Yves Klein
Biography of French Artist, Founder of Nouveau Realisme.

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Yves Klein (1928-62)


Early Career
Monochrome Paintings
The Void Exhibition
Nouveau Realisme
Legacy and Reputation

For more information about Klein's conceptualism,
please see: Yves Klein's Postmodernist art (1956-62).

For a review, see:
Contemporary Art (1960s on).
For schools and styles, see:
Contemporary Art Movements.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


The French artist Yves Klein was one of the most influential modern artists of the avant-garde art movement during the late 1950s and early 60s, and a seminal figure in postwar French painting. He was a leading member of Nouveau Realisme, an art movement inspired by Dada, which he co-founded in 1960 with the art critic Pierre Restany (1930-2003). He was also a pioneer of performance art and a forerunner of Pop Art. As a result, Klein has had a huge influence on many of today's top contemporary artists. He had no formal artistic education and for much of his short life he earned a living as a judo instructor. He began working in monochrome paintings in 1957 and became associated with the colour blue – that is, his own particular type of blue which he patented - International Klein Blue (IKB). By 1960 he was giving public demonstrations of the artist at work. He smeared naked women in IKB who would then drag each other over his canvas to the accompaniment of his Symphonie Monotone, a single note of music sustained for 10 minutes. These 'paintings' which he christened Anthropometries, are considered his best works. Recent multi-million dollar sales of his unique form of visual art confirm his enduring appeal as arguably the first authentic voice of postmodernist art. (Note: For a comparison with other styles of mid-20th-century avant-garde art, see: Andy Warhol's Pop Art.)



Early Career

Klein was born in Nice, France. His parents were both painters. His father Fred Klein (1898-1990) specialised in fantastical landscapes with horses, while his mother, Marie Raymond (1908-88) was a relatively successful member of the Lyrical Abstraction art group in the 1950s. As a young man Klein became interested in philosophy and developed a fascination for spiritualism. He was odds with materialism and more comfortable with a religious or spiritual outlook. For much of his life he taught judo and in 1952 he spent time in Japan obtaining his 4th Dan black belt. Back home in France, in 1954 he published a text book on the subject. In his early 20s he spent a few years travelling and learning languages, eventually settling in Paris in 1955. He had first started to paint when he was about 17, but it was not until 1950 that he became serious about an artistic vocation.

Monochrome Paintings

Fascinated by colour in painting, Klein's first works were monochromes, like slabs of paint or paint samples. He began painting them in several colours and the effect was rather like a decorative art pattern. This however was exactly the sort of effect he did not want to achieve. Dismayed, he determined to limit his next set of monochromes to one colour: blue. In 1957 he exhibited his new paintings, painted only in International Klein Blue (IKB), his signature colour. The paint has a powdery surface which gives the impression that it has been refined and filtered. The blue is reminiscent of lapis lazuli, one of the most expensive colour pigments used by painters in the Renaissance to paint robes and clothing. It quickly became his trademark and he applied it to casts of statues, dinner plates, cups and other objects. Klein subsequently added two more colours to his collection - rose and gold - forming his own version of the primary colours.

The Void Exhibition

In 1958 Klein caused a scandal with his iconoclastic 'art' exhibition The Void, held at the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris. An early example of conceptual art, it was an exhibition of emptiness, the gallery was void of all objects. In the manner of great showmanship, the windows were painted over in his signature blue, and guests were served cocktails which caused them to urinate the colour blue for several days after. The artist claimed to have created his space several hours before the guests arrived, standing in the void, mentally attempting to produce the spirit of a void. To monetize the event, guests were later sold certificates in return for gold and advised to destroy them in order to experience a true sense of the void. Klein subsequently dumped half the gold in the river Seine. Thanks to a huge publicity drive, nearly 3,000 guests had turned up to view the empty gallery. The same year Klein held a joint exhibition at Galerie Clert with Jean Tinguely (1925-91), the experimental sculptor and exponent of kinetic art.


Klein continued to experiment with methods of applying paint. First he tried rollers, then sponges and varied the painting surfaces. Eventually, this lead to a form of abstract painting which Klein labelled Anthropometry, in which naked women would be covered in paint before sprawling across a lifesize canvas. The resulting marks and impressions were called 'Anthropometries'. Set to his own music, the events (forerunners of later 'happenings') were often held in the evening, attended by an audience in evening dress - a true type of performance art. Many however were created in the privacy of his studio, away from publicity. His anthropometries are considered some of his most original and powerful works. The images of disembodied bodies are haunting and sometimes unnerving. He also extended the practice - for instance, by tying canvasses to the top of his car and driving around in the rain to 'record' it.

Nouveau Realisme

New Realism was an avant garde art movement founded by both Klein and Restany in 1960. The manifesto was signed by 9 other modern artists: Arman (1928–2005), Martial Raysse (b.1936), Jean Tinguely, Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri (b.1930), as well as the Ultra-Lettrist artists Francois Dufrene (1930-1982), Raymond Hains (1926-2005) and mixed media artist Jacques de la Villegle (b.1926). The following year they were joined by sculptor Cesar (1921-98), Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), Mimmo Rotella (1918-2006) and Gerard Deschamps (b.1937). Environmental artist Christo (b.1935), famous for his wrapping of the Pont-Neuf Bridge in Paris, occasionally exhibited with the group. On a play of realism, Klein experimented with photomontage, and in 1960 created his leap into 'Le Vide'. This was a black and white photo showing the artist leaping from a building in a quiet mundane street as a cyclist pedals by completely disinterested. It was in reference to the Fall of Icarus (c.1560) once attributed to Pieter Bruegel (1525-69).



Legacy and Reputation

Tragically Klein died of a heart attack at the very early age of 34. For many years after his death art critics strived to classify his art. It remains a matter of debate whether he was an exponent of mysticism, like Kasmir Malevich (1878-1935) or simply an exhibitionist like Salvador Dali (1904–89). Either way, he is now regarded as an iconic figure in contemporary art and one of the first authentic postmodernist artists of the 20th century. In 2000 his RE I (1958) sold for nearly $7 million dollars. In 2006 at Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art sale one of his monochrome blue paintings sold for just under $5 million dollars. And in 2008 his monochrome gold painting 2008 MG 9 (1962) sold for an incredible $21 million dollars at a Christie's art auction. This means that - alongside Willem de Kooning (1904-97) and Andy Warhol (1928-87) - Klein (albeit posthumously) has proved to be one of the most successful 20th century painters of the early postmodernist period.

Examples of Works By Yves Klein in Public Collections

Contemporary art by Yves Klein can be seen in many of the best art museums of contemporary works, including the Guggenheim Museum, New York and the Pompidou Centre. They include:

- Sponge (SE180) (1957) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
- Untitled Red Monochrome (M 63) (1959) Samuel Guggenheim Museum, NY.
- IKB 79
(1959) Tate Gallery, London.
- Large Blue Anthropometry (ANT 105) (1960) Guggenheim Museum, NY.
- Blue Monochrome (1961) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
- FC-11 Anthropometry - Fire (1961) Nordenhake, Sweden.

• For biographies of other modern artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of painting, see: Homepage.

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