PRINT January 1982


If you come back someday
You who dream also
Of this marvellous void
Of this absolute love
I know that together
Without a word to one another
We will hurl ourselves
Into the reality of this void
Which awaits our love
As I wait for you each day . . .
Come with me into the void!

—Yves Klein1

THE MOST FAMOUS IMAGE OF Yves Klein—the startling photograph of the artist, dressed in business suit and necktie, leaping into flight from a second-floor ledge on a quiet Paris street—is usually seen out of context. Yet with Klein, context is everything. Originally part of a literary document, the photograph contributed to an intricate mingling of visual and verbal signifiers, in Klein’s most characteristic style. Klein’s imitation newspaper, Dimanche 27 Novembre: Le journal d’un seul jour (Sunday November 27th: the newspaper of a single day), his contribution to the Paris Festival d’Art d’Avant-garde in 1960, headlined the phrase: THEATRE DU VIDE (THEATER OF THE VOID). Beside the headline was the remarkable photograph, captioned underneath: “Le peintre de l’espace se jette dans le vide!” (The painter of space launches himself into the void!) Characteristically two-edged, Klein’s point was not merely self-advertisement, but provocation; it included an invitation to the readers to effect a Leap, or an analogue of the Leap, themselves. The poem excerpted above was found on the second page.

Klein’s own fate in this country has been the same: he has been assimilated out of context. Klein, who is widely regarded in Europe as the most important French artist since the Second World War, has remained, in the North American consciousness, primarily a showman and a clown. When he arrived in New York in April 1961, on his only visit to this country, the New York School was arrayed against the fading hegemony of the School of Paris,2 and Klein, with his fanciful personae and self-ordained titles—Champion of Color, Proprietor of Color, Painter of Space—looked like Paris come slumming again. New York artists virtually boycotted his show of monochrome paintings in “International Klein Blue” (his own patented formula of blue) at Leo Castelli’s gallery. The art press, which did not bother to investigate the wider context of his work, found him easy prey. Art News called him “the latest sugar-Dada to jet in from the Parisian common market,” and “the George M. Koan of French Neo-Dada.” Time called his works “tricks” and his reputation in Europe “a fad.” “Have you ever been all blue?” inquired the New York Herald Tribune.3 Six years later John Canaday, reviewing the Jewish Museum show of his works for the New York Times, called him “a vaudevillian,” “full panoplied in cap and bells,” whose work is “only stuntmanship.” “I Got the Yves Klein Blues,” the headline on this story read. In reference to the same exhibition, the World-Journal-Tribune called him, “a Dali—junior grade.”4

When, after two months in New York, Klein moved on to Los Angeles for a show of his works at the Virginia Dwan Gallery, he found a somewhat friendlier reception. To this day Klein is regarded in Los Angeles as in some sense a “California” artist: particularly for his use of space and silence as primary materials, his works in natural phenomena such as fire and water, his use of his own body as the locus of the art event, his reckless mixing of artistic codes and roles, and his deliberate ridicule of his own serious works. But not even in Los Angeles was the labyrinth of Klein’s gestures, his poses, his mutually cancelling intentionalities, perceived as a coherent whole. His show was regarded as a one-liner, and so were the fragments of his broader career that floated across from Europe, usually inaccurately. There was little sense of his work overall, of either its varied sensual appeal or its deep-structural coherence and swift intellectual interplay; his reputation solidified around a series of Neo-Dada art jokes.

Klein had Leapt past the American consciousness too quickly, and never had a chance to set it right. A year after his visit to America, he died of a heart attack at the age of 34. In the seven years before his death he produced over a thousand art objects in various media, as well as many prophetic works of nonstatic art and numerous writings. His oeuvre has a mazelike coherence, with circular corridors and cul-de-sacs deliberately built into it. It includes objects and events in all media, interpenetrated, mutually referenced, and carefully layered into a semantic stack.

Klein was a dedicated craftsman (as well as a despiser of craft as an end in itself), and his works, even when conceptually anti-art, have a vivid and arresting sensual presence, a directness that, as Susan Sontag said in another context, “frees us from the itch to interpret.”5 But in this case it was the artist himself who was never freed from the itch to interpret. He overlaid on his physical works a set of semantic dictions and contradictions, in the forms of essays, gestures, symbolic events, and photographs, which interacted with the physical works on many levels. His project was revolutionary, an aggression against the fundamental premises of art as known.

Klein personally detested all existing art vocabularies and felt that, if they could be terminated, far more powerful and elegant ones would be found. He saw himself at the turning point of two epochs—the “Messenger” of the incoming age, as his close friend Jean Tinguely put it.6 His ambition was to terminate the existing forms of art by revealing their inner contradictions and breaking down their boundaries; at the same time he set out to discover, or at least proclaim the way toward, the new ones. The complexity of such a project was not lost on Klein, who once dedicated an all-blue painting in an Italian miracle-cult shrine with the prayer: “May the Impossible arrive and establish its Kingdom quickly.”7

In a sense what happened to Klein’s reputation in New York was an appropriate consequence of his challenging and enigmatic style. Though he is known in this country primarily for his blue monochrome paintings, Joseph Kosuth says rightly that Klein fits into conceptual art “somewhere.”8 This indeterminate placement, in fact, would have pleased the Painter of Space, who specialized in turning up “there” as soon as one had placed him “here.” He was an escape artist among critics, the escape system symbolized by the famous Leap—an image of primary, hermeneutical value for his career—through which he sought (among other things) to escape from all closed categories.

