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Wikipedia About 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 the 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. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Yves Klein, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Half prophet, half charlatan, Yves Klein took the European art scene by storm in a brief career that lasted only from 1954 to 1962. Working in Paris during the apogee of geometric abstraction and Art Informel, in an intellectual scene dominated by existentialism, he carved out a theoretical ground based on his embrace of Rosicrucianism, his interest in Gaston Bachelard’s philosophy of space, and the ethic coming from his career as a judo professional.

Klein was an experimenter who embraced painting, sculpture, performance, photography, music, architecture, and theoretical writing; he left posthumous plans for works in theater, dance, and cinema. Self-identified as “the painter of space,” he inaugurated his defining series of monochromes in 1957, choosing an ultramarine blue of his own invention after trying various other hues.1 According to Rosicrucian theory, such a blue would result from the fusion of all form and matter, but Klein’s choice could also be understood as an extension of Bachelard’s vision that “First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing; then there is a blue depth.”2 Klein searched for immaterial spirituality through pure color, which led him to refute Art Informel and abstraction in general: “I am the painter of space. I am not an abstract painter but on the contrary a figurative and realistic one. Let’s be reasonable, to paint space I owe it to myself to go there, into space itself.”3

He touched on that space in his 1958 exhibition of pure, immaterial pictorial sensibility (he emptied the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris and painted it white), and in his collaborative experiment with architect Werner Ruhnau on “architecture” built of air, fire, and water. Klein actually leapt into space one morning in October 1960, appearing to throw himself out the window of a suburban building. The event was photographically documented, but Klein left the veracity of the image ambiguous, and with it the question of whether or not he had actually “levitated.”4

On Sunday, November 27, 1960, Klein ran the photograph on the front page of the Journal du dimanche, a single-issue, self-published newspaper, thereby appropriating the day—and the entire Earth—as his theater of the void. The paper masqueraded as news and was available in newspaper kiosks, precipitating a shift in the status of photography, which conceptual artists and photographers would later embrace. In Roland Barthes’ words, “The image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image … the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination.”5

Klein’s best-known works are the nearly two hundred Anthropometries, begun in 1958. Under his direction, nude female models were smeared with his ultramarine blue and used as “living brushes” to make body prints on prepared sheets of paper. The works were realized either in Klein’s studio or during well-rehearsed public performances, and were initially understood as an extension of or a critical commentary on Action Painting. The artist aggressively dismissed that interpretation: “Many art critics claimed that via this method of painting I was in fact merely reenacting the technique of what has been called ‘action painting.’ I would like to make it clear that this endeavor is opposed to ‘action painting’ in that I am actually completely detached from the physical work during its creation… . I would not even think of dirtying my hands with paint. Detached and distant, the work of art must complete itself before my eyes and under my command. Thus, as soon as the work is realized, I can stand there, present at the ceremony, spotless, calm, relaxed, worthy of it, and ready to receive it as it is born into the tangible world.”6 More than an expression of the inner psyche of the artist, the Anthropometries seem to propose a way to give visual presence to a cosmic, spiritual body, or the immateriality of the aura, which neither photography nor cinema could capture.

One of the last Anthropometries, Suaire de Mondo Cane (Mondo Cane Shroud) (1961), was realized under very specific circumstances and could almost be seen as the shroud of Yves Klein. In 1961, after director Gualtiero Jacopetti proposed to include him in a film, Klein made an Anthropometrie on two layers of translucent gauze so that the camera could film through the fabric from behind and record the human brushes in action.7 The result, Mondo Cane Shroud, has rarely been shown since, but it opens the door to a new understanding of Klein’s interest in the possibilities offered by moving images and his ideas about making the immaterial visible by using a camera to produce a painting.

Jacopetti’s film Mondo Cane (1962) was in the end so disrespectful of Klein and his work that the painter never recovered after its first humiliating screening at the Cannes Film Festival.8 He died a few weeks later of a heart attack, leaving an unachieved oeuvre that is often seen as a precursor of Minimal, Conceptual, and Body Art but whose true aim was to reach “beyond the problematic of art”9 and rethink the world in spiritual and aesthetic terms. For Klein, this meant a monochrome revolution.

  1. The color, which he called International Klein Blue, was created with the help of Parisian colorist Edouard Adam.

  2. Klein quoting Bachelard in Yves Klein, Yves Klein, Conférence de la Sorbonne, 3 Juin 1959 (Paris: Galerie Montaigne, 1992). Trans. Philippe Vergne.

  3. Interview with André Arnaud, April 29, 1958, quoted in Nan Rosenthal, “La lévitation assistée,” in Jean-Yves Mock, ed., Yves Klein, exh. cat. (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou Musée national d’art moderne, 1983), 228.

  4. Klein’s leap was documented by photographers Harry Shunk and John Kender. Montaging the resulting photographs, Klein removed any suggestion of a safety net, leaving only the appearance of an empty street below him.

  5. From Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message,” in Image, Music, Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill, 1997), 15–31.

  6. Yves Klein, “Manifeste de l’hôtel Chelsea,” in Yves Klein, 196. Trans. Philippe Vergne.

  7. Through comparison with the final film footage, Mondo Cane Shroud appears to have been made during rehearsal sessions.

  8. Mondo Cane (A Dog’s World) was a documentary-style film, a hybrid between a legitimate study of strange phenomena, and a voyeuristic, degrading exploitation of contemporary culture across the globe.

  9. Yves Klein, Le dépassement de la problématique de l’art (Louvière, Belgium: Éditions de Montbliart, 1959) reprinted in Yves Klein, Le dépassement de la problématique de l’art et autres écrits (Paris: École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, 2003), 80–117. Trans. Philippe Vergne.

Vergne, Philippe. “Yves Klein.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center