Born in Nice, France, in 1928, Yves Klein developed an interest in spirituality and judo before turning his attention to art in the late 1940s. By the mid-1950s he was producing large monochromatic works meant to convey a sense of the infinite, an approach that he soon refined to feature a particular ultramarine that he called International Klein Blue. As his importance in the avant-garde art scene began to grow, Klein branched out to work in new formats, including sponge sculptures, “living paintbrushes,” fire paintings and other conceptual works. One of the founders of “Nouveau Réalisme,” Klein’s impact on modern art grew significantly after his death in 1962, heavily influencing the performance and conceptual art movements that followed.
Yves Klein was born on April 28, 1928, in Nice, France. Though he would receive no formal training as an artist, his parents were painters who each exposed him to a unique approach to visual communication. His father, Fred, worked in a figurative style, while his mother, Marie, favored more abstract expression. Klein was raised in Paris and—particularly during World War II—in Cagnes-sur-Mer in the unoccupied south. From 1942 to 1946 studied at the École Nationale de la Marine Marchand and the École Nationale des Langues, where he developed interests in literature, jazz, philosophy and judo.
Shortly after this period, Klein had an epiphany that focused his thinking and helped shape his future work. Lying on the beach with friends in 1946, Klein “claimed” the sky, which he identified as the perfect representation of the formless and infinite. Describing the experience years later, Klein wrote that he “began to feel hatred for birds which flew back and forth across my blue sky, cloudless sky, because they tried to bore holes in my greatest and most beautiful work.” For the rest of his life, Klein would devote himself to depicting that mystical experience through his art.
Judo and the Void
Newly inspired, in the late 1940s Klein began to seek ways to communicate his vision. One of his first creations was the Monotone-Silence Symphony (1947–48), a musical piece meant to evoke the sky through the steady playing of a single chord for 20 minutes, followed by an equally long period of silence intended for reflection. Though the piece would not be performed publicly until more than a decade later, it established the primary theme around which Klein’s future works would revolve.
Over the next few years, Klein would travel extensively while developing both his artistic vision and skills. From 1949 to 1952 he lived primarily in London, where he worked in a frame shop and gained a solid foundation in painting and the fundamentals of color. He also pursued his ongoing interest in judo, and in 1952 relocated to Japan, where he became a fourth-dan black belt at the Kodokan Institute. While there he also held a solo exhibition of his work and wrote the Manifesto of the Monochrome, in which he described his work as a liberation of emotion from the restraints of line and object.
By the mid-1950s, Klein had returned to Paris, where he opened a judo school and continued to developed his avant-garde work. In February 1956, he held another solo exhibition, titled Yves: Propositions Monochromes, in which he displayed 20 paintings, each composed of a different single color. Disappointed by the unenthusiastic response it received, Klein decided to further refine his approach by limiting the majority of his future work to a special color that he worked with a chemist to develop, a deep ultramarine that he called International Klein Blue (IKB).
A symbol for Klein of both his spirituality and the sky that he had identified with a decade earlier, IKB would dominate his work for the remainder of the 1950s. He launched his Blue Period in 1957 with his Aerostatic Sculpture—releasing 1,001 blue balloons in Paris—and followed with exhibits of his paintings in Paris, London and Milan.
That same year, he also began to branch out to find new ways to express his ideas, completing a mural for the entrance hall of a new opera house in Gelsenkirchen, West Germany, and beginning a series of sculptures that featured the paint-soaked sponges he used to create his monochromes. Among his other important works from this period was The Void in which he presented the emptied-out Galeries Iris Clert, which he had painted completely white.
Anthropometry and Fire
Around this same time, Klein began to experiment with yet new approaches to expressing his vision, most notably by covering nude female models in IKB and directing them to interact with blank surfaces. These “living paintbrushes” were featured in his series of Anthropométries, which debuted in a live performance piece at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Paris in 1960. Klein also began working with a large torch to burn the surfaces of his canvases and create a series of “fire paintings,” and with gold leaf to complete numerous Monogolds. He also joined a group of other artists and art critic Pierre Restany in signing the Nouveau Réalisme Manifesto, which stated their intentions of finding new means of representing reality.
His popularity growing, in 1961, Klein had exhibitions of his work in Germany, Italy and the United States. The latter, held at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City, failed to connect with the public, which prompted Klein to write the Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, in which he described his transcendent experience on the beach in 1947 and attempted to explain his work.
In January of the following year, Klein married German artist Rotraut Uecker, with whom he had become involved in 1957. More exhibitions of his work were overshadowed by signs of heart trouble. On June 6, 1962, Klein suffered a third heart attack and died at the age of 34. Two months later, Uecker gave birth to their son, Yves Amu Klein.
Though often misunderstood or maligned during his day, today Klein is counted as one of the most important avant-garde artists and an early pioneer of conceptual and performance art. Since his death, his work has been featured in countless exhibits around the world, and in 2012, one of his sponge paintings set a new record for postwar French art when it was auctioned for nearly $37 million.
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