An aphoristic account of the New York School’s descent into the underworld of monochromy portrays it as a voluntary confinement in a closed room: “Rothko pulled down the shade; Newman shut the door; and Reinhardt turned out the light.” But if Yves the Monochrome (as he called himself) is added to the formula, it acquires a paradoxical dimension of both self-destruction and escape: “Rothko pulled down the shade; Newman shut the door; Reinhardt turned out the light; and Klein jumped out the window.”

Lines, bars of a psychological prison . . . are our chains . . . They are our heredity, our education, our framework, our vices, our aspirations, our qualities, our wiles . . . Color, on the other hand, is free; it is instantly dissolved in space . . . And that is why, in my work, I refuse more and more emphatically the illusion of personality, the transient psychology of the linear, the formal, the structural. Evidently the subject I am traveling toward is space, pure Spirit. . . . By saturating myself with the eternal limitless sensitivity of space, I return to Eden. . . .
—Yves Klein9

Klein’s work, like Botticelli’s,10 involves a fully articulated allegorical content arising from a traditional body of metaphysics that the artist systematically translated into plastic terms. This (bottom) level of the semantic stack was based on the Rosicrucianism of Max Heindel, which Klein had studied and practiced during six formative years of membership in the Rosicrucian Society (not the AMORC).11

In Heindel’s version of theosophical cosmology, Spirit (or Life) is identical with Space. It is represented by color (which, as Klein wrote, is “free,” because “it is instantly dissolved in space”), but especially by the color blue; it is infinite expansiveness with no internal divisions to affront its wholeness. Space/Spirit/Life permeates and contains all transient forms, thereby negating their apparent differences and boundaries. Human evolution, according to Heindel, is approaching the end of the age of form and solid matter, and soon will reimmerse itself in an age of Space/Spirit/Life that will restore the condition of Eden. This transition will involve the erasure of all boundaries, both outer (political, national, occupational) and inner (“our heredity . . . education . . . framework . . . vices . . . aspirations . . . qualities . . . wiles”). Accordingly the Age of Space/Spirit will be a return from the entanglements of lines to the openness of color, and especially of the Eden/spiritual color: Blue. Klein took on the role of Champion of Color.

When Klein, in his first major shows, exhibited identical blue monochromes in Milan and Paris in 1957 under the title L’epoca blu (The Blue Age, or Period), Pierre Restany wrote that the moment of confronting one of these all-blue paintings was a “moment of truth.”12 The systematic Rosicrucianism of the works was one aspect of this “moment”: the viewer, in confronting an International Klein Blue monochrome, is staring into the depths of infinite Space/Spirit itself, gazing, as it were, into the coming age of Eden. But this “moment of truth” that Klein offered was more than the confrontation with the Allness-of-Blue: it required, as his later works make clear, the realization of higher levels of contradiction that rise out of the infinite when it is understood dialectically. (The All is made up only of contradictions—like Anaximander’s Apeiron or the Avatamsaka Sutra’s “Net of Indra.”)

This dialectical critique was acted out on another semantic level as a critique of art theory. Before this new age—which Klein hoped to see in his own time—can arrive, cultural codes must annihilate one another through their semantic and ethical contradictions, dissolving into the wholeness of Space. Klein’s deliberate semiological inversions, subversions, and self-refutations are techniques to demonstrate this self-erasure as a meta-hermeneutics of the Leap. (In Zen meditation, which Klein had practiced both in France and in Japan, the Leap into the Void represents the moment of going beyond all codes and interpretations, into the void where, as the Buddhist Prajnaparamita texts say, “one stands firmly because one stands upon nothing.”)13 The Blue Age exhibitions focused his project of restructuring on the premises of painting.

[Monochromism is] a sort of modern day alchemy practiced by painters, born of the tension of experiencing . . . a bath in space vaster than infinity . . . It is the only physical way of painting which permits access to the spiritual absolute. . . . My monochrome paintings are landscapes of freedom. . . .
—Yves Klein14

Klein was among the first to feel up against the wall about up-against-the-wall art. His monochromes, though powerful and alive within themselves, were attempts to destroy “the painting” as known and to pursue its sculptural and environmental transformations. (In this sense, as well, they foreshadow much work of the ’60s and after.) Klein never accepted the basic premises that a painting, whether illusionistic, geometric, or tachist, was (1) a more or less passive two-dimensional plane that waits for you to approach it, and (2) a field for personal expression by the artist. He wanted his paintings to come off the wall and invade the viewer’s sensibility in the most violent way—and at the same time to eliminate the driving force of personality from the event.

It is remarkable that Klein’s monochromes, which seem at first glance to be among the simplest paintings ever made, are among the most complex. Deceptively austere at first, their physical presence grows strangely rich. The delicately varied surfaces and textures of one unvaried and vibrating blue (or gold, yellow, red, pink, white, black, green) elicit a subtle range of what Donald Judd called “an unmitigated, pure, but very sensuous beauty.”15

But as this first moment of immersion in Klein’s blueness fades into memory, the strong sensory impression convolutes into a question mark. Several of the qualities of these paintings are unusual: (1) they are hung on visible vertical supports some distance away from the wall, like sculptures; (2) their corners are rounded to stress their sculptural presence; (3) they are identical, like stamps, prints, or machine-made objects; (4) they are rollered, to remove any quality of personal touch. They seem to seek a zero degree of what was generally recognized as painting. On this level they are antipaintings, functioning as critical forces as well as sensory immersions and prophetic allegories.

