PRINT January 1967

Yves Klein

OUR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TO AN ARTIST––to the mention of his name––may frequently be preceded by some kind of recurrent image. At this juncture, my ideas of Yves Klein are preceded by an image he mentions in a film scenario. The image is of a beautiful woman’s flesh, greatly magnified; she is perspiring, and in close-up her pores, with their flowing juices, appear like a volcanic landscape. For me it has become something of a symbol. To pin it down––to say it reminds me of Klein’s monogolds (and the way they move in response to the presence of our bodies); or that I enjoy the metaphor of the earthiness of someone’s sweating body and the grandeur of untamed nature; or that it suggests a sensuality that colors the everyday with the poetic––to say these things may rob it of its attractiveness for me. The totality of Klein’s work however has a complexity that will support––and defy––explanation.

Klein is not fixed from one aspect, neither before the paintings, nor in reading, say “Le depassement de la problematique de l’art”,1 nor in a combination of these two: but he may be focused by an extrapolation from the two which may be seen as Hegelian synthesis. This synthesis may be recognized as Klein’s Utopia. His work seems naturally dialectic; opposing mysticism and banality, the profoundly revolutionary and the zany, sophistication and naivety, religious zeal and showmanship. To attain a synthesis would in fact reveal the highly complex nature of his creative imagination; essential, it seems, to this imagination is a state of flux and lucid ambiguity.

One can also situate Klein in a historical context. He says that the principal force of his esthetic was suggested by Delacroix. The precedent for the monochromes––as well as the goal of the end of art––may be found in Malevich and Rodchenko. His philosophy––which informs his whole work––has its roots in Heraclitus, theories of cosmogony, Bachelard’s psychoanalysis, and Christian mythology. All are fertilized by a twist of imagination that runs from pure lyricism to near-viciousness.

One area where one hesitates to apply the dialectic is that of the “Immaterial.” The Immaterial was, however, Klein’s foremost and ultimate concern; on these grounds one must afford it prime consideration. Klein made various attempts to attain the state of immateriality; his flights––which despite his expert Judo knowledge ended in a broken shoulder––were directed toward the Immaterial; its presence was captured for others in his various manifestations of the Void. He believed however that he would have to die to fully attain it: this was his true solution.

The Immaterial dominates from its inception in 1957 until his death in 1962. To define this aspect of his work he used the designation “Epoque Pneumatique.” Now this can be understood literally––the room of air at Iris Clert’s, the columns of air in his projected architecture, etc. But it is worth noting that the etymology of the word shows its origins to be in the Greek pneuma, which for the Greeks––and the alchemists––signified “Breath or Spirit,” more particularly that breath or spirit necessary to bring about alchemical change. The analogies between the Secret Tradition and Klein’s esthetic are numerous. Pneuma and the Immaterial; both are ambiguous, their meaning dependent on the user’s intention. The religious and spiritual context of the Immaterial is that which Klein hoped to render sensible at Iris Clert’s and other galleries. The void is a spirit that engenders mystical experience, serene and ecstatic possession. It is a myth, a mythical ideal that gives someone’s life its meaning and purpose. Or, as Jung said of the alchemical quest, “Everything unknown and empty is filled with psychological projection; it is as if the investigator’s own psychological background were mirrored in the darkness.” For those other than the artist it may perhaps be said to have existed by auto-suggestion. But who then could criticize such possible exploitation when its aim was an ecstatic experience? And 40% of those who visited the manifestation at Iris Clert’s reported that they had experienced the void. It was even sold. Naturally it could not be exchanged for francs––but (and again alchemy suggests itself) for gold. He received payment in gold leaf. Half of this was thrown in the Seine, the other half kept; it could be used to make further monogolds. But a description of the April, 1958 manifestation should be preceded by an introduction to the monochromes.

Monochromism is as old as “modern art” and has been called, and perhaps subsequently become, a cliche of the avant-garde. But it is significant that those who have produced monochromes have done so from different impetuses and with different intentions. The motivation behind the first proposition, that of Picabia in 1913, was satirical: then one saw the “spiritual” position of Malevich’s White on White versus the “practical” position of Rodchenko’s Black on Black, both of 1917. These lead to the natural “abstract” form of Servanckx (1924) and the works of other post-suprematist painters. Then, in the fifties, we have seen the “ultimate” position of Ad Reinhardt, and the vanguard gesture of Rauschenberg; now we see frequent recourse to it made by ABC art. Klein’s aim is quite different from any of these; for him the monochromes, and for that matter his other works, were “the ashes of my art.” One must never forget the overriding importance of the climate––spiritual and mental––that had led to their engenderment. The monochromes were thus signs of his claim on the Immaterial, they were the visible deeds of proprietorship.

