Yves Klein's Postmodernism
French Avant-Garde Conceptual Art of the Early 1960s.

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Yves Klein's Postmodernist Art (1956-62)


Yves Klein's Romanticism
"Le Vide" (The Void)
"Living Brush Painting"
Seeking Immateriality
Klein's Demise
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One of the greatest contemporary artists of
the late 50s and early 60s.

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Best Artists of All Time.


The extraordinary French artist Yves Klein (1928-62) set the standards for avant-garde art for a whole generation. Emerging at a time of political upheaval in France, Klein was not only a pioneer of conceptual art, but also a ground-breaking exponent of performance art, taking part in several high risk events. His rejection of traditional artistic norms - in true Dada spirit, along with his wholehearted pursuit of an entirely new set of aesthetics, makes him the first and most original exponent of postmodernist art - in Europe, if not the world. A founder of the experimental tendency known as Nouveau Realisme (New Realism), Klein was at the centre of the European avant-garde of 1960, which gave birth to movements like Fluxus, Situationist International and Arte Povera, and which breathed new life into junk art and assemblage. Other developing postmodernist artists of the day included: the assemblage artist Arman (1928-2005), the Lettrist Francois Dufrene (1930-82), the plastics sculptor Martial Raysse (b.1936), the object artist Daniel Spoerri (b.1930), the Kinetic art activist Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) and his wife Niki de Saint-Phalle (1930-2002), the avant-garde sculptor Cesar (1921-1998) and the empaquetage artists Christo & Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009). Note: For a comparison with progressive styles of contemporary art in America during the sixties, see: Pop Art (1955-70), Happenings (1960s onwards), Installations (1960s onwards), and Feminist Art (late 1960s).



Yves Klein's Romanticism

The 1956 performance of the costumed Georges Mathieu (1921-2012) making action paintings before an audience at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris had a catalyzing effect for French artists, just as the first happenings by Allan Kaprow (1927-2006) did for artists in New York at the end of the fifties. Like Kaprow, Mathieu made action painting the basis for greater direct engagement and a new theatricality. Between 1958 and 1962 the art actions of Yves Klein (1928-62) infused this theatricality and the tendency toward a more directly physical expressionism with an aura of mysticism that tied them into the traditions of European romanticism of the 19th century. Klein sought a flash of spiritual insight for his viewers, in which he was the medium of revelation: unlike the American action painter's revelation of personal identity, Klein's work purported to evoke an intuition into the cosmic order.

In 1948, the twenty-year-old Yves Klein discovered a book by Max Heindel called "La Cosmogonie des Rose-Croix". Heindel's book provided the key to the teachings of the Rosicrucianists, an esoteric Christian sect, which Klein studied obsessively for five years. According to Heindel, the world was approaching the end of the Age of Matter, when Spirit lies captive in solid bodies.

Soon after coming to Paris in 1955, Klein began referring to himself as an "initiate," seeking to guide the world into a new "Age of Space," in which "Spirit" would exist free of form, objects would levitate, and personalities would travel liberated from the body. Blue embodied Heindel's new age and also Klein's imagined freedom of the sky. As self-appointed "Messenger of the Blue Void," Klein aspired to enter into the world of colour, to exist as a colour. Where form and line signalled separateness and limitation, colour embodied spirit that had coagulated enough to be visible but not enough to precipitate into form. colour expressed unity, openness, enlightenment - the wholeness and infinity of space. "I espouse the cause of pure colour, which has been invaded and occupied guilefully by the cowardly line and its manifestation, drawing in art," he proclaimed. "I will defend colour, and I will deliver it, and I will lead it to final triumph."

Klein had started painting seriously in Spain, where he had spent ten months prior to his arrival in Paris. His paintings each consisted of a single colour, uniformly applied, edge-to-edge. After the rejection of an orange "monochrome" from the 1955 Salon des Realistes Nouvelles in Paris, Klein sought out the young critic Pierre Restany (1930-2003) to help him obtain a gallery show. (Note: Together, Klein and Restany founded the avant-garde movement known as Nouveau Realisme 1960-2.) According to Restany they met in a cafe, and Klein explained to him the "diffusion of energy in space, its stabilization by pure colour, and its impregnating effect on sensitivity." Klein intended the monochrome painting to fix a focus for the cosmic energies traveling through space: it was to provide a locus of intuitions which could not be formulated. "The authentic quality of the picture, its very being," according to Klein, "lies beyond the visible, in pictorial sensitivity in the state of prime matter." "Yves the Monochrome," as he called himself, employed pure colour pigments, gold leaf, the female body, fire, and water in his art, and in 1958 turned to completely immaterial works in an ongoing effort to become conscious of and hold on to his revelation of the infinite. He persistently spoke of the "impregnation" of spiritual vibrations in a space or a thing (as in the Rosicrucian doctrine of Spirit impregnating solid objects). In 1957 he began using sponges as a metaphor for this spiritual permeation of matter. He mounted them on rods and used them in monochrome reliefs, anticipating Minimalist art by almost a decade.