Beside alluding to Rosicrucian prophecy, the exhibition title (“The Blue Period”) was a parody of art critical categories. Further, the paintings themselves were designed to confute category distinctions, and successive conceptual overlays (in Klein’s writings) sought to remove them from the reach of all such terms as minimal or color-field. First was the Rosicrucian overlay. These paintings are Blue as Spirit-that-holds-all-things-dissolved-in-itself. And Blue Spirit does not just lie there. It invites you into it (invites you to Leap), and even more it contains you already. It comes off the wall instantaneously, permeating the surroundings with its atmosphere, and “impregnates” you with itself as a new, undifferentiated sensibility.

But, next, the paintings are removed from conceptual allegory or claims of ensorcellment by their return, ironically, to direct representation: they are nothing more nor less than portraits of the cloudless sky as seen through Klein’s studio window. With this image the abstract, the figurative, the minimal, and the allegorical are conflated into a single hugeness that opens in all directions behind, above, below, beside, and in front of the picture plane.

Through this series of interpretative devices provided by the artist himself, the paintings become environments; more than limited environments, they are the engulfing space in which the earth itself resides. No longer passive on the wall, they invite you, as does a window, to look—or even to Leap—into the question mark of the dark and featureless sky. The “moment of truth,” then, is an existential confrontation rife with questions of courage and identity. (“Come with me into the void!”)

In short, these paintings take a stand upon nothingness. (“International Klein Blue” was later rechristened “International Klein Nothingness.”) Exhibiting them, Klein asserted a role (the painter’s) that his controlled interpretation at once denied. “My works are only the ashes of my art,” he said in a famous one-liner whose reverberations can still be felt in recent European art.16

Seen in this way (as the artist directed us to see them) the blue paintings are an ethical imperative: It is not the window that is important, but the Leap through it. Not the abyss, but the entering of the abyss. Not the eros of Space/Spirit/Life, but the impregnation by it.

[Artists who] wish to save their personality at any cost will kill their spiritual selves and lose their LIFE. . . [Art] should be like an open channel for penetration by impregnation in the sensibility of the immaterial space of LIFE itself. . . .
—Yves Klein17

The circularity with which Klein leads us through various possible interpretations of his work, each of them canceling one or more of the others, is itself a part of the work, giving it cognitive shape. Each series of pieces leads through conceptual circuitry to others, a system closing itself in full circle on one level of the semantic stack, only to reopen on another. A recurring focus of the project was Klein’s critique of the artist him- or herself. On one semantic level all Klein’s works are attempts to purify the art object of the “entanglements of lines” that are the artist’s personality. The monochromes began it; but the hand on the paint roller was still too close to a signature. Other series seek to distance the artist still farther from his art.

The sponge works of 1957 and after are explicit mockeries of technique. “Painting is a mode of existence,” Klein insisted; art should be made as effortlessly as the sponge absorbs its color, and viewed with the same lack of resistance as the boundaries of the self are invaded by new sensibility. As Klein had identified his blue monochromes as “portraits” of the sky, similarly he regarded his “Sponge Sculptures” as “portraits” of the viewers of those paintings, who, whether they realized it or not, had been “impregnated” by Life/Space/Spirit vibrating off the rippled surfaces.

In other works the elimination of direct involvement of the artist was pursued on the analogy of alchemy, in which the magician is seen only as the helper of Nature. The “four elements” must be invited to express themselves directly, with a minimum of interference from the artist. Strapping a canvas to the roof of his car, Klein drove from Paris to Nice and back in the rain, capturing on the prepared surface “the mark of the rain, of the stirring of the atmosphere.” At the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld he exhibited a “Fire Fountain” and “Fire Wall,” which have echoes in much later art based on the manipulation of natural phenomena out-of-doors. In the Gaz de France building, with a helmeted fireman on hand, Klein “painted” with a flamethrower, later adding color selectively to some of the partly dematerialized canvases. In these “Fire Paintings” (of which well over a hundred were made) the satire of the artist’s “signature” or “touch” was pressed to the limit and fused with the alchemical theme of the pursuit of the natural elements in their pure state. In the rich tattered surfaces one glimpses Friedrich Nietzsche’s “voluptuousness of hell.”

Klein’s classic works of this type were the “Anthropometries of the Blue Age,” first presented to the public in 1960, in an evening performance before a seated audience. The artist, in formal dress and white gloves, directed the event without touching the materials. At his gesture, a string ensemble began playing his “Monotone-Silence Symphony” (a single D-major triad in second inversion to be played for 20 minutes, then followed by an equal period of silence). As he gestured again, naked girls appeared carrying pails of International Klein Blue paint. With his verbal guidance they applied the paint to their bodies (becoming “living brushes”) and pressed themselves against huge sheets of paper. When the performance was over, the “Anthropometries” remained as “ashes” of the process. Klein made nearly two hundred of these “living brush” works, sometimes spraying paint selectively around the models to create negative prints.

The “Anthropometries,” hovering ambiguously between the media of painting and print, restate Klein’s rejection of genre categories. They may also be seen as parodies of the traditional craftsmanly art of the figure. But the anti-art aspect of these works is absorbed in turn by its opposite—an apparent affirmation of esthetic values—through the living grace of the works themselves, which unlock the flat surface and drift or fly from the wall with a wispy transparency. The hollow centers and disintegrating edges of the figures invoke the theme of dematerialization, as their postures of flight, foreshadowing the age of levitation, return us to the Leap.

The theme of impregnation by Spirit mingles with the critique of art theory in a series of pieces that resist categorization. The International Klein Blue Nike of Samothrace expresses (by simultaneous appropriation and mockery) a rejection of the linear, masterpiece view of art history, and asserts (with blueness) the underlying sameness of all things. Appropriation, by blueness, of the Duchampian “ready-made” and oceanic dissolution of the boundaries between the art and nonart realms are also involved.

Klein’s most commonly used personal title, “Yves the Monochrome,” extends this universal impregnation to the artist and dissolves the boundaries between artist and art work as each is reciprocally absorbed into the other. If seen in terms of conceptual art, the adoption of the title was itself a “piece” or a “work,” and as such it is characteristically self-canceling; the artist appropriates all space within himself, and at the same time, by designating himself an art object, takes his place as an object within space. Similar readings apply to the photograph of Klein gazing at an International Klein Blue globe of the world, which seems to float in midair: the world, which contains him, is appropriated by blueness and designated as a gallery object that he will display. The reciprocal appropriations and dissolutions of his works, his personae, and his world, form a shifting conceptual piece whose inner life is the driving force of paradox and mutual containment.

For Klein all these works had the alchemical associations (rooted in Rosicrucian allegory) that culminated in the “Monogold” paintings, whose solemn and royal radiance suggests completion of the Great Work. Gold, alchemically, is a symbol of Spirit and as such equal to Space and a negation of separate individuality. One such work, La Tombe—Ci-git l’espace (The Tomb—Here Lies Space), was the site of Klein’s ritual burial in 1962 (just three months before his actual death). The photographed event, in which, characteristically, art object, performance, and conceptual piece are conflated, restates the theme of ego-death and infinite expansion, of the Leap beyond signature. “Here Lies Space,” says the title; but it is Klein himself who lies buried there. By rejecting his personality and its role as artist, the artist has opened himself to the fullness of Space.

In our present materialistic period we have unfortunately lost the idea of all that lies behind that word Space . . . we have entirely lost the grand and holy significance of the word. . . . To the Rosicrucians, as to any occult school . . . space is Spirit in its attenuated form, while matter is crystallized space or Spirit.
—Max Heindel18

I seek above all . . . to create . . . this transparence, this void immeasurable in which lives the Spirit permanent and absolute, freed from all dimensions. . . . The absolute void . . . is entirely naturally the true pictorial space.

Space has given me the right to be its “Proprietor” . . . and has consented to manifest its presence in my paintings . . . my documents, my gestures.

The Void belongs to me.
—Yves Klein19

The hypothetical environment postulated by Klein’s conceptually expanded monochromes was Space itself. Painting was terminated (hypothetically) by dissolving/expanding it into volumetric ambience. But whereas Blue, according to Heindel, is the filmiest coagulation of Spirit that can be perceived by the senses, transparent space is more direct: it is Spirit itself. The artists of the incoming age, Heindel said, will create immaterial works out of transparent space, which they will mold into specific configurations by projecting mental images onto it. These works will possess Life and radiate a more intense spiritual force than any material work has attained.

Klein had practiced Heindel’s visualizations during his years in the Rosicrucian Society. In 1958, as the artist of the future, he began to act out this aspect of Heindel’s prophecy, making, exhibiting, and offering for sale immaterial works in “the true pictorial space” of the Void. As always, the prophetic content was only one strand of his encompassing semantic net, beside a sophisticated critique of art, art history, and the artist as a self.

In April 1958, Klein presented the classic exhibition, “Specialization of Sensibility from the State of Prime Matter to the State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility,” known as “The Void,” in which the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris was emptied of furniture, painted white, and exhibited empty. But neither “exhibition” nor “environment” quite describes this piece, which like all of his work hangs carefully on the interfaces between categories. As his paintings were conceptually expanded into environments, his environment flowed over its boundaries into the zone of the performance, and the performance in turn transgressed the proscenium arch and entered politics.

The invitations to “The Void” were mailed with International Klein Blue stamps, preempting government in the name of the Blue Revolution. Two days before the opening, the windows of the Galerie Iris Clert were painted International Klein Blue, and an International Klein Blue canopy appeared before the entrance. Passing beneath it, Klein closed himself into the now-secret space, which no one else would enter until the opening. “Working carefully, as on a large picture,” he painted the interior walls white to return the gallery space (through sympathetic magic) to the state of Prime Matter. Then he projected mental images onto the transparent space, creating immaterial paintings that were “stabilized” in mid-air by prolonged concentration. Meanwhile his own presence filled the space with “an abstract but real palpable density existing and living in the space by and for itself.”20 The atmosphere of the place had now been purified, thickened, complexified, and stilled.

By prearrangement Republican Guards in full array flanked the canopied entrance at the hour of the opening, implying the presence of a government in the void space where Klein waited alone. As guests arrived they were served an International Klein Blue cocktail (gin, Cointreau, methylene blue) that would cause them to urinate blue for a week (a sign of their impregnation by Space); then they were allowed inside in groups of ten.