Klein posits the beginning of the monochrome adventure in 1947 when he was lying on the beach at Nice; the huge dome of blue sky arching above him became his greatest artwork. But birds flying across it flawed its purity: “Birds must be eliminated. Thus we humans will possess the right to levitate in an effective and total physical freedom.” His first monochromes were tentative; he was only eighteen, and had no art school training; he didn’t consider them as autonomous art works. Then he asked himself “Pourquoi-pas?” and his course was truly set. Initially he used various colors, but by the mid-fifties Blue, Pink and Gold became the three chosen ones––and it was the marvelous impregnation of IKB (International Klein Blue) that came to “dominate now and forever.” Generally he seems to have moved from works with a fairly noticeable texture to completely flat paintings executed with a roller (to distance himself from the work, his whole esthetic being anti-psychological). The first exhibition of Blue monochromes––of a uniform size––was held at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in 1957. The Blue recalls (not of course visually) the unbroken azure not only of the sky at Nice, but also of Mallarme, and the power that the virgin page of the poet exercised over Mallarmé. The monochrome was the mark left by the void, and a springboard to the mythopoeic. Such a concept is the starting point for an unlimited imaginative excursion. The means by which Klein was to pursue the indefinable––although its concept was also Delacroix’s––had of necessity to be original to the core. Occasionally, though, one may detect a similarity to contemporary figures—to Vantongerloo for instance. As Max Bill wrote, “His interest has turned increasingly to the ‘incommensurable’, the purely creative. More and more he disassociates himself from the making of works of art and to an ever-increasing degree his works become idea patterns, sketches of captured processes of nature.” This might easily have been written of Klein. It might also be said that his ideal bears a striking, electric, similarity to the Surrealist ideal; both flicker between polarities to produce a pure spark.

When Klein speaks of the importance of the “climate,” he seems to be approaching an area of ritual. But its precise importance––factual as against symbolic––is as hard to locate as those particles in the atmosphere whose presence refracts the light of the sun and thus give rise to the sky’s blueness. But one can still note his interest in ritual as displayed by his Judo activity; his attachment to the Order of St. Sebastien, or in laying on an even coat of paint with a roller, or in directing the execution of a work by someone else (the anthropometries). But no matter how beautiful one may find the monochromes, respond to their vertiginousness, their luxury, their absolutism, what we are responding to is the “ashes”; we do not experience the fire, the palpable pictorial condition that had led to their precipitation. Consequently Klein arranged that this climate or condition should exist for all to experience, immediately and ecstatically. This meant the creation of an ambience or sanctuary. This was Iris Clert’s tiny gallery in the Rue des Beaux-Arts, Paris, in April, 1958.2

Klein covered up the nail marks, etc., of previous exhibitions, repainted the interior in white and removed most of the furniture. He sealed off the main entrance from the street and access was made via a narrow corridor. His presence redecorating the gallery was very important and he did it alone. What would be captured in the room by his action was the immaterialization of the Blue. But he felt it necessary to have the Blue outside and was given permission to floodlight the Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Blue. The monument was already floodlit and it meant simply putting blue filters in the lights. Unfortunately this, although successfully tried by him, was stopped at the last moment by a change of opinion on the part of the authorities. But the manifestation went ahead. Invitations were sent out announcing the “clear and positive accession of a determined reign of the palpable.” (Le depassement . . . contains a cryptic and funny account of the proceedings, and I am drawing on this.) On the night of the preview something like 2500 people crammed the road outside the gallery; those who could make their way there were allowed into the tiny room. Klein tried to keep them moving, giving them three minutes there, then asking them to make way for the next group. Those who were lucky enough were also given a Blue cocktail––gin, cointreau, and methylated spirits. An hour after the opening the police and fire brigade arrived to disperse the crowd. Many, however, made their way back and were allowed in. The gallery eventually closed at 12:30. According to the press 40% of those who got into the gallery reported that they had indeed experienced the palpable pictorial condition. The event had to be extended from one week to two and continued to attract several hundred people each day.

