9 / 10


Who was Yves Klein ?

Pierre Restany (1930-2003) is still a novice critic when he meets Yves Klein. This meeting will be decisive, for one as for the other. The critic, founder in 1960 of the New Realism, accompanies all the developments of the work of Yves Klein.

"Who was Yves Klein ?

Nineteen years after his death in Paris (at the age of 34, in June 1962), Yves Klein has become a legendary figure. Such without doubt is the fascinating affect which the fulguration of an Achillean destiny exerted upon his contemporaries. It took him only a few years of intense activity to erect an oeuvre with a rigorous inner logic in the complexity of its dimensions and whose prophetic influence on the course of aesthetic events proved to be of paramount importance. (…)

In the thick of all the incomprehension or controversy, there were always among the artists of his generation a restless, lively minority who received his message loud and clear. None of his manifestations, however scandalous, remained without response. A "monochrome" exhibition in Milan or Düsseldorf was sufficient to stir up the local scene, to provoke revelations and to orientate wandering or uncertain developments. (…)

This mystic of vitalism was a realist of the future. This master of judo, this completely self-taught painter although born into a family of painters, arranged his work around one fundamental intuition: that a new world needs a new man. The mutations which affect human species essentially concern the domain of sensibility, emotion and perception. In the universe of the Third Millenary, (…) Art will be the language of pure emotion, synthetic and sovereign, the language of direct communication among perceptive individuals. Man must start now to test these modes of cosmic perception, to see and feel things on this scale.

It was to the quest for this absolute dimension of expression that Yves Klein pledged himself, after laying the foundations in 1959 for a School of Sensibility, open to all those who wished to learn the new language of art. He had the faith of great optimistic visionaries, and their radiation. He drew his faith from his love of Life, the actual object of art. Life which does not belong to us is the supreme concept, and at once the fundamental Reality, the manifestation of cosmic energy. (…) Life is the absolute. Klein's was an intuitive idea which steadily revealed itself to itself and allowed no fault.

It was through pure colour that Yves Klein first materialized his sensitive intuitions and began to put into effect a mechanism of extra-lucid perception, an entirely affective psychosensorial idiom beyond the control of reasoned intelligence. The sensorial medium of cosmic energies freely circulating in space, it conditions us or - to use the terminology of Yves Klein - it impregnates us.

This idea of universal impregnation through colour first came to him in 1946 in Nice, when he was only 18 years old, and was to be the starting point of his monochromes. The "propositions monochromes", panels evenly covered by a coat of colour with a pure industrial pigment base, were never envisaged by their creator as decorative "pictures". They have a quite different functional role: they fix in a given space and by means of colour, this diffused energy which acts upon our senses. In order to avoid any confusion in the public's mind, after having used several different tones indifferently, Klein settled towards the end of 1956 for a particular variety of ultramarine blue, which for him represented revelation. It was the plastic support for his unformulable intuitions, the medium of his great emotions. It was also the image received of the firmament and of the infinity of worlds, the call of the immaterial dimension of the universe.

In the pursuit of the absolute Klein saw Blue as an approach to immanent reality, which is infinite. This immaterial energy is sufficient unto itself. It is a question of taking it and assuming a consciousness of it. The famous exhibition of the Void in 1958 provided the opportunity. 2000 people came to paint the bare walls of the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris. Later came the zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility which were sold against a weight in fine gold (at the end of 1959).

What was to be done, having passed from Blue to the Void? Yves Klein reacted forcefully. The artist rediscovers in the three colours of the flame - blue, pink and gold - the alchemic expression of universal synthesis. He came back to the monochromes and to blue, but also to pink, which he fixed in a carmine-coloured tone, and to gold, which he worked in foil.

His cosmic vision was uplifted. Soon he combined his creation with all the manifestations of elementary forces. He employed "living brushes" in his Anthropometries, which consisted of the imprints made on paper by naked female models smeared with blue paint. He annexed the inclemencies of nature, by painting rain blue, going out into a storm and pulverising pure pig-ment in a very strong emulsion in the air. As the raindrops, "impregnated" at the height of man, touched the ground, they in-scribed their coloured image on a canvas spread out on upon it (Cosmogonies of rain COS 022).

A long period of work on monumental decoration in the theatre site at Gelsenkirchen (1957-59) and close collaboration with the conceptor, W. Ruhnau, having familiarized him with the problems of architecture, Yves Klein proceeded to erect his own theories, by constructing on the air, in the air with air. His plans to air-condition space by means of atmospheric sheets fed by bellows of compressed air, and his pro-jects for a return to nature in a technical Garden of Eden led towards the old dream of universal levitation, a paradisiac harmony through self-sublimation in the Ether. The space adventure intrigued him enormously. Parallel to the interplanetary flights of the Russian and American cosmonauts, he produced "planetary reliefs" which were predicted topographic reliefs of Mars and Venus, or of the Earth seen from the Moon, thus laying the bases for a cosmogony on the scale of our solar system. Gagarin, on his return, showed that Klein had been right, for seen from the depths of Space, the Earth is indeed blue.

In the last stage in this symbolic of universal impregnation he tamed fire and seized it to make sculptures (jets of incandescent gas under pressure, Krefeld 1961) and paintings (...). In his last human message he undertook at the end of his lifetime an hallucinating series of relief portraits based on lifesize plastercast effigies made direct from the model.

The chronological sequence of developments in Klein's career is significant. Not content to predict the future world, he wished to set down its image for us through a new language, a new method of perception of cosmic energies. We need most of all today to learn how to see and to feel again. Yves Klein illustrates the advent of a different sensibility, on the scale of tomorrow's interplanetary world. He may betray our current limits, but he opens up the way for the greatest hopes. He recharges our feelings and sharpens our perceptions. With Klein and through his message, we have the impression that we are no longer the passive playthings of events; we seem to feel things differently, to see better and on a larger scale, to conjugate life in the future. (...)

For Yves Klein there were no problems, only answers. His sudden death was one: in the vitalistic boundlessness of the "mutants", death seemed a measure, a call to order. Like the true believer that he was, Yves Klein took up the monochrome adventure in the perfect harmony of heart and head."
Pierre Restany, excerpt from "Yves Klein e la mistica si Santa Rita da Cascia", Editoriale Domus Editions, Milan, Italy, 1981
scroll to top