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2017

"He was the King of Blue, and I was his Queen"

Rotraut Klein Moquay
Photo © Michael Schmelling
I am not sure how to address you: Ms. Klein? Ms. Mo­quay? Or just simply Rotraut?
I am not sure how to address you: Ms. Klein? Ms. Mo­quay? Or just simply Rotraut? On paper my name is Rotraut Klein-Moquay. But I only use Rotraut. Why did you decide not to use a last name?I am not sure how to address you: Ms. Klein? Ms. Mo­quay? Or just simply Rotraut? On paper my name is Rotraut Klein-Moquay. But I only use Rotraut.

Why did you decide not to use a last name?
I have always found my first name very beautiful. My maiden name is Uecker, but since my brother Gün­ther is also an artist, as well as older and much better known, I feel that the name is his. Klein is the name of my first husband, Yves, and the case is similar. As an artist I wanted to have a name that was mine only. For that reason I also do not use my current husband's name Moquay, and leave it to my children.

Do you remember when you first saw Yves Klein's work?
It was in Düsseldorf in 1957. I walked along the street and in the window of the Schmela gallery I saw one of Yves' blue monochromes.

He was just becoming famous with those pictures at that time: canvasses completely covered in deep ultramarine blue paint.
This blue felt magnetic, I was really transfixed by the color. The picture triggered a strong response inside me, as if it told me my future. And it did. (...)

When did you meet him?
Thar was in Nice in 1958. A friend of my brother's knew a French artist there, Arman, who was looking for a nanny. I had always wanted to travel and learn languages, so I accepted the job offer enrhusiastical­ly. Arman was not yet the famous object artist he was to become, but worked with his father in a furniture store. This is how I came to Nice. (...)

And in that house you saw Yves for the first time?
He was a friend of Arman, and once he came to visit, knocked on the door, but the family was not in. I did not even open the door for him. A little lacer, he was a guest at dinner. He lit up the room, and I was dazzled. He was ten years older chan me, a very good-looking, athletic man. He wanted to cake me out, and I said yes.

How did you communicate with Yves Klein, in German or French?
We did not talk much. We went out - and then to his flat. One of his pictures was drying there, and he put lovely music on. I was so shy, and of course had no experience with men. But I stayed overnight. We were hardly ever apart during the following three months. Until he had to go to Gelsenkirchen.

At that time, Yves Klein had just had his first big exhibi­tions. His biggest commission so far was to decorate the foyer of the newly built opera house in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, using huge blue sponge-relief murals.
Before he left, he rold me that he felt he wouldn't live very long. And then he breathed in ail those poisonous fumes in Gelsenkirchen ...

You were there too?
Yves had written to me that he needed me. Once, he saved my life while we were there: We stood on the balcony of the foyer, which had not yet been secured with a railing. We were talking to someone and sud­denly I took a step back beyond the floor. Yves must have noticed it in the eyes of the person he was talking to, since he turned in a flash and caught my hands at the last moment.

That must have been a lightning-quick reaction.
He was a judoka, wearer of a 4th Dan black belt, which he had obtained in Japan. He loved the discipline in Judo, the repetition of motion sequences to reach the point of perfection. He also worked like that, for ex­ample with the models he used to press the blue color onto the canvas with their naked bodies. He created choreographies beforehand and made them practice the movements.

You were present during these performances, which were also done with an audience. Were you not jealous?
No. It had no sexual component. I often helped him with the preparations, mixed the color, like I used to help my father in the old days. Yves also supported me as an artist. (...)

Were you both able to make a living as artists?
Barely, in the beginning. For example, Yves earned nothing from the Gelsenkirchen project because one of the reliefs came down and he had to buy ail of rhat material again. lt got better in 1961. I remember that around Christmas in 1960, we went to have dinner at the artist restaurant La Coupole in Paris because Yves could put it on account there.

That year, one of his most famous works was created, the Leap into the Void. On the photograph, he appears to jump out of a window with outstretched arms, as if he could fly.
He jumped out of the window at least 13 or 14 rimes for that photo. We caught him at the bottom on a judo mat. He wanted it to look as if he were floating upwards.

The photo is accompanied with a poem dedicated to you that is entitled Come with me into the Void. What did it mean?
The void was an important subject for him. A few years earlier he had created the exhibition Le vide in a Paris gallery. He had cleared it out completely and painted it white to exhibit the void. Three thousand people came to the performance. For him, the void represented his quest for the immaterial, the divine.

The year 1961 was the beginning of a successful phase. There was an Yves Klein retrospective in Krefeld, Germa­ny, and you traveled to New York ...
Yves had a show of his blue monochromes at Leo Castelli's gallery there. We stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. Once, we ran into Mark Rothko at an opening. Yves admired him very much and approached him, but Rothko turned around and walked away.

Do you know why?
No, but Yves had shown his blue monochromes, and Rothko had not yet clone his black paintings at the time. Maybe he had the idea in his mind already and felt that someone had been there before him. Another time, we met Franz Kline. I really wanted to meet him, because Yves had once told me that I painted like him. Yves introduced us and we danced. He danced clumsi­ly, like a little bear.

Yves and you married in January 1962. Your wedding was also a performance, wasn't it?
Yves wanted a royal wedding: He was the King of Blue and I was his Queen. I wore a beautiful white dress, with a long white train, and a small crown on my head. He had found it the day before at an antiques shop and painted it blue. Yves wore the uniform of the religious order of Saint Sebastian, of which he was a Knight. Afterwards we celebrated at La Coupole with a big buffet - and blue drinks.

Six months later your husband died. He was only 34 years old.
He had had heart problems for a while, but he did not tell me about them because I was pregnant and he did i;iot want me to worry. I think the poisonous fumes de­stroyed his inner organs, but this will probably never be known for certain. He had two small heart attacks in mid-May, and the doctor had told him to rest. Four days before he died we received a condolence letter from Miro to me. Franz Kline had died, and Miro had mixed up Klein and Kline. Yves carried the letter with him all the time; he was worried it might be a bad omen. On the 6th of June, Yves said he was not feel­ing well and that I should call a doctor. I went to make the call in the corridor, and when I came back into his room a few minutes later, he was dead. ln the time after his death, I often thought about the poem Come with me into the Void. Whether I should follow him. But I was pregnant, so that was not an option.

Was there anything to comfort you during that time?
The thought that he continued to live in the imma­terial. ln the first night after his death, I had a phys­ical sense of his embrace - he was not yet gone. And it stayed that way. I have the feeling that he is there when I need him.

Do you sometimes talk to him?
Yes, in my thoughts I do.

Do you sometimes come across Yves Klein's blue in your everyday life?
I always think about Yves when I see something blue. Strangely enough I keep finding little blue things, scraps of paper; once, I found a blue heart. I take them with me. For me they are small signs of greeting from him that tell me he is still around.

Excerpt from the interview of Rotraut Klein Moquay, widow of Yves Klein, by Anna Kemper
ZEIT MAGAZIN INTERNATIONAL, autumn 2017
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