When you hear the name Yves Klein (1928-1962), you don’t think of blue, you see blue, an electric celestial blue, the hallowed hue of the Virgin Mary’s robes in medieval paintings. The French artist, whose brief career ended when he died of a heart attack, used this vibrant ultramarine to create large-scale monochrome paintings. He saturated sponges with it and mounted them as sculptures. He painted naked young women with it, then had them roll across large canvases, leaving ghostly imprints. He made molds of the “Victory of Samothrace” and “Venus de Milo” and drenched them in blue. He even planned to bathe the Odelisk on the Place de la Concorde in blue light, but city officials didn’t go for it.
Now, Kerry Brougher and Philippe Vergne, co-curators of “Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers,” want to take visitors beyond the blue. This major retrospective, which opens at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, then travels to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, presents Klein’s celebrated paintings and sculptures but also many of his lesser-known creations—works they believe are the true core of his oeuvre.
Why did you decide to mount an Yves Klein retrospective, and why now?
Philippe Vergne: The last big Klein retrospective in the United States was about 30 years ago. Since then, a lot of research has been done on this artist, and we think it’s time to take a new look at his work. Klein is very well known for his paintings and sculpture but is less known for his work in other media: performances, music, theater, architecture and, above all, his project for a new society. Klein’s ultimate work would probably have been to create a new way of living. Unfortunately, he died very young and wasn’t able to accomplish everything he set out to do.
Kerry Brougher: We think that Yves Klein is one of the most important figures of the 20th century. After World War II, the avant garde was stuck in a quagmire. Then along comes this completely different kind of artist who literally believed in an “immaterial sensibility,” and that if you could reach that state, you could actually levitate! In a way, he levitated art out of the doldrums of WWII and into a whole new era that continues to this day. He opened the doors to so many things: Pop Art, installation art, environmental art, light and space art, conceptual art, performance art…. We want this show to establish his pivotal role in the course of art history.
Klein’s architectural drawings are really quite astonishing.
PV: Yes, he was investigating “air architecture,” a sort of immaterial architecture. For example, roofs made of pulsed air that could repel rain and walls made of fire. He even designed beds where the body floats on a cushion of air. Today, there are actually such beds in hospitals for people who are bedridden for a very long time, to prevent them from getting bedsores. Klein thought a lot about technology, about ways to bring together architecture and the environment. At the time, his ideas appeared totally utopian. Yet if you look at what is going on today in architecture and technology, he really wasn’t all that far off.
What prompted him to think in such radically new directions?
PV: Klein was fascinated by what he called “immaterial sensibility.” When he painted a blue canvas, he did not consider it abstract art; it was a “landscape of space.” This led to a fascination with the void, with how to inhabit the void: How can we make use of the void, of all these elements that are invisible and immaterial but that are actually here and that we encounter on a daily basis? It was about having an architecture that is not about constraints but about freedom. If you can build walls of air, you are liberated from materiality, not only in terms of bricks and mortar but also in terms of possession and materialism. So for him, pursuing “immaterial sensibility” and “immaterial architecture” was a form of social revolution.
In the exhibition, there’s a letter that Klein wrote to Fidel Castro, telling him that the Cuban revolution was completely parallel with his own “Blue Revolution,” and that they should work together! He was definitely thinking way beyond painting and sculpture. Indeed, he used to say that painting and sculpture were merely the “ashes of his art.” For him, his real art was all the untraditional work that he did.
Where did he get his utopian ideas?
KB: I’m not sure that anyone really knows for certain. What we do know is that Klein spent a lot of time in Japan—he studied judo and eventually earned a black belt—and was exposed to Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophies. Many of his ideas about levitation and leaping into the void, about attaining different mental and spiritual states, derived from those experiences. He also had an innate desire to find a way forward through spirituality. He was a devout Catholic but was always searching for new paths. For a period during the late 1940s, he was a member of the Rosicrucians. He eventually became disenchanted with them, but the concept of being able to reach different states through mental activity and through colors deeply influenced him. We also know that as a child, he was very interested in magicians. I think he saw himself as something of a magician who could use his trade to help change the world.
You say that he called his painting and sculptures “the ashes of his art,” but didn’t he continue to make them throughout his career?
PV: Yes, but you have to remember that his career was very short—only about seven or eight years. I spent a lot of time studying his writings—he wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages—and soon realized that all of his ideas were happening at once. For seven years, he never stopped: He was involved in painting, architecture, performance art…. He was extremely prolific until the last moment. He was a hyperactive person, which may be one of the reasons he had that heart attack.
Many artists have painted monochromes. How are Klein’s different?
PV: He never thought of himself as an abstract painter—as I mentioned, when he painted a blue monochrome, he was painting space, representing the void. Klein once submitted an orange monochrome to be shown in a Paris salon, and it was refused. The jury told him that if he would just add a little dot or a line or something, they could show it because it would then be an abstract painting. But he said no, that his paintings weren’t abstract but were landscapes of space and freedom.
