery texture of raw yet unstable ultramarine pigment. He would eventually patent his formula as International Klein Blue (IKB) in 1960.
Before that, though, he made his name with an exhibition held in Milan in January 1957 that included 11 of his unframed, identical signature blue monochromes, one of which was bought by the Italian artist Lucio Fontana. This show ushered in what Klein called his “Blue Revolution”, and soon he was slapping IKB onto all sorts of objects, such as sponges, globes and busts of Venus. Even his ‘living brushes’ dipped their flesh in IKB.
Art historians still debate the significance of Klein’s use of ultramarine. For some, it represented a break with angst-ridden abstraction, which was popular in the wake of World War II. Painted mechanically using a roller, Klein’s flat, blank monochromes seemed to rebuff expressionist art.
Klein’s Blue Sponge Sculptures (Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images)
For other scholars, though, Klein’s depthless monochromes and obsession with ‘the void’ can be understood as expressions of the threat of nuclear holocaust. “We absolutely must realise – and this is no exaggeration – that we are living in the atomic age,” Klein once said, “where all physical matter can vanish from one day to the next to surrender its place to what we can envision as the most abstract.”
Yet perhaps his love of blue is less specific and more profound. Klein was a pious Catholic, and in religious art blue often represents eternity and godliness. For instance, Giotto, whom Klein admired, was a brilliant advocate of blue. Klein’s ultramarine monochromes are not overtly Christian, but he certainly used the sensuousness of IKB to suggest spirituality. As he once said, “At first there is nothing, then there is a profound nothingness, after that a blue profundity.”
Certainly, his rich, radiant monochromes share a singular characteristic: they all have a vertiginous quality that seems to suck us out of reality towards another, immaterial dimension. The effect of looking at them is not dissimilar to meditating upon a deep azure sky – something that Klein perhaps intuited as a young man, on that beach in Nice in 1947.
Klein’s 1960 painting Great Blue Anthropophagy, Homage to Tennessee Williams (Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images)
When considering Klein, then, it is important to remember that for all his stunts and attention-grabbing performances he was a sensualist as much as a provocateur – and that this accounts for his fondness for colour. “For Klein, pure colour offered a way of using art not as a means of painting a picture, but as a way of creating a spiritual, almost alchemical experience, beyond time, approaching the immaterial,” explains Kerry Brougher, who curated the major retrospective Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, in 2010.
“Out of all the colours Klein used, ultramarine blue became the most important. Unlike many other colours, which create opaque blockages, ultramarine shimmers and glows, seemingly opening up to immaterial realms. Klein’s blue monochromes are not paintings but experiences, passageways leading to the void.”
Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph