Here, we take a closer look at Klein, a visionary showman whose expansive approach led him to erase the boundaries between life and art …
Klein’s first love was judo
Klein’s interests and influences were broad and his approach to art encompassed painting, sculpture, performance, theatre, music, film, architecture, esoteric spirituality and judo. Indeed, before he established himself as an artist, he took up the martial art (in 1947), and later trained at the prestigious Japanese Judo Kodokan institute in Tokyo, attaining a fourth dan ranking. He even worked in Madrid as an instructor, and in 1954 he published The Foundations of Judo. Later, he came to regard his practice of judo in artistic terms:
Judo helped me to understand pictorial space and the discovery of the human body in a spiritual space.
Klein invented a colour
As a young man Yves Klein, lazing on a beach in Nice, declared that ‘The blue sky is my first artwork.’ Whether he realised it or not, the 19 year old Klein had set himself on a path in search of the infinite, best expressed by the blue of the sky. A decade later, with the aid of Parisian paint supplier Edouard Adam, Klein developed a synthetic binding material to retain the brilliancy and texture of pure pigment. Although he worked in other colours, a distinctive, rich ultramarine had by this time become his signature colour, which he would register as a trademark under the name International Klein Blue (IKB). After 1958 IKB became his colour of choice across monochromes, sponge sculptures and even people.
He made works using ‘living paint brushes’ and fire
Klein’s ambition went beyond the traditional parameters of art, and in his short career harnessed the expressive potential of more than simply paint and canvas. In his Anthropometries, Klein – dressed in evening wear – directed nude female models to sponge themselves in IKB. The models, or ‘living paint brushes’, transferred (as Klein saw it) a material imprint of life directly onto paper, while musicians played his Monotone Symphony – a single note played for twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of silence, mirroring the effects of his monochrome paintings in music. He also turned to the elements in his creative process, using fire and water to express something beyond human perception:
Where THE VOID is found, there also lies fire …
He enacted self-staged leaps into the unknown
In 1960, Klein took an astonishing leap from the ledge of a building in a quiet Paris suburb. Captured by the photographer duo Harry Shunk and János Kender, the artist’s Leap into the Void makes for a breath-taking image. Klein, in a suit, his face determined and seemingly fearless – emotionless in fact – launches himself into space. A classic piece of Klein trickery, the image was a photomontage, described later by Shunk as a ‘confection’. Klein was never in any danger and, depending on who you believe, was caught by friends – edited out later – in a tarpaulin; or his fall was cushioned, fittingly, by a stack of judo mats. The image, however, retains its magic and remains one of the most famous performance photographs.
Klein changed the art world
Klein was a pivotal figure who operated during a critical period in cultural history. Reacting against the existential introspection found in abstract art movements in the period immediately following the Second World War, his innovative outlook led him to erase divisions between life and art. Shifting the perception of audiences, he pushed the possibilities of what art could be in new, exciting and frequently unexpected directions, taking the European art world by storm. His legacy remains undiminished, and director and senior curator at Gagosian London, Richard Calvocoressi, has said
Klein is one of the most radical figures in post-war western art. He influenced minimal, conceptual and performance art, taking painting out of the frame, which he felt had imprisoned it for too long.
Visit Yves Klein at Tate Liverpool, open until 5 March 2017