Today’s Artist Birthday: Yves Klein
Yves Klein (28 April 1928 – 6 June 1962) was a French artist considered an important figure in post-war European art. He is the leading member of the French artistic movement of Nouveau réalisme founded in 1960 by art critic Pierre Restany. Klein was a pioneer in the development of performance art, and is seen as an inspiration to, and as a forerunner of, Minimal art, as well as Pop art.
Yves Klein was born on April 28, 1928, in Nice, France, to an artistic family; his mother, Marie Raymond, was a leading figure in the Art Informel movement, while his father, Fred Klein, painted figures and landscapes characteristic of the Post-Impressionists. Although Klein grew up in a creative household, he received no formal artistic training. The family lived in Paris between 1930 and 1939, but spent the summer months with artist friends in Canges-ser-Mer where he was left in the care of his aunt, Rose Raymond. She provided him with stability and a pragmatic outlook, a stark contrast to his parents’ free-spirited attitude. These differing viewpoints, combined with his parents’ artistic conflicts between figurative and abstract work, eventually led him to reject line and severely restrict color in his early work.
His major artistic breakthrough occurred in 1947 while lying on a beach with Pascal and Arman. In the apocryphal account, the three friends divided the universe between themselves: Arman claimed the materiality of the earth, Pascal appropriated language and words, and Klein possessed “the void,” or the planet empty of all matter. Klein embarked on a “realistic-imaginative” daydream into the depths of the universe, where he claimed to have inscribed his name in the sky. The symbolic gesture was a flashpoint in his artistic pursuit to grapple with what he defined as the infinite.
The enlightening realization of the void in the sky led Klein to experiment in painting, performance, and music. In 1949, he created The Monotone-Silence Symphony, a piece containing a single chord sustained for twenty minutes followed by twenty minutes of meditative silence. The composition symbolized the sound pitch emitted from the monochrome blue sky (or “the void”), emphasizing universal harmony.
He lived in London with Pascal from 1948 to 1952, where he began to assist in the London frame shop of Robert Savage, learning gilding and basic painting techniques using raw pigments. In 1953, Klein traveled to Japan where he received a black belt in judo at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo. There, he had a second private exhibition of monochromatic paintings and proclaimed “The Manifesto of the Monochrome,” in which he declared monochrome to be an “open window to freedom, as the possibility of being immersed in the immeasurable existence of color.” He was determined to evoke emotions and sensations independent of line, rendered objects, or abstracted symbols, believing the monochromatic surface released the painting from materiality through the totality of pure pigment.
In 1956, Klein established himself in the Paris art scene with a controversial exhibition at the Galerie Colette Allendy titled “Yves: Propositions Monochromes.” Twenty monochromatic paintings were displayed, rendered in tones of blue, red, yellow, and orange. He received a disappointing reaction from the public, who viewed the exhibition as a new form of interior abstraction rather than an infinite journey into the immateriality of the surface. But Pierre Restany, an emerging French critic, immediately understood the sublime power of Klein’s monochrome and supported him in expressing his viewpoint. After considering the public’s misinterpretation at the Galerie Colette Allendy, Klein decided to push the monochrome a step further by focusing on his favorite color, blue.
In 1956, with the assistance of a chemical technician, Klein succeeded in suspending his favorite ultramarine pigment in petroleum extracts, which allowed the pigment to maintain its brilliance and something of its powdery texture without dulling. He named the substance International Klein Blue (IKB). This marked the beginning of Klein’s Blue Period, in which he produced several monochromatic paintings in the signature color, titling each “International Klein Blue,” combined with a serial number. Klein believed IKB was the perfect instrument with which to elaborate his belief in spiritual powers and the immaterial; ultramarine is the traditional symbolic color of the Holy Ghost in Christian religion and also evokes the expanse of the infinite sky and the depth of the oceans. In 1957, he exhibited 11 evenly spaced, vibrant IKB paintings at the Gallery Apollinaire in Milan. The paintings were displayed on poles, identical in size and structure but each bearing a different price, something that for Klein suggested the irrelevance of the material objects themselves and the importance instead of the viewer’s response.
Klein took the concept of the immaterial a step further when he removed everything with the exception of an oversized cabinet from the Iris Clert Gallery in 1958. He believed that in emptying the gallery “the invisible [would] become effective through the perceptible.” He titled the piece “Le Vide (The Void),” and created an intricate entrance ritual for the opening night.
In 1960, he renounced personal attachment to the picture plane by applying IKB with paint rollers and female models in a series dubbed the “Anthropométries,” the first of which was exhibited as a performance piece at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris. Nude female models slathered themselves in IKB and pressed their bodies against the gallery walls to create imprints.
During this time, he became increasingly fascinated with natural elements and would incorporate fire, water, sea sponges, and gravel into his canvases and sculptures. This resulted in a series of fire paintings, monochromatic relief paintings, and IKB sculptures that expressed cosmological ideas of infinite space.
Klein received a poor response after he exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1961, where his paintings failed to sell, and he responded with the Chelsea Hotel Manifesto (1961) in which he explained his ideas.
On January 21, 1962, Yves Klein married artist Rotraut Uecker at the Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs church in Paris. Every aspect of the ceremony was meticulously orchestrated by Klein himself, with true concern for ritual. The invitation card was stamped with Yves Klein’s coat-of-arms (blazon of blue fields, horizontal stripes bearing the rose and the bee, the symbol of life through love and labor). The text was printed in three colors, blue, gold, and pink. A guard of honor, made up of knights of the Order of Saint Sebastian, welcomed the bride and groom as they left the church. The ceremony was followed by a reception at La Coupole, where the guests were served a blue cocktail. The party later moved over to Larry Rivers’ studio. That very day, Christo Javacheff began the immortalization of the event on canvas; but the painting itself, to which Yves Klein contributed, remains unfinished today.
On May 12, 1962, Klein shows symptoms of a heart attack, and on May 15 he suffers a second, full heart attack after attending a friend’s opening night exhibition. Yves never recovered, and died at his home on June 6, 1962 at the age of 34. He is buried at a small cemetery at La Colle-sur-Loup (Alpes-Maritimes).