Yves Klein: Art and Alchemy

Washington D.C.

Yves Klein: Untitled Blue Monochrome, 1955, dry pigment and synthetic resin on gauze on panel, 26 by 181⁄8 inches. Private collection.

All works this article © Yves Klein Archive/ARS, New York/ADAGP, Paris.


In 1948, at the age of 20, Yves Klein laid claim to the kingdom of the sky. 1  Its presence hovers in the monochrome blue panels he began painting in 1955. But Klein’s blue is not the pallid tint of the daytime sky. It is the dark, electric blue of the Paris sky at nine o’clock on a summer night, when the energy of the vanished day still resonates through the atmosphere, and the headlights of the traffic seem like sparks descending from above. Klein’s blue monochromes have the kinetic energy of van Gogh’s Starry Night, all the more intense for being compressed into a single hue. His other paintings—some pink, some gold, some impressed with traces of the human body, some scarred by waves of flame—also offer moments of extraordinary beauty. Even as he was making these paintings, Klein staged a series of events rejecting conventional ideas of painting and sculpture. In 1958, he exhibited an empty gallery. In 1960 he published a fake newspaper. In 1962, he sold certificates for non-existent works of art. He is a forerunner, if not a founder, of installation art, conceptual art and institutional critique.

For Klein, painting and sculpture were means to a greater end. “My works are only the ashes of my art,” he proclaimed in 1960. 2  His goal was to transform first art, and then the world. Like Joseph Beuys a few years later, Klein saw himself as a shaman, an architect of souls, a Napoleon of the spirit. In the cold light of history, he can look like a charlatan, a raving narcissist alternating between megalomania and despair. 3  But almost everyone who knew Klein seems to have considered him a genius. His passion inspired hard-headed architects and engineers to assist him with his visionary installations. 4  Since 2000, his brief, improbable career (1955-1962) has inspired an impressive drumroll of museum retrospectives, in Nice, Frankfurt, Paris, Lugano and now Washington, D.C., where “Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers” will open this month at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, before traveling to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in October. 5

Born in Nice, Klein (1928-1962) was the child of two painters. As a young man, he dabbled in that medium, but his main passion was judo. After seeking out advanced instruction in Japan, he returned to France in early 1954, expecting to be recognized as a leading martial arts expert. Discovering to his shock that the official French judo association would not recognize his Japanese degree, he decided instead to win fame as a painter.

Klein was convinced from the outset that he was bound for greatness. “I think I am a genius,” he wrote in his diary entry for Jan. 1, 1955, several months before he actually began to paint in earnest. That spring, he began making pictures with the assistance of his girlfriend Bernadette Allain, a young architect who had done extensive research on color perception. Unable to afford a studio, Klein made his first works in the kitchen of his parents’ apartment. 6

Almost immediately, Klein began creating the extraordinary monochrome paintings for which he is known today. He succeeded with breathtaking rapidity. A private exhibition in October 1955 attracted the attention of art critic Pierre Restany, who encouraged the art dealer Colette Allendy to see Klein’s work. His first public exhibition opened at Allendy’s gallery in February 1956, his second at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in January 1957. Also in 1957, he had multiple shows in Paris and Düsseldorf. The following year, he was chosen to execute a vast mural commission for a new opera house in Germany. He exhibited in New York and Los Angeles, and had his first retrospective, in Germany, in 1961. On June 6, 1962, Klein died of a heart attack, possibly brought on by the amphetamines that he had begun taking while working and studying in Japan. 7

Klein’s amazing success was due in part to his talent for pushing the envelope. In 1955, it seemed outrageous to propose that works utterly devoid of composition could be considered as art. Indeed, he titled his first show “Monochrome Propositions,” as if daring the public to disagree with him. When his work began to win acceptance in 1957, Klein upped the ante, exhibiting 11 seemingly identical blue canvases and begging comparison with Picasso by titling the exhibition “Monochrome Propositions, Blue Period.” He invited 3,500 guests to the opening of “The Void,” his 1958 show at Iris Clert, where the art consisted of nothing more than the gallery’s freshly painted white walls. 8  In 1960, he staged a public performance of his new “Anthropometries,” instructing his nude female assistants to daub themselves with blue paint and press their bodies against a large canvas, while a small orchestra played a “Monotone Symphony” of Klein’s own composition. The next year, he launched a series of fire sculptures and paintings made with Bunsen burners and flamethrowers.