For one night it seemed that the whole Paris art world was eager to Leap into International Klein Nothingness. By 10:00 p.m. the narrow rue des Beaux Arts was jammed with two to three thousand people. Police and fire trucks were called to disperse the crowd. Inside, the Painter of Space bargained over immaterial paintings, concluding two sales. In a speech delivered about 1:00 a.m. at the famous Left Bank café La Coupole, he declared that “in my modest person . . . four millennia of civilization have found their exhaustive conclusion.”21

Like his gallery objects, Klein’s immaterial works radiate meaning through various semantic directions and levels. The Rosicrucian allegory, as always, is obvious: it is an acting out of Heindel’s prophecy of the imminent dematerialization of culture. But at the same time the facetious procedure of selling “pieces” of infinity subverts the Rosicrucian seriousness of the event, and the inner contradiction forces a semantic Leap to another level. On this new level also absences are reified. The act of displaying the gallery in which art works are seen rather than the works themselves follows from the Wittgensteinian/Duchampian “contextual” or “usage” definition of art. If placing an object in an art context, or otherwise designating it as art, makes it art, then it is in the context or designation, and not in the object, that the art-essence resides, and it is the context itself that should be exhibited, not an object within it. On this semantic level, “The Void” was a derisive critique of the art object, the art business, and the role of the artist. (In fact, Klein also reduces the Duchampian example to absurdity, by involving it in an infinite regress: the context is put in a context.) Spiraling down the semantic stack, this critique returns us to Klein’s serious Rosicrucian strain: Space/Spirit is everywhere, he explained in an interview with Pierre Restany; it permeates the picture, the viewer, the gallery, the city, the universe. This permeation trivializes distinctions between objects and reveals the art work as a mere entanglement of lines, desecrating both inner and outer space.

“The Void,” like the Leap, points toward the empty center of Klein’s labyrinth, where all boundaries and divisions are dissolved. For Klein, the boundaries between art media and genres (abstract/figurative, concept/object, and so forth), or the wider boundary between art and life, were internal divisions within the stuff of Spirit by which the tangled self is strapped and bound. They were affronts to Life, which should be boundless like the sky through which the Painter of Space leaps into effortless flight. He parodied one boundaried zone after another, while contradictorily laying claim to each in turn. He invited all interpretations, in order to destroy them all. It is this, finally, that makes the moment of confronting his works a “moment of truth.” And it is this (or so the Painter of Space hoped) that makes the attempt to categorize them impossible, because self-contradictory. Ancient mystical images of the knife trying to cut itself apply. By insisting, in his conceptual overlays, that each of his works drives past its own boundaries into the infinite, Klein extended them beyond the reach of differentiation and interpretation. By such strategy he hoped to terminate in his own person the entire preceding age of cultural evolution.

At the end of our present Epoch the highest initiate will appear publicly when a sufficient number of ordinary humanity desire and will voluntarily subject themselves to such a leader. . . . After that time races and nations will cease to exist. Humanity will form one spiritual fellowship. . . . Before a new Epoch is ushered in . . . the physical features of the earth will be changed and its density decreased.
—Max Heindel22

Klein’s attempt to wrap all art forms in a nest of mutual containments reaches necessarily beyond art into politics: all boundaries and divisions are affronts to Pure Color and the Monochrome Spirit. (“The Void” had already inaugurated the age of Space.) In 1958 Klein sent a letter to President Eisenhower informing him of the termination of the French national government by the Blue Revolution. In the next year he undertook Heindel’s project of decreasing the density of the environment for the age of spaced-out humans, in which levitation would replace gravitation. The “Architecture of the Air”—houses built of compressed air currents in which levitating humans would live in Edenic closeness to nature, passing through boundaries at will—was to be followed by the creation of a controlled climate over all of France. In a commingling of art and politics that prefigures certain of Joseph Beuys’ activities, Klein exhibited maquette drawings for these projects at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs; and, in conjunction with the architect Werner Ruhnau, he carried out industrial experiments (which failed to produce the air roof). In 1959 Klein presented at the Sorbonne his plans for a World Center of Sensibility that would make obsolete the archaic educational modes of the age of matter and would prepare humanity for the age of Space.

These gestures, or conceptual performance pieces, locate themselves, as usual, at a shifting place between art and politics. For Klein the boundary between art and government, or art and science, was as petty and irksome as that between, say, geometric and figurative painting. Beginning in 1959, he acted out the establishment of the postgovernmental age by the systematic selling of “Immaterial Zones of Pictorial Sensibility,” that is, blocks of the Void—immaterial real estate of the age of Spade, paid for in the timeless currency, gold.

Meeting Klein on a bank of the Seine, the buyer paid pure gold (a different weight for each Zone) to the artist, who gave him a signed receipt. Then the buyer burned the receipt while Klein threw half of the gold into the river, to return it to the matrix of potentiality. Only then was the Zone permanently relinquished by the Proprietor of Space and transferred to the buyer, who was left with no visible object or documentation except—in some cases—photographs. The “relinquishments” satirize the business of art and the sanctity of the art object, which is falsely predicated on its alleged separateness from Life.

In the same year, as the first citizen of the age of Space, Klein participated immaterially in a group show in Antwerp, projecting a mental vibration into the space reserved for his work, then returning to Paris.

And the kaleidoscope of his interacting elements continued to shift. As Klein’s paintings flowed over into conceptual environments, and his environments into political strategies, so his political pieces flowed into the zone of revolutionary theater—a theater that attempts to overleap all divisions and establish the “Kingdom of the Impossible quickly.”