It was an undoubted success, but Klein now saw himself in a position whereby a logical course would lead to renunciation; alternatively he must turn to new fields. In fact he now embarked on the anthropometries. Inevitably this is the phase that has become the standard butt for the uninformed. Such ignorance ignores the formally beautiful side of the resultant works, and their actual production, which was coolly beautiful and sensual to a very high degree. But the anthropometries will remain one of those audacious marks of appropriation which signals Klein’s genius. For Klein the anthropometry was a means of continuing to locate himself at an effective distance from the painting, yet it ensured the mark of the immediate, of the “affective climate of the flesh,” registered instantly. He says he found it necessary to turn to the presence of the naked flesh in order to avoid falling into the trap of “continual” imprisonment in the void. Not that he mistrusted the void, but he could not trust himself.

Take a pristine picture surface, a naked girl––smother her in IKB and direct her movements on the canvas. What is imprinted might be a single impression of one girl or multiple impressions of a number of bodies, or one model could pull another over the horizontal surface––thus recording the path of her movement. One model might imprint herself in a number of ways: “A little more to the right, there; this area in this corner is still not covered, apply your right breast there, etc.” In his own writing (so beautiful in its own right as to fill me with a sense of near-futility), he speaks against the sensual aspect, but this should be seen as directed against a commonplace view of the erotic. Although the canvases have that pure beauty of some “informal” works, one cannot forget––for it is there, captured for eternity––the pure presence of beautiful flesh. Much was to come from the initial idea of the anthropometries: it was to be extended in various technical ways, and to suggest the appropriation of other systems. While the models were imprinting the surface of their breasts, stomach and thighs (only the trunk interested him, the rest being intellectual articulation) he could, with a spray, stencil around them. Also related were the “shrouds” where the canvas was wrapped around the paint-smothered girl, following the contours of her body (SU 21, of the model’s thighs, seems to me the most beautiful of this series). In the Fire Period the model could be covered with water and imprint her wet body on the picture surface; the mark of fire then left this area untouched. Later there were 3-D anthropometries where a mold was taken direct from the model––e.g. Portrait of Arman, and the torso of a girl, Anthropometry, 1962. The same idea was also used to take an immediate mark from an antique head. All were marked––as claim––by IKB . This same method of claim-staking colored a model of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave and the Victory of Samothrace; in these last-mentioned works Klein was also demonstrating his classicism. Remember he wrote: “In any case I do not consider myself an avant-garde artist. On the contrary I believe I am a classic; perhaps one of the few classic artists of our time.” Klein’s imagination, his exalted ambition, led naturally to such extreme acts of appropriation. The IKB Dying Slave, and the Samothrace are almost pure idea; in this they approach the absolute of a claim on space.

Further claims of ruthless extravagance were made in his Blue Globes; small everyday globes covered in the inimitable coating of IKB. These represent a beautiful example of the seeming dichotomy between his means and meaning––one that is in fact bridged by the imaginatively poetic. Klein was elated when Gagarin returned from the first space flight to say, “The Earth is Blue . . . . .” The Blue Globes continued. As did the Planetary Reliefs––of Mars, the Moon; low relief maps, imaginary surveys, impregnated with IKB or IKP. Such was the unbounded ambition to which the Universe and its elements were subservient. The reliefs represented forms that existed within a changeable atmosphere (local). This atmosphere, the Earth’s for example, presented another problem, one which Klein’s ambiguity could foresee as tamed, but could also be utilized to create art works; those marks of innocent man’s mastery of his environment and existence. These particular marks were designated as Cosmogonies.

There were paintings produced by utilizing the rain, plants, and the wind. The “Piuie” were produced by arching a spray of paint over a canvas lying out beneath the rain, the rain falling through the spray became colored and left a delicate trace on the canvas. Klein himself describes it like this: “It begins to rain; a fine spring shower. I hold out my canvas to the rain and it is done! I have the mark of the rain, of the stirring of the atmosphere.” (Klein’s prose is always capable of a marvelous acceleration, a great simplicity, or of casting a veil over that which must of necessity remain dark). He had made vegetal imprints concurrent with the first monochromes, now he again made such prints––as of the riverside rushes, where the model had joined him naturally and also made her mark.

“Fire is there too, and I must have its mark.” Fire was to dominate his last art works. Its importance is obvious; it is the subject of Universal myth. And “Man is scarcely man till he is in possession of fire”.3 It is easy to regard Klein’s use of fire as performing the function of synthesis––but one must be cautious of seeing this work as more than that of a short period, abruptly and brutally closed. Without in fact regarding it as synthesis, it can be seen as summarizing a number of past positions.