It may seem as if Klein’s career was nothing more than a series of provocative, neo-Dada gestures. Indeed, these gestures are what seem mostly to interest recent critics, who have built him up into a kind of prophet of postmodernism. Quite to the contrary, I would contend that his most significant achievement remains his classically modernist paintings of 1955-60. The seductive intensity of their colors and textures can be experienced fully only firsthand. But some idea of their impact can perhaps be communicated by placing them in historical context. After the trauma of World War II, Paris was struggling to revive itself as a center of avant-garde art. Surrealism, the dominant movement of the prewar decade, seemed trivial and exhausted. Its old opponent, geometric abstraction, appeared equally irrelevant. The elderly masters of the avant-garde—Picasso, Matisse, Léger and Braque—continued to produce impressive new work, but no longer offered a useful example for young artists. In Paris as in New York, this dilemma was resolved by the emergence of a new style of gestural abstraction. But the French exponents of this style, such as Georges Mathieu, Pierre Soulages and Hans Hartung, were cursed with a facility and elegance that undercut the expressive power of their brushwork. More radical members of the European avant-garde rejected elegance in favor of a willful crudity of figuration, facture or materials, which appeared in different ways in the work of Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, Antoni Tàpies, Antonio Saura and other leading figures of the 1950s.

Nan Rosenthal, in a seminal 1982 essay, suggested that the thick, pasty surfaces of canvases by Dubuffet and Fautrier provided an essential stimulus for Klein. In effect, he took their textured surfaces, removed their scribbled imagery, and replaced their dirty, “abject” colors with a series of pure hues. 9  Klein wanted to retain the intense color of raw pigment, which vanished when the pigment was mixed with oil or other conventional mediums. Through his paint dealer, he sought help from an industrial chemist, who suggested an artificial resin that would hold the pigment in place without diminishing its intensity. (The artist later patented the combination of blue pigment with this invisible binder under the name International Klein Blue.) Klein applied his paints not just to the fronts of his panels, but also to the sides, which he often extended with wood slats, filing down the corners so that they would be rounded, like the corners of an old-fashioned television. Using housepainters’ rollers and other tools, he created a variety of textures. As Rosenthal writes, some of his pictures “have a low, sandpaperlike surface, some are flat, others in their swirls and pockets of texture resemble icing spread roughly on a homemade cake.” 10  

The cumulative effect of Klein’s methods is to make his monochrome paintings seem as if they occupy the entire visual field. American painters like Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman achieved this effect by enlarging their pictures to mural dimensions, so that they literally fill your field of vision. Klein did it by drawing you inward with textures that mimic the wavering caused by atmospheric diffraction (like a mirage hovering over a highway on a summer day), while softening the corners and edges of his works so that they seem not to end but just to fade away. Around 1960, he discovered a new way of generating texture by covering surfaces with a loose grid of pieces of gold leaf, secured only at one edge so that they fluttered and crumpled in response to the tiniest tremor in the air around them. (Unfortunately, because of their fragility, they are usually displayed in Lucite cases or behind glass, rendering them inert.) 

In the same year, Klein began making his “Anthropometries.” Compared to the uncanny sensuality of his monochromes, Klein’s arrangements of breasts and thighs often seem sad and conventional, like “abstract” centerfolds. Similarly, the flame paintings of 1961-62 strain for sublimity but often end up looking like the result of low-budget special effects.

Klein’s supporters would object that it is unfair to judge him solely by his paintings and sculptures. Doesn’t his 1958 exhibition “The Void” count as a gesture of historical significance, anticipating the empty spaces later displayed by Post-Minimalists such as Mel Bochner and Bruce Nauman? Shouldn’t the public performances of the “Anthropometries” be seen as antecedents for Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy” of 1964 and Vanessa Beecroft’s phalanxes of nude models from the late 1990s? In 1962, Klein sold three “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” in ritualized ceremonies held on the banks of the Seine. In exchange for a quantity of pure gold, the collectors received printed receipts; Klein then threw half the gold into the river, while the collectors burned their receipts, so that nothing material (well, almost nothing) remained of the transactions. Doesn’t this prefigure the certificates Sol LeWitt later sold, permitting collectors to have his wall drawings installed on their own walls? Or Chris Burden’s Full Financial Disclosure, displaying all of his cancelled checks for 1976? Or Hans Haacke’s documentation of the sales and resales of miscellaneous modernist masterpieces?