The theater which I propose is not only the city of Paris, but is also the countryside, the desert, the mountains, even the sky, in fact, the whole universe. Why not?
—Yves Klein23

Klein’s aspiration to rid the world of art—as of all boundaried safe-zones—led him to postulate the whole universe as simultaneously his studio, his material, and his stage. The dateline of his personal “Newspaper of a Single Day” read: “Yves Klein presents Sunday, November 27, 1960.” It is virtually a “Fiat lux!” The artist, through his power to designate-as-art, has become godlike. He transposes entities at will across the perpetually dissolving boundary between art and life. For one day, read the lead story, every person in the world was cast as actor or spectator in Yves Klein’s Theater of the Void. It was “an historic day for the theater,” which now included everything. All distinctions between art and life were suspended as their arenas became coextensive. The world was an art work, or theatrical production, because it had been designated as such, the designation then being offered as Klein’s “piece” to the Festival d’Art d’Avant-garde. Piero Manzoni’s Base of the World and other works of conceptual art involving universal appropriation follow from this prototype. The world is, for a “moment of truth,” “made strange,” “defamiliarized” (in Viktor Shklovsky’s terms); a Brechtian alienation device is placed as a framework around the All.

Klein correctly wrote on the front page of his newspaper that the Theater of the Void was “the culmination of my theories.” Characteristically, this culmination does not assume a fixed form; the rest of the newspaper restates the vision in constantly changing terms. In his theater of Life the actors are “to live a constant art exhibition, to know the permanence of being, to be here, there, everywhere,” like the constantly moving, and escaping, artist of the future. In one of the many unrealized theatrical projects described in these pages, the theater is to remain permanently empty—empty subscribers’ chairs facing an empty stage. Each night at eight the lights will go up and the curtain open on the empty stage. Actors hired for the event will be apprised of its nature, then will drift back into the world to portray human beings, with a new sense of the solemnity of this role. As new ones are constantly hired to replace them, the process of reversing art and life will move onward through the world. The world is asked, in effect, to throw itself toward freedom, into the void, like the Painter of Space who, having repealed the law of gravity, Leaps jauntily upward in the front-page photograph.

Today anyone who paints space must actually go into space to paint, but he must go there without any faking, and . . . by his own means: in a word, he must be capable of levitating. . . .

I have opened into the monochrome space . . . into the immeasurable pictorial sensibility. . . I have felt myself, volumetrically impregnated, outside of all proportions and dimensions, in the ALL. I have encountered, or rather been seized by the presence of, the inhabitants of space—and none of them was human: no one had gone there before me.
—Yves Klein24

For Klein levitation, or bodily flight, was the most revolutionary of all acts. And as such it must deal in paradox and circularity, which were the weapons of Klein’s insurrection. Even his famous Leap is tangled, on the front page of his newspaper, in self-referential circularity. The caption above the photograph says: “A Man in Space”; and below, in the only other photograph on the page, one of Klein’s blue monochromes is reproduced, in black and white, with the caption: “Space Itself.” That is: he Leaps into his own painting, which is the open window leading out of the closed room of art and the self. But leading to where? In the photograph there is nothing but hard pavement beneath him.

In Paris in 1960 the rumor quickly spread that the Leap made famous by the photograph was performed over a net, the upper half of the scene then being montaged onto a lower half in which the camera, in the same setup, had photographed the empty street. Firsthand inspection of a print made directly from the negative confirms this rumor, and original photographs including the catchers have recently come to light.25

But the question does not end there and is not, in terms of Klein’s career, a trivial one. In a sense the final definition of Klein’s intentions rests on the question of the historicity of this “practical demonstration of levitation” (as he called it). Was he sufficiently detached from his revolutionary theater to create it out of conceptual whole cloth? Or was his dedication to his symbolic gestures so complete as to require the bone-crunching fall after the devil-may-care “moment of truth” in mid-air? Clearly Klein believed that in some cases it did not matter whether his projects were physically realized. But the Leap, in fact, was not one of those cases. A recent investigation of all evidence, including interviews of all known witnesses, indicates that Klein did indeed make his Leap originally (in January 1960) above pavement alone, only later reenacting it over a net for the cameras.26

Here Klein’s art stands firmly upon nothingness. The Leap opens vacancies at all levels of his intricate intentionality: The photograph, as a “trace of the immediate” (a term with which Klein described many of his works), indicts the art object as unreal. The locus of art is Life, the untrammeled expression of the immediate; the objects left behind are as dead as ashes and as distant as a photograph of a reenactment. For Klein, it was “indecent and obscene” to call objects outside oneself art; the artist is the location of the art event. “Painting is a mode of existence,” he wrote; “the fact that I exist as a painter will be the foremost pictorial event of our time.” In the Leap more plainly than in any other work, we see what he meant by existing as a painter. Aware of his responsibility, the man of the future ushers in the age of Space, demonstrating definitively the overleaping of all limitations.

I am proposing to artists that they pass by art itself and work individually on the return to real life, the life in which a man no longer thinks he is the center of the universe, but in which the universe is the center of each man.

The true painter of the future will be a mute poet who will write nothing but recount, without detail and in silence, an immense picture without limit.
—Yves Klein27

Klein attempted to terminate critical categories by emptying them into one another. This approach was in part an attack on Modernism (which seemed old-fashioned to him), specifically on Modernism’s attempt to erase content by selective seeing. In his work, form and content are not treated as two entities, of which it is feasible (or even possible) to elevate one above the other, but as a single bipolar continuum where the reality of each pole is continually passing into its opposite. Through selective seeing it is of course possible to focus on one end of the continuum alone (and that practice is at times useful); but it is not possible to rank them since each is equally dependent on the other. The two terms in fact form a dependent pair, like left/right, up/down, inside/outside, yes/no: neither element in such a structure can be real in a universe in which the other is not equally real. Like two sticks leaning on each other, if one is removed, the other falls, too.