Klein used a number of colors in his monochromes, but blue became the dominant color. Why?
PV: For him, blue was absolute space. He claimed his first work was a photograph of the sky above Nice. He also read French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s writings about the void, which maintained that the color of the void is blue. So for Klein, the best way to give a physical form or shape to his fascination with the immaterial was to use blue. He eventually worked with a pigment master in Paris and invented a technique so that the pure color would remain on the canvas. He patented it, and it is called International Klein Blue (IKB). The formula is still secret.
KB: Klein saw blue as a portal, as a way of reaching a different state of mind by staring at the blue. That’s why it’s important that this exhibition be installed properly, that paintings not be hung too close together or juxtaposed in ways that make them start to look like decoration. They weren’t about one thing next to another, they were about the individual object as a portal to somewhere else. In that sense, I see his work as a precursor to the light and space art of the late ’60s and ’70s.
Would you tell us a little about some of his other artistic endeavors?
KB: Klein purposefully blurred the lines between his life and his art. He was very ambivalent about whether he was a painter or even an artist per se, and he struggled with the notion that the artist could be more than a simple object-maker, that he could be a man of ideas who could have a real impact on the world.
So along with paintings, he did interventions, such as Dimanche, the “newspaper of a single day” that he put out in Paris and that completely explains the kind of work he was trying to accomplish. He also created a gallery show known as “The Void,” essentially an empty gallery that he painted white. Visitors would enter through a blue curtain, but the only “thing” in the room would be a sense of the artist, created in effect by his absence. And at one of his openings, he released 1,001 blue balloons to make a statement about his “Blue Revolution.” These were not just stunts but were part of his work. Klein blurred the line between making objects and what we would call today “performance art” or “intervention.”
I believe that your co-curator calls Klein “a shaman and a showman.”
KB: Indeed. Klein was talking about some very serious notions: the concept of using the color blue to reach an immaterial state as opposed to a material state; the idea of introducing a new spirituality in art that really hadn’t been there since Kandinsky and that had been destroyed in the ’30s and ’40s; the idea of harking back to Delacroix’s insistence on color over line. But I don’t think that it would have been possible for anyone to take any of this seriously unless it had been infused with a dose of humor, and there’s a lot of humor in Klein’s work. He was very serious about all of this, yet he would inject a sense of the overly dramatic, to the point of being almost absurdist.
But after talking with his widow and reading his writings, I really believe that he was totally sincere in his own humor-filled way. He absolutely believed that people could reach a different state of mind through his art and through their own art. This was a radical change from the way art was being made in Europe in the late ’40s and early ’50s; Yves Klein was really a turning point between modern and contemporary art.
Do you see a paradox between being someone who pursued the immaterial yet produced such beautiful objects—including a coffee table?
KB: It is a paradox. Here’s what I think: Klein made his most radical work way too early in his career. In 1954, he produced “Yves Peintures.” It’s a sort of portfolio with a preface that goes on for several pages but that is nothing but blank lines. So you have a book without words. That is followed by what are supposedly 10 plates reproducing monochromes that he made in the 1950s. Each one is signed “Yves” along with the city or country it was made in. The truth is, none of these paintings ever existed. He simply cut out rectangles of commercially dyed paper and put them into these portfolios.
So here you have an artist who has created a work that leads you to think that he has created paintings that actually don’t exist. Therefore, the work really exists only in the viewer’s mind. Already, he was introducing the idea that a painting doesn’t have to be a real painting; that conceptually, something can exist as an idea without existing as an object. But I think that he thought that he had gone way too far too early, so he backed off; he knew that if people were going to understand what he was doing, he would have to make some objects. Otherwise, they would not perceive him as an artist. That’s when he began making the monochromes and focusing on the color blue. So yes, it was a paradox, one that he understood very well.
In recent years, Klein’s paintings have been commanding ever higher prices at auction. Why do you think that is?
PV: He’s a fantastic artist! And of course, there is the market reality that the more rare a work is, the more valuable it is, and Klein had a very short career. In addition, people know this retrospective is coming, and that focuses more attention on an artist. But people are also taking a new look at Klein’s work and are realizing that it has been undervalued when compared with American artists from the same generation.
Isn’t it rather ironic that people are willing to pay so much for works that the artist himself referred to as “ashes”?
PV: Klein was a very skilled artist, and he was very aware of the aesthetic quality of his work. But he was also very complex. Kerry and I hope that when people leave the exhibition, they will understand that Klein’s art can’t be summed up only by his paintings, no matter how beautiful they are. And we would like them to take that idea a step further, to the notion that art isn’t merely an object, a fetish, with a very high price tag. What makes art is the way you perceive the world, and this notion of perception is what Klein was all about. An object can help you get a different perception of the world, but Klein was more interested in the perception than in the object that facilitates that perception.
So yes, the fact that a Klein painting is worth millions of dollars is in itself a contradiction. He used to say, “OK, my paintings are good and great, but they are not my real art.” What does it mean, then, when a monochrome painting sells for millions of dollars?