The problem is that, to see Klein as a pioneer of postmodernism, you need to look at his performances in the most general terms possible, ignoring the specifics of his actions and the language he used to describe them. In the abstract, “The Void” seems like a brilliant extension of Marcel Duchamp’s argument that “art” is constituted not by the object, but by the conditions of its display. In effect, Klein demonstrated the power of the “white cube” almost 20 years before Brian O’Doherty coined the term. 11  This Duchampian insight is not, however, what Klein actually had in mind. Although his installation is commonly referred to as “The Void,” its real title was “The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility.” As Klein himself wrote, the exhibition was intended to be “a space of Blue sensibility,” paradoxically communicated by the white walls that the artist and several friends spent two days repainting before the opening. The empty space was supposed to communicate “an ecstatic . . . emotion” that would “impregnate” the viewer with the “sensibility” of the artist. 12  

In other words, Klein’s thinking had nothing to do with Duchamp. It was rooted instead in the Symbolist mysticism of the Theosophist-turned-Rosicrucian Max Heindel, who in 1909 published a treatise called The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception. Klein came across a French translation of Heindel’s book at the age of 19 or 20, and remained obsessed with it for the rest of his life. In his incisive 1982 analysis of Klein’s muddled thinking, Thomas McEvilley describes Heindel’s Rosicrucianism as “a psychological alchemy which aspires to set spirit free from solid bodies and restore it to the Eden of unity.” For better or for worse, Klein’s esthetics were rooted in Heindel. McEvilley summarizes Klein’s thinking as follows:

An immaterial substance, which Yves called “pure pictorial sensibility,” is injected into the artwork by the alchemist/artist who has isolated and purified this sensibility in himself; it can be experienced in the painting, after any number of years, by a viewer whose own sensibility is sufficiently developed. Art, then, is not a sensory but an extrasensory experience. Of two visually identical paintings, one possessing this substance is art, and the other, lacking it, is not. A sensitive viewer can distinguish it at once. 13  

It must have embarrassed Klein’s friends and supporters to hear him spouting such nonsense. In 1958, on his 30th birthday, his mother solved this problem by giving him a copy of Air and Dreams, a work by the eminent literary critic Gaston Bachelard, who specialized in interpreting elemental imagery. As Sidra Stich has noted, Bachelard provided a more respectable source for Klein’s monochrome esthetic by tracing the symbolism of the color blue in authors such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Samuel Coleridge and Paul Eluard. Thereafter, Klein frequently quoted Bachelard’s statement, “First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a blue depth.” Another of Bachelard’s books, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, may have inspired Klein’s fire paintings and fire sculptures. 14

Most of Klein’s ideas about art are complete bunkum, and the attempt to establish him as a significant theorist of postmodernism is doomed to failure. The fact remains, however, that many of the masters of modern art based their work on silly theories, and there’s often something to be learned from an artist’s relationship to those theories. Klein, for example, invented his own set of primary colors: rose, ultramarine blue and gold instead of the usual red, blue and yellow. It is possible that Klein’s primaries derive from theosophical color symbolism, which identifies “pure pale rose” as a sign of “that absolutely unselfish love which is possible only to high natures,” while “the devotional thought of an unselfish heart is . . . like the deep blue of a summery sky,” accompanied by “golden stars.” 15  Further study of Klein’s literary sources would probably reveal layers of hitherto unrecognized symbolism in his work, and perhaps even lend substance to the overinflated rhetoric of his statements about his art.

The retrospective opening at the Hirshhorn this month promises to give viewers a full overview of Klein’s artistic trajectory, in its multiple and sometimes contradictory dimensions. According to Hirshhorn curator Kerry Brougher, the first gallery will present not paintings, but documentation (and possibly a recording) of Klein’s “Monotone Symphony,” in which a group of instruments plays a single note, F#, for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of silence. (You might think this would be incredibly boring, but in fact the interaction of overtones and undertones from the different instruments creates a shimmering, beautiful texture of sound, like one of Klein’s gold leaf paintings.) Subsequent galleries will alternate between tangible works of art—the early monochromes, the paintings of the “Blue Revolution,” the sponge reliefs, the “Anthropometries,” the fire paintings, etc.—and documentation of Klein’s performances and unrealized projects. In the accompanying catalogue Brougher gives a focused account of Klein’s career, while co-curator Philippe Vergne (formerly deputy director of the Walker Art Center, now director of the Dia Art Foundation) lays out the argument for Klein as a misunderstood revolutionary; indeed Vergne argues in his catalogue essay that Klein transformed “our very notion of the nature and meaning of art.” Visitors to Washington and Minneapolis will have the chance to measure Klein’s rhetoric against his work, deciding for themselves on the scope of his achievement.