Klein’s insistence on content ran counter to the zeitgeist of his time, which can be represented, for example, by Clement Greenberg’s insistence that “a modernist work of art must try, in principle, to avoid dependence upon any order of experience not given in the most essentially construed nature of its medium.”28 Clearly Klein’s insistence on the prophetic level of his work violates this “principle.” But on the other hand, Klein was very conscious of critical attitudes, and his work conspicuously fulfills the modernist imperative that the artist’s attention should turn “in upon the medium of his own craft.”29 There is, as always, reason to his duplicity.

The essentially dialectical nature of his work, in which content not only dissolves into form (as Greenberg and other formalists advised), but form into content as well, combines iconological allegorism with avant-garde criticism of the medium. Like a dedicated reductionist, he erases traditional signifying devices; then, playing the constructionist, he encodes this erasure as itself a signifier—of Prime Matter, or zero-expression—in a traditional metaphysical system. Dialectical balance affirms each limb and thus negates each, by affirming the other. As in the ancient “Epimenides” paradox: if yes then no, and if no then yes. Klein empties the work while filling it, and fills it while emptying it. Paradox and circularity emerge as strategies to transcend the given terms, to reject the critical attitude that postulated an antinomy between them in the first place.

To a certain extent Klein, like Manzoni and Beuys, belongs in what some critics have called the Other Tradition in modern art—the tradition of artists whose work involves “extra-art ambitions.”30 But this category also is of limited relevance. It is as always difficult to say where Klein “belongs.” He seems to have rendered dialectical the very distinction between formalist Modernism and the Other Tradition, allowing each a place in his work so that each could destroy the other, pointing toward an art beyond these and all other known critical distinctions.

The question of content, slightly contracted, becomes a question most relevant to this moment—that of the place of the artist’s intentions. Klein attempted to conflate his intentions (expressed through essays, interviews, symbolic photographs, events, and rumors) and his “works,” to put them on a single footing as equal and mutually interacting parts of a meta-structure. Before the legitimacy of this tactic can be determined, it is necessary to answer a prior question: where does the art work end (and who is to draw the line)?

Is the monochrome painting inside the art work, and the photograph of Klein, in knight’s suit, holding the same monochrome and preparing to do war against Line, outside of it? Is the text that Klein wrote to accompany this photograph inside or outside of the art work? Are his various essays on the monochrome idea, and the titles of his shows, with their allusions to Heindel, inside or outside of it?

It should be remembered that in such questions we are not dealing with essences but merely specifying the rules by which the game is to be played. A few years after Klein’s death, after the recognition of conceptual art as a medium, gestures, events, and writings could be catalogued or “indexed” into the status of art works.31 Klein’s own practice, foreshadowing the conventions of conceptual art, assumed that his photographed gestures and poses, his published writings, and his monochromes and other physical works were all inside the art work, as interacting parts of it. The work itself was the set of complex interactions among these elements, not any one element to the exclusion of the others. Klein’s concept was to fuse concept and sensum so that each would lose autonomy, and the work become a vast shifting structure involving both conceptual and sensory elements in a meta-system. If it is true, as some critics claim, that we are in a transition between a sensory and an ideational esthetic,32 then Klein was indeed, as Tinguely called him, a Messenger of the incoming age.

Klein’s strategy of placing concept and sensum in interaction was designed to compensate for the weaknesses that he felt were inherent in a purely sensory art. The zeitgeist had argued that abstract art has only semiotic, and not semantic, ability. It can refer around within itself, in a nonverbal sign system that a so-called faculty of taste then receives, decodes (nonconceptually), and appraises, but it cannot refer outside itself, and it can make no bridge with the world. It is, in short, artificially isolated and as such, to Klein, an affront to the wholeness of Life.

Faced with an art that (supposedly) lacked semantic ability, the formalist accepted the consequences and focused on morphology, neglecting (or claiming to neglect) all conceptual overlays as outside the work. Klein of course made the Other Decision: to reject art as presently known and restructure it in a corrective meta-system that would restore its semantic capability. And lest this restructuring become reactionary, he submitted it in turn to a dialectical destructuring through inner contradictions.

A fundamental critical question is raised by these conflicting decisions. On the one hand, the insistence that the artist’s intentions are separate from, or outside of, his works (and vice versa) may be merely a self-indulgence on the part of the critic, who wishes to replace the artist as the creator of content. (For all criticism, no matter how formalist, has contentual implications.) From this point of view, perhaps the soundest critical strategy would be to regard everything that the artist deliberately presents to the public as inside the work. But from the formalist critic’s point of view, on the other hand, Klein’s attempt to saturate his works with his intentions may be seen as a strategy to distract attention from their possible deficiencies, by clouding the critical gaze with intermediary concepts. Inevitably the adherents of this last view must emphasize, perhaps hopelessly, questions of appraisal (the faculty of taste) rather than of explication.