Fire exhibits that principle of opposites to which Klein was so attached––it is tender and warming or terrifying; a domestic utility and an all-powerful symbolism. In many cosmogony myths fire is brought to Earth by a bird––one recalls Klein’s ambition to eliminate and replace birds. It is a characteristic of reverie that it frequently transports one to a kind of non-technological Utopia; fire reverie returns us to the “Good life,” to the same place as Klein’s Utopia, which is the lost Eden. Yet fire itself is impatience, it is self-consuming, given the right conditions its ambitions are limitless. But if we think of the actual flame, its purest aspect seems to be the apex: “. . . where color gives way to an almost invisible vibration. Then fire is dematerialized; it loses its reality; it becomes pure spirit.”4

Klein’s fire paintings can also be seen as literally the ashes of his art.

The language of the paintings is quite straightforward, though the use of fire imposes a new concept of esthetic action. Initially they were made simply by the flicker of a flame across the picture surface. Then the process developed a natural expansion––a jet of water could be made to play on the surface at the same time as the flame––its rivulets creating a negative (untouched) area. Painted areas––blue, pink or gold––could also exist and be subjected to the ritual of purification. Fire could burn through the surface; water could be used not as a jet, but as a skin––as in the case of the fire anthropometries where one sees the trace of the pure affective climate of the flesh amidst the pall of a soot deposit. One thinks automatically, “Promethean,” but this involves an inescapable tautology and banality. Klein’s character resists any such direct comparison; one might as profitably think of Melville’s Ahab. Klein continued to hate birds.

Any discussion of fire in the present context must mention Heraclitus. (This can of course be no more than a brief introduction to the subject of fire insofar as it permits certain links to be established between Heraclitus and the esthetic of Klein. It need hardly be said that these links are not to be taken as seen as such by Klein; that he was interested in cosmogony myths we know, but it is extremely unlikely that he evolved an art form that was subservient to such ideas. Rather, I would suggest, he naturally––and without preconception––followed a course in which he happened on numerous established signposts.)

Fire is naturally both fact and symbol. For Heraclitus it is plurisignative, but its essential symbolic meaning might be said to be that of universal change. With Klein we are also dealing with a system in development, never crystallizing, never revealing any signs of atrophy. “. . . (I) declaim with pleasure to those who evince a faith in the multiplicity of new possibilities in the path that I prescribe––Be Careful! Nothing has crystallized as yet; and whatever will happen after this, I cannot say.” (His death imparts to his work a notion of totality that is alien to it.) Early Greek thought, that of Heraclitus for example, often ignores a distinction between subjective and objective, between thinker and thing thought; Klein frequently seems to be following in the tradition of Heraclitus––his acts of appropriation are the most telling witnesses to this. As a general indication of mood one might quote Heraclitus, Fragment 19: “Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is hard to discover and hard to attain.” This suggests an analogy to Klein’s principle of progress via the dialectic. Again, Fragment 50: “Even the sacred barley drink separates when it is not stirred,” reinforces Heraclitus’s imperative to live “always on the verge,” which was surely the position of Yves Klein from 1947 to 1962.

This predisposition is further continued in the philosophy: everything is in flux, the unity that man seeks is governed––always––by a system of opposites. “Fire is the most significant of the several symbols by which the idea of Heraclitean change is expressed.”5 Prior to using fire Klein had forcibly felt that inner need to obtain its mark.

When actually confronted by the fire paintings, I myself feel that they are over-luxurious, corny, even. This within an oeuvre that is always luxurious. Yet they appear within an esthetic system as a point of great importance. But then he had written, “No matter what one thinks, all this is very bad taste, and that is indeed my intention. I howl it from the rooftops: ‘Kitsch, Corn, Bad Taste’ this is the new notion in art. And while we are about it, let’s forget art altogether.” Fire as fact was used in works other than paintings; there were fire sculptures––great columns of burning gas; beautifully realized at the exhibition in Krefeld. It was also one of the pillars of other public spectacles where fire and water jets were directed at each other to realize a permanent shock. Not only was this a public expose of dialecticism, but would also have created a marvelous visual spectacle. Fire in Klein’s architecture of the air was envisaged as performing a useful function––that of walls for his open houses; walls that would have been beautiful in their changes, protective against the elements.