1 Thomas McEvilley, “Yves Klein: Conquistador of the Void,” in Yves Klein, 1928-1962, Houston, Institute for the Arts, Rice University, 1982, p. 28, tells the story of how Klein and his friends Claude Pascal and Armand Fernandez (later known as the artist Arman) were reclining on the beach in Nice, and decided to divide the universe among themselves, as the Greek gods Zeus, Poseidon and Hades had done: “Arman . . . took charge of the animal realm . . . Claude gathered to himself the safety of all plants. And Yves . . . defined his realm, the mineral, as the blue emptiness of the distant sky.” 

2 Yves Klein, “The Monochrome Adventure” (1958), in Gilbert Perlein and Bruno Cora, eds., Yves Klein: Long Live the Immaterial!, Nice, Musée d’art moderne and d’art contemporaine, and New York, Delano Greenidge Editions, 2000, p. 77.

3 Klein’s megalomania is evident in his 1958 letter to the American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, requesting assistance in taking over the French government so he could effect a “Blue Revolution . . . aiming at the transformation of the French People’s thinking.” Klein’s letter is reproduced in Sidra Stich, Yves Klein, London, Hayward Gallery, and Stuttgart, Cantz Verlag, 1994, p. 144. Stich’s catalogue is one of four key texts on Klein, along with essays by Thomas McEvilley and Nan Rosenthal in Yves Klein, 1928-1962, and Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, le monochrome, Paris, Hachette, 1974 (English translation Yves Klein, trans. John Shipley, New York, H.N. Abrams, 1982).

4 See interviews with the engineer Roger Tallon and the architect Werner Ruhnau, in Peter Noever and François Perrin, Yves Klein: Air Architecture, Los Angeles, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, 2004, pp. 104-06.

5 “Yves Klein: La vie, la vie elle-même qui est l’art absolu,” Nice, Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporaine, 2000; “Yves Klein,” Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle, 2004; “Yves Klein: Corps, couleur, immaterial,” Paris, Centre Pompidou, 2006; “Yves Klein,” Lugano, Museo d’Arte, 2009. “Yves Klein: Air Architecture,” Los Angeles, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, 2004, focused on Klein’s visionary ideas about architecture. Klein also played an important role in two recent thematic exhibitions: On the Sublime: Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, James Turrell, Berlin, Deutsche Guggenheim, 2001, and Colour after Klein: Rethinking Colour in Modern and Contemporary Art, London, Barbican Center, 2005. 

6 Stich, pp. 54, 59-60.

7 McEvilley, p. 36 and note 44. 

8 See Klein’s account of the invitations to “The Void” in Stich, pp. 133-34.

9 Nan Rosenthal, “Assisted Levitation: The Art of Yves Klein,” in Yves Klein, 1928-1962, p. 111, notes that the sponge sculptures Klein began making in 1957 are in effect monochrome versions of the sponge figures that Dubuffet exhibited in 1954. 

10 Rosenthal, p. 104; further details are given in Stich, pp. 59-60. 

11 See Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, San Francisco, Lapis Press, 1986, which reprints his three famous essays, originally published in Artforum in 1976. 

12 See the extended description and analysis of “The Void” in Stich, pp. 133-43. 

13 McEvilley, pp. 26 and 46. 

14 On Klein and Bachelard, see McEvilley, pp. 50-52; Rosenthal, pp. 113-14; and Stich, pp. 77-78, and notes 89, 90.

15 Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought-Forms (1901), New York, John Lane, 1905, pp. 33-34.
Max Heindel studied with Leadbeater in Los Angeles. Kandinsky also seems to have been influenced by
this book.

“Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers,” curated by Kerry Brougher and Philippe Vergne, is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., May 20-Sept. 12. Co-organized by the Hirshhorn and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, where it will travel [Oct. 23, 2010-Feb. 13, 2011], the exhibition is accompanied by a 352-page catalogue by Brougher and Vergne.

PEPE KARMEL is chair of the art history department at New York University. He is working on a book on the history of abstraction from 1910 through 2010.