Yves Klein was born April 28, 1928, in Nice. The child of parents who were both painters, he was familiarized with artistic positions between landscape painting and Informel at an early age. Klein developed a special affinity for spiritual topics that were to shape his entire artistic career. The mystical writings and teachings of the Rosicrucians, for example, became important sources of inspiration not only for Klein, but also for his friends, painter Armand Fernandez and poet Claude Pascal. Beyond these impulses, Klein intensely engaged in the practice and the spiritual context of the martial arts, more specifically, of Judo. In 1949, he went to England for a year, together with Claude Pascal. There, he became the apprentice of a frame maker and acquired the fundamentals of painting techniques, and of painting as material craft. He also learned about pigments, including leaf gilding. In 1949, he did first monochrome sketches in gouache and pastel on paper and cardboard surfaces which he exhibited in a private context. In 1952, he traveled to Tokyo to further perfect his knowledge of Judo at the famous Kôdâkan institute. This led to first documentary films about Judo that drew on studies of motion sequences and the experimental engagement with the body moving in space. The desire for immaterial effects of art was closely linked to Klein’s notion of physical self-discipline, body control, and concentration. These were most probably also decisive impulses for Klein’s interest in monochrome painting, in the reduction of the pictorial to the expression of pure color. In late 1953, he returned from Japan and, in 1954, he published two series of monochrome paintings: »Yves Peintures« and »Haguenault: Peintures.« In December 1954, he finally settled in Paris.
Initially, Klein’s monochrome works met with little interest. This changed when – with the help of Pierre Restany with whom he founded the group Nouveau Réalistes in 1960 – Klein was able to present his works at the Galerie Allendy. There, he elaborated on his art and initiated a debate about monochrome painting. In various texts written during the years to come, Klein explained his idea of the monochrome: »I try to confront the viewer with the fact that color is an individual, a character, a personality. I offer to the viewer of my works a sensitivity that allows him to perceive everything that actually surrounds the monochrome painting. Like this, he can perhaps fill himself with color, and color finds its fulfillment in him. And he can perhaps enter into the world of color« (Klein, L’aventure monochrome (1958), in: Le Dépassement, Paris 2003). Important goals of the painter Klein are evoked here, for example, the crossing of the aesthetic boundaries of the panel picture towards the pulsating color field, and the interest in perceptive impression that can be immediately physically experienced. Stating a difference to Kazimir Malevich’s monochrome work, Klein explained: »Malevich really had infinity before him – I am inside infinity« (Klein, Mon livre, in: Ausst.-Kat. Klein 1995).
With ultramarine blue, Klein found the color that most closely corresponded to his ideas of spiritual abstraction and nature orientation (ocean and sky). With Paris color merchant Edouard Adam, he developed a special pigment that was granted a patent in 1957 (IKB, International Klein Blue).
Klein’s search for the possibility to spiritually experience art was also linked to the desire for a synthesis of art and life. He staged his exhibitions as ritualized events that increasingly included the audience. In 1957, he showed eleven blue same-size monochromes with the title »Yves Klein: Proposte monocrome/ epoca blu« at the gallery Apollinaire in Milan. This exhibition was the beginning of the so-called »Blue Epoch.« Soon after, sponge sculptures (Sculpture éponge, 1957) followed. With his first fire picture, where he equipped a wooden panel with sixteen firecrackers (Feux de Bengale – Tableau de feu bleu d’une minute, 1957), he for the first time turned towards ephemeral pictorial and color effects. Through his exhibition at the Galerie Alfred Schmela in Düsseldorf, he came to know the Group Zero and was then commissioned to decorate the lobby of the Musiktheater Gelsenkirchen (Reliefs éponges, 1958/59). Next to blue, the colors pink and gold became important for his work, and in the following years he did large-format monochromes, firewalls that took up the color spectrum mentioned, fire fountains and, after 1960, imprints of fire, water, and wind (Cosmogonies). In these imprints, even the elements now came to be ritually and materially solidified.
With spectacular Actions, Klein promoted his idea of a »pneumatic period« or a »blue revolution.« For example, at the occasion of his solo exhibition »Le vide« at the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, Klein staged »emptiness« in the most literal sense. His Dadaist-esoterical goals were met with broad resonance and thereby also made a statement on the interests of the media society. In the same year and with a similar impetus, he also did his anthropomeasurements – imprints of female bodies painted blue on an empty canvas. The process of a picture’s emergence is demonstrated in public. For example, Klein employed a nude female model as »living brush.« Another Action was the sale of Zones de sensibilité picturale immateriélle, zones whose invisible existence as an artwork was only documented through a receipt. His famous »jump into the void,« documented as a photograph in 1960 and then sold in a newspaper Klein edited himself, demonstrates his interest in an artistic staging of the self, but also in strategies of advertisement and reproduction media. In 1960, the founding session of the group Nouveaus Réalistes took place in Klein’s small apartment. Pierre Restany had written its manifesto.
Klein left a remarkable body of works done in the short phase from 1955 to 1962. Having provided decisive impulses for Concept Art as well as for Happenings and Action Art, Klein’s works – they were initially exhibited in Milan and Paris – have been shown internationally, in numerous solo and group exhibitions. In 1961, his color trilogy of large-format monochromes, together with a fire column and a firewall, became the theme of Klein’s last large exhibition at Haus Lange, Krefeld. Since 1961, retrospectives have been dedicated to his work, among them a show in Cologne and Düsseldorf (1994/95), in Frankfurt (2005), at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2005), and at the MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig), Vienna (2007).
Yves Klein died in 1962, in Paris.
Yves Klein: Ausst.-Kat. Museum Moderner Kunst, Stiftung Ludwig Wien u.a., Wien u.a. 2007
Yves Klein, Klassiker, Träumer und Eiferer: Ausst.-Kat. Schirn Kunsthalle u.a., hg. v. O. Berggruen u. M. Hollein, Ostfildern-Ruit 2004
Restany, P. u.a. (Hg.): Yves Klein, Oslo 1997
Yves Klein: Ausst.-Kat. Museum Ludwig Köln, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen u.a., hg. v. S. Stich, Ostfildern 1995
Weitemeier, H.: Yves Klein, 1928 — 1962. International Klein Blue, Köln 1994