At first Klein made his "monochrome propositions" (as Restany called them to emphasize their philosophical and immaterial nature) in a variety of colours. In 1956 he limited his palette to an ultramarine blue, then broadened the palette to blue, pink, and gold (the Rosicrucian trilogy of the colours of fire). Klein had a Paris gallery show in 1956. In January 1957 he launched "L'Epoca Blu" (The Blue Epoch) in the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan, where it irrevocably altered the career of the Italian artist Piero Manzoni. In May he had two Paris shows at the Iris Clert and Colette Allendy Galleries simultaneously, in June he exhibited in Dusseldorf (the Zero Group came together in Cologne during 1957, influenced by Klein), and in late June he opened a one-man show in London. Thus, he successfully orchestrated his entrance on to the European scene as though everywhere at once.

"Le Vide" (The Void)

Klein went beyond the monochrome to pure immateriality in Le Vide (The Void) of 1958. For this April "exhibition" he cleaned out and whitewashed the Galerie Iris Clert, "impregnating" the empty space with his spirituality. By arranging to get a cabinet minister on the guest list he succeeded in having Republican Guards in full regalia flanking the door at the opening and nearly 3,000 visitors turned up. The streets were so crowded that police and fire department vehicles were called to the scene.

After some time, Klein appeared at the door in formal dress and began guiding small groups into the vacant gallery. Many burst out laughing and walked right out, others found Le Vide deeply moving and stayed for hours. The writer Albert Camus wrote in the guest book "with the void, full powers." Meanwhile, glasses of a blue drink were offered to those waiting outside, as at a church sacrament. Klein had had the liquid concocted with a biologist's stain so that after the opening everyone who drank it had blue urine for a week.

Note: Half a century later, the Pompidou Centre in Paris hosted a weird reincarnation of Klein's "empty" exhibition, when it hosted an art show entitled "The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility". The show consisted of nine empty rooms.

"Living Brush Painting"

A little more than a month later, on June 5, 1958, Klein performed his first "Living Brush" painting in a posh apartment on the Isle Saint-Louis in Paris. In this performance a nude model applied blue paint to her torso and then pressed the paint on to the canvas on the floor, forming fluid patterns of abstract art, as directed by the artist.

For other contemporary works, see: 20th-Century Paintings.

The apartment in which Klein staged the first "Living Brush" painting belonged to Robert Godet, a former Resistance fighter, a pilot, and a fifth-degree black belt in judo. Klein himself was a fourth-degree black belt and this may be how they knew one another. Godet was also a disciple of Gurdjieff and deeply involved in the occult and in Eastern religions. It was rumoured that Godet supported his high lifestyle from gun-running money and indeed he accidentally killed himself in 1960 on the airfield in Benares, India, while preparing to deliver a planeload of arms to Tibetan revolutionaries. Klein must have seen some of his own fantasies of adventure lived out in Godet.

In February 1960 Klein began leaving the blue imprint of the models' bodies on the canvases, rather than covering the whole of each canvas in a monochrome field. He called these abstract paintings "Anthropometries". The most celebrated public performance of the "Living Brushes" was on March 9, 1960. Attired in blue formal wear and his ceremonial cross of the Order of St. Sebastian (an ancient fraternity of knights he had joined), he appeared before a seated audience at the Galerie Internationale d'Art Contemporain. He gestured to the orchestra, and they began to play his Monotone Symphony - a single chord held for twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of silence. (Note: Klein's musical event has echoes of "4.33" - the completely silent piece of "music" composed by the avant-garde American composer John Cage 1912-92). He gestured again and three naked women came out, smeared themselves with blue paint, and, under his direction, pressed their bodies against sheets of white paper on the floor and wall. Klein never touched the work, remaining at a pure, "immaterial" distance.

Note: In addition to Klein and Mathieu, other important European abstract painters of the 50s/60s included: Serge Poliakoff (1906-69), Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-92), Alfred Manessier (1911-93), Wols (1913-51), Nicolas de Stael (1914-55), Asger Jorn (1914-73), Pierre Soulages (b.1919), Karel Appel (1921-2006), and the French-Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002).