Klein despised the faculty of taste because its decisions are so variable; produced, he felt, by cultural conditioning rather than by nature, they will be trivialized, or even rendered absurd, by the passage of time and the ascendancy of different cultural codes. In fact the problem goes even deeper, since questions of taste are not tactically answerable; they are distanced, perhaps infinitely, by prior questions that they beg (and that in turn beg others). We must first decide, for example, about the place of the artist’s intentions, the limits of the art realm, and so forth. And these decisions in turn must fall back upon the faculty of taste—or habit, or entanglements of lines—for these questions also beg others. For example: is the mind only a user of sense-data? Or is it also (as Buddhist psychology teaches) a sense in itself, with its own sense objects (concepts), and its own quite legitimate esthetic delight in them? And that question of course begs others. . . .

Jean Tinguely called Klein “the greatest provocateur I have ever known.”33 And surely Klein’s work, while answering every question, questions every answer, provocatively. This winding dialectical path leads, through infinite regress, to an unbounded free zone. Inner space opens with the realization that (as an ancient artist of the dialectic proclaimed), “Every opinion is nullified by an equal and opposite opinion.”34 Or, as Yves Klein the Provocateur put it: “It is necessary to be like untamed fire; it is necessary to contradict yourself.”35

Thomas McEvilley is a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, and is a contributor to the catalog of the Rice/Beaubourg Yves Klein retrospective to open next month.



1. Yves Klein, in Dimanche: The Newspaper of a Single Day, p. 2. There is no definitive edition of Klein’s essays. The mss. are in the Klein archive, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. I will refer to published versions whenever possible. Unless otherwise noted, translations from Klein’s writings are my own. A facsimile of The Newspaper of a Single Day may be consulted in Giuliano Martano, ed., Yves Klein: il Mistero Ostentato (Turin, n.d.). insert.

2. See, e.g., Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), pp. 125–26.

3. Art News, May 1961; New York Herald Tribune, April 16, 1961; Time, January 27, 1961.

4. New York Times, February 5, 1967; New York World Journal Tribune, February 5, 1967. The almost worshipful tone adopted by Ronald Hunt in Artforum for January 1967 didn’t help; the cultic atmosphere was perceived as part of Klein’s “vaudeville.”

5. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Delta Books, 1981), p. 11.

6. In The Inner and the Outer Space, catalogue of exhibition, December 26, 1965–February 3, 1966, Moderna Museet. Stockholm, n.p.

7. Typescript in Klein archive, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

8. Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Idea Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: Dutton, 1973), p. 100.

9. “The Monochrome Adventure.” typescript in Klein archive, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Selections have been published in various exhibition catalogues, including Yves Klein, catalogue of exhibition January 25–March 12, 1967, New York, Jewish Museum (which I quote).

10. See, for example, E.H. Gombrich, “Botticelli’s Mythologies: A Study in the Neo-Platonic Symbolism of His Circle,” in Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Dutton, 1972).

11. The Rosicrucian Society (based in Oceanside, California) should be distinguished from the Rosicrucian Order, or AMORC; it became a separate organization, under the leadership of Max Heindel, around the turn of the century. The relationship between Klein’s writings and art works and Heindel’s writings is analyzed in detail in my essay “Yves Klein and Rosicrucianism,” forthcoming in the exhibition catalogue, Yves Klein (1928–1962): A Retrospective, to be published by the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, in February 1982, and by the Musée National d’Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in February 1983.

12. Pierre Restany, “L’Epoca blu: it secondo minuto della verita,” in Yves Klein, catalogue of exhibition, January 2–12, 1957, Milan, Galleria Apollinaire.

13. For example, in The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, trans. Edward Conze (Bolinas, California: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973), pp. 97–98.

14. “The Monochrome Adventure.”

15. Donald Judd, Complete Writings, 1959–1975 (New York: New York University Press, 1978), p. 68.

16. The sentence appears in several of Klein’s writings; for example, Yves Klein, Le Dépassement de la Problématique de l’Art (La Louvrière, Belgium: Editions de Montbliard, n.d.), p. 3. Hereafter Dépassement.

17. “Discourse on the Occasion of Tinguely’s Exhibition in Dusseldorf, January 1959,” in Dépassement.

18. Max Heindel, The Rosicrucian Cosmoconception (Oceanside, California: The Rosicrucian Society, 1937), p. 247. Hereafter Cosmoconception.

19. “Attendu que j’ai peint . . . ,” in Yves Klein, catalogue of exhibition. Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 1969. pp. 38, 40: Dépassement, p. 2: letter of Klein to Yamazaki, February 15, 1960. Klein archive.

20. The quoted phrases are from Klein’s own description of the event in Dépassement, pp. 4–13.

21. Dépassement, p. 14.

22. Cosmoconception, pp. 305, 311.

23. “Theater of the Void,” in Dimanche: The Newspaper of a Single Day.

24. Dimanche: The Newspaper of a Single Day, p. 1; Dépassement, p. 2.

25. The author has seen copies of these photographs, though they are not currently available for public view.

26. This evidence will be reviewed in Yves Klein: A Retrospective Exhibition.

27. Dépassement, p. 21; Musée des Arts Décoratifs catalogue, p. 22.

28. Art and Culture, p. 139.

29. Art and Culture, p. 6.

30. See, for example, Douglas Davis, Artculture (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 134–38.

31. For “indexing” see Timothy Binkley, “Piece: Contra Aesthetics,” in Joseph Margolis, ed., Philosophy Looks at the Arts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978).

32. As, for example, Douglas Davis says, Artculture, p. 49.

33. In Martano, Yves Klein: il Mistero Ostentato, p. 110.

34. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, I.202, my translation; for the text see Sextus Empiricus, ed., R. G. Bury, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933), 1:118.

35. “Truth Becomes Reality,” in Zero (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1973), p. 88.