Klein’s architecture, like all his work, is both audacious and simplistic. Within such an architecture man would be able to recreate the Lost Eden; we would live naked and at one with nature; utilizing her as she is given, and by very advanced technological means, means however which would be concealed underground, in order that the Earth’s surface would be unencumbered by any of the banal trappings of architecture and technology as they impinge on us now. A house (atrium) could have walls of fire and a roof of air. An air roof could be projected across whole valleys, forming a protective umbrella––colored if this was felt necessary. Air could provide beds––lit d’air––as can be seen in Ant 102. (This is one of Klein’s projects that in fact has been independently realized; it is now used in hospitals to support people who have suffered excessive burns). Within such an environment many other social changes would have occurred! Naked, we would see each other completely: “The real universe always hidden by the universe of our limited perception.” This alone would have brought great changes. We would be guided by a new politics––heralded by a blue revolution; this would demand new ways of thinking and acting. It would awaken in people the qualitative notion of individualism vis-a-vis the national collective; and awaken, qualitatively, their nationalism vis-a-vis the collective of nations. In Economics the creation of a gold standard of quasi-spiritual value would lead to the idea of quality becoming the multiplier of national economies, etc. etc. Incidentally in Le depassement . . . he lists chronologically the phases of his evolution. This runs:

1. Composition
2. Judo
3. Musique
4. Peinture
5. Sculpture
6. Architecture
7. Politique
(champ actuel de mon activite)

His next step he saw as being an active engagement in “life.” If, as I believe, one must regard Klein’s vision as plurisignative then the marvelously idealistic and the extremely zany must be seen as continually present. Their link is the poetic/imaginative: his personality.

In order to round out this somewhat limited picture mention might be made of some of Klein’s other activities. In the list quoted above he mentions two pre-painting activities which undoubtedly colored his mode of thought and action––Judo and Music. Judo was an on-going discipline. He was a 4th Dan Black Belt from Tokyo, and in 1954 published a book entitled Les fondements du Judo. Elsewhere he writes “With or without technique it is always a good thing to win . . . They taught me in Judo that one must achieve technical perfection in order to ignore it.” Ritual was also a common denominator between Judo and art. And Paul Wember writes, “Immediate . . ., and spiritual at the same time are a series of experiments with bed-sheets which go back to an experience in Judo where the fall of a sweaty body on a clean white cloth inspired him.” Finally, by employing a break-fall he was able to fly from second story windows.

In music, as early as 1947, he had composed a monotone symphony whose importance lay in its silence.

He also made a number of propositions regarding the “theatre.” These often seem something akin to Happenings and Events; but they are organized to a much simpler, determined level, and possess a character that is usually lyrical and (ultimately) optimistic as against the violence and inconsequence of most “new theatre.” Two pieces will indicate his ideas. For a National Theatre Institute he proposed that the audience on arrival be examined by a psychiatrist to test their suitability to attend the Institute’s performances. Those qualifying are then taken inside where they are bathed by beautiful young women. From this they pass to a Sauna bath, then to an ozonized shower room where they can feel through the walls, but not see, the sculptures tactiles hypersensibles, which are in fact the ravishingly beautiful naked bodies of both sexes. On leaving they are plunged into an artificial 24-hour sleep; reawakened they are massaged, re-dressed and violently thrown out. His ultimate theatre however was the World as such; i.e., le Dimanche, 27 Novembre 1960. A day simply presented by Klein. A newspaper he published on the day is devoted to enlarging our concept of the theatre. It is here that he writes: “The theatre must be . . . . . . . the pleasure of being, of living, of spending marvelous moments, and of understanding more clearly each day the beautiful today.” In this one hears echoes of Lissitzky, Utopian thinkers, Mystics, Zen. In this World, that of the Lost Eden, we are beyond art. The permanency of the Immaterial––for which we shall then be ready––will lead to no ashes; no matter how beautiful, inspiring, funny or idealistic the past may have judged such ashes to be.

––Ronald Hunt



1. Yves Klein. Le depassement de la problematique de l’art, La Louviere, 1959.

2. This is generally taken as the most important manifestation of the void; though it had in fact existed at Colette Allendy’s Gallery in May, 1957, when one area of Klein’s exhibition had been set aside and designated as “Immaterial.” It was repeated similarly on subsequent occasions––Krefeld, 1961, etc.

3. Sumner & Keller, The Science of Society, Vol. I, Yale, 1927.

4. Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, London, 1964.

5. Philip Wheelwright, Heraclitus, Princeton, 1959.