Today is the 90th birthday of the French artist Yves Klein. His influence in the minimalist discipline is undeniable. His vision has pushed the art world forward. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Yves Klein was a French painter, sculptor and performance artist whose work greatly influenced the development of minimalism.
Klein was born in Nice, in the Alpes-Maritimes department of France. His parents, Fred Klein and Marie Raymond, were both painters. His father painted in a loose Post-Impressionist style, while his mother was a leading figure in Art informel, and held regular soirées with other leading practitioners of this Parisian abstract movement.
From 1942 to 1946, Klein studied at the École Nationale de la Marine Marchande and the École Nationale des Langues Orientales and began practicing judo. At this time, he became friends with Arman (Armand Fernandez) and Claude Pascal and started to paint. At the age of nineteen, Klein and his friends lay on a beach in the south of France, and divided the world between themselves; Arman chose the earth, Pascal, words, while Klein chose the ethereal space surrounding the planet, which he then proceeded to sign:
With this famous symbolic gesture of signing the sky, Klein had foreseen, as in a reverie, the thrust of his art from that time onwards—a quest to reach the far side of the infinite.
Between 1947 and 1948, Klein conceived his Monotone Symphony (1949, formally Monotone Silence Symphony) that consisted of a single 20-minute sustained chord followed by a 20-minute silence – a precedent to both La Monte Young’s drone music and John Cage’s 4′33″. During the years 1948 to 1952, he traveled to Italy, Great Britain, Spain, and Japan. In Japan, at the age of 25, he became a master at judo receiving the rank of yodan (4th dan/degree black-belt) from the Kodokan, which at that time was a remarkable achievement for a westerner. He also stayed in Japan in 1953. Klein later wrote a book on Judo called Les fondements du judo. In 1954, Klein settled permanently in Paris and began in earnest to establish himself in the art world.
The critic Pierre Restany, whom he had met during his first public exhibition at the Club Solitaire, founded the Nouveau Réalisme group in Klein’s apartment on 27 October 1960. Founding members were Arman, Francois Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, and Jacques Villeglé, with Niki de Saint Phalle, Christo and Gérard Deschamps joining later. Normally seen as a French version of Pop Art, the aim of the group was stated as ‘New Realism=New Perceptual Approaches To The Real’.
A large retrospective was held at Krefeld, Germany, January 1961, followed by an unsuccessful opening at Leo Castelli’s Gallery, New York, in which Klein failed to sell a single painting. He stayed with Rotraut Uecker at the Chelsea Hotel for the duration of the exhibition; and, while there, he wrote the “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto”, a proclamation of the “multiplicity of new possibilities.” In part, the manifesto declared:
At present, I am particularly excited by “bad taste.” I have the deep feeling that there exists in the very essence of bad taste a power capable of creating those things situated far beyond what is traditionally termed “The Work of Art.” I wish to play with human feeling, with its “morbidity” in a cold and ferocious manner. Only very recently I have become a sort of gravedigger of art (oddly enough, I am using the very terms of my enemies). Some of my latest works have been coffins and tombs. During the same time I succeeded in painting with fire, using particularly powerful and searing gas flames, some of them measuring three to four meters high. I use these to bathe the surface of the painting in such a way that it registered the spontaneous trace of fire.
He moved on to exhibit at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, and traveled extensively in the Western U.S., visiting Death Valley in the Mojave Desert. On 21 January 1962, in an elaborate ceremony in which Klein dressed as a Knight of the Order of St Sebastian, he married Rotraut Uecker, sister of German artist Günther Uecker, at Saint-Nicholas-des-Champs, Paris. His last works included painting geophysical reliefs of France and casting his friends’ torsos, painting them blue, and attaching them to gold-leafed supports.
He suffered a heart attack while watching the film Mondo cane (in which he is featured) at the Cannes Film Festival on 11 May 1962. Two more heart attacks followed, the second of which killed him on 6 June 1962. His son, Yves Amu Klein, was born on 6 August in Nice. Yves Amu studied architecture, design, cybernetics theory of systems, and Fine Arts sculpture. He went on to create robotized sculptures. Rotraut Klein remarried, and has homes in Paris; Phoenix, Arizona; and Sydney, Australia.
Alongside works by Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, Klein’s painting RE 46 (1960) was among the top-five sellers at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art sale in May 2006. His monochromatic blue sponge painting sold for $4,720,000. Previously, his painting RE I (1958) had sold for $6,716,000 at Christie’s New York in November 2000. In 2008, MG 9 (1962), a monochromatic gold painting, sold for $21,000,000 at Christie’s. FC1 (Fire Color 1) (1962), a nearly 10-foot long panel created with a blowtorch, water and two models, sold for $36.4 million at Christie’s in 2012.
In 2013, Klein’s Sculpture Éponge Bleue Sans Titre, SE 168, a 1959 sculpture made with natural sea sponges drenched in blue pigment fetched $22 million, the highest price paid for a sculpture by the artist.