Seeking Immateriality

Meanwhile in 1959 Klein pushed still further into the terrain of immateriality. At an exhibition in Antwerp he stood in the space allotted for his work and read a passage from the writings of Gaston Bachelard, impregnating the space with his spiritual vibrations. In August, when he decided to abandon Iris Clert for a more established dealer, he did not tell her directly but went into the gallery, picked up his work and told Clert's assistant that his paintings were invisible and that prospective purchasers should simply write her a check. To her surprise, the very first person to whom she told this agreed to do it, so Klein devised his "Ritual for the Relinquishing of Immaterial Zones of Pictorial Sensibility". On November 18, 1959 the buyer met the artist by the Seine, delivered a prescribed quantity of pure gold in exchange for an "immaterial zone of pictorial sensibility" and received a receipt which, following the terms of the agreement, the buyer solemnly burned. The artist then threw half the gold into the river and the entire transaction was recorded in photographs.

Despite this relentless drive toward the elimination of the object in art, the female form continued to demand Klein's attention. He made some of his "Anthropometries" by spraying paint around the form of the model to produce a negative imprint that has associations with the prehistoric hand stencils in the caves at Pech-Merle (c.25,000 BCE) and Lascaux (c.17,000 BCE). He also sprayed models with water, had them press themselves on to the canvas, and then attacked the surface with a flame thrower to leave a haunting imprint which he likened to the human shadows left on the walls after the explosion in Hiroshima: "In the desert of the atomic catastrophe they were a terrible proof of the immaterial permanence of the flesh."

In 1959 the Belgian artist Pol Bury (1922-2005) published a volume of Klein's writings, which are filled with his visions of ushering in the new age of telepathy, levitation, and immateriality. This publication intensified Klein's commitment to live up to his proclamations. He not only sold invisible paintings, but to establish his credibility as the highest initiate and "Messenger of the Age of Levitation," he began planning a public demonstration of flying. "He was sure he could fly," his girlfriend Rotraut Uecker later reported. "He used to tell me that at one time monks knew how to levitate, and that he would get there too. It was an obsession. Like a little child, he really was convinced he could do it." The artist Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), who became friends with Klein in 1955, also remarked on that aspect of his character: "He read comic books and talked about knights and the Holy Grail. Those marvelous things that exist in the world of a child still worked for him."

Klein asked Pierre Restany to come to his apartment on January 12, 1960 for a matter of importance. Restany arrived late to find the artist on his way back from a demonstration of flying, limping slightly and in a state of ecstasy at having accomplished the feat of levitation! (Surely the first such example of Body Art.) Restany was intended to have been a credible witness. Klein's girlfriend at the time, Bernadette Allain, did see the leap but later remarked that for a judo black belt, trained to fall without injuring himself, it was not spectacular.

When Klein reported his feat he was ridiculed and disbelieved, so in October he arranged another leap into the sky from the second story of a building of an undisclosed location in Paris. He selected a visually unidentifiable spot across from a judo studio and arranged for a group of judokas whom he trusted to hold a tarpaulin to catch him. He then had the photographers create an altered photograph that cut out the net and swore them to secrecy. On Sunday November 27, 1960, the magnificent picture of Klein's Leap into the Void (captioned "The Painter of Space Hurling Himself Into the Void") appeared on the front page of a four-page newspaper called Dimanche, le journal d'un seul jour (Sunday, the newspaper of a single day), which Klein created and distributed to newsstands across Paris. However contrived the actual event, the realization of this gesture expressed magnificently Klein's aesthetic appropriation of all of space and its contents. It was a simultaneously frightening and exhilarating anticipation of dematerialization into the womb of infinite space, the void.

Klein's Demise

In 1959 Klein ceased teaching judo, by which means he had then been supporting himself. His "beautiful megalomania," as Tinguely called it, veered further out of control and even his relationship with Rotraut came under stress. Early in 1961 she and Klein went for two months to New York for a show of his work at the Leo Castelli gallery but the critical reception was a disaster. His mood was darkening. Back in Paris he started to make "Anthropometries" with blood; he was preoccupied with death and associated it with his progress toward dematerialization. Then he received news that a Japanese artist, influenced by him, had killed himself by leaping from a high building in Tokyo on to a canvas. He was also still suffering from the humiliating portrayal in a film by Claude Chabrol of "an artist" making "Anthropometries": clearly the film-maker did not see it as art.

Rotraut became pregnant at the end of the year, and on January 21, 1962 they had a magnificent church wedding attended by the Knights of St. Sebastian in full dress. But in the spring he suffered another stinging humiliation at the Cannes Film Festival when he went to see footage of himself making "Anthropometries" in the film Mondo Cane and found that he had been portrayed like a freak in a sideshow. In mid May he suffered a heart attack after an agitated public exchange on a panel at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris and on June 6, 1962 his heart gave out.

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