"I am the painter of space. ....... Let's be honest, in order to paint space, I must put myself on the spot, in space itself."-- Yves Klein
Yves Klein, an artist and judo master, was born in Nice, France in 1928 and died from a heart attack at the age of 34 in 1962, in Paris, where he made his career. During his short life, he became one of the leaders of European Pop Art, which is known as "Nouveau Realisme", and his work has had a lasting influence on both Minimal and Conceptual artists.
Klein's body of work was extremely diverse and included monochrome paintings done in several colors; particularly the blue paintings painted in Klein's signature color, International Klein Blue (IKB see an example.); the anthropometries (see video above), which were imprints taken directly from the human body; fire paintings, which were made with a flame-thrower; sponge sculptures, which were often painted with IKB; portrait sculptures of his friends and fellow artists, cast from life; proposals for architectural projects; and photographs.
Legend has it that when Yves Klein was eighteen years old, he was sunbathing on the beach in Nice with his friends when they decided to divide up the world between them. Klein chose the air and the sky. He then claimed this boundless space by writing his name in the air. Later in his life, he often called this his greatest and most beautiful work.
There is a famous altered photograph called " Leap into the Void" of Klein jumping off an old house in a suburb of Paris. In explaining this photograph Klein said that the reason for his action was "In order to paint space, I owe it to myself to go there, to that very space." The moment of weightlessness that Klein experienced was of very short duration and of course an instant after the photo was taken he landed on the ground. Nonetheless, it expressed his interest in air, levitation, and immateriality.
Remarkably, although Klein's career as an artist lasted for only the last eight years of his life (1954-1962), he, like Duchamp before him, was able to change the concept of a work of art and art in general, as well as the concept of the exhibition of art and the role of the artist. His work combined the conceptual depth of Duchamp with the ability to create individual works of extraordinary beauty.
Klein is best known for the single-colored IKB blue paintings. He believed that by adopting the monochromatic aesthetic he would be able to remove all expressive and representative elements from his work. To Klein, IKB signified the idea of immaterialness, and particularly the spiritual notion of art. His approach to painting was similar to the way a priest might go about a religious ceremony. Painting for Klein became a process of giving himself over to a magic ritual in order to satisfy a spiritual need. Born a Catholic, Klein never broke with the Catholic faith, despite his radical position in the European avant-garde.
He explored themes of spirituality and immateriality on a highly conceptual level. An example of this is a series of works done in 1959 which questioned the economic value of the artist's work. In these works, he sold a number of pieces of immaterial space for different prices, although the works appeared to be identical. The collector of each work was then required to burn the receipt for the work and throw half of the gold payment for the work in the Seine. If the collector wanted to resell the work at some future time, it had to be priced at twice the initial purchase price, although, of course, there was now no proof of ownership. This seemingly absurd series of acts involving an immaterial work which was actually beyond possession, not only questioned the nature of art, but also the transactions that underpin the workings of the art world. In many respects, these works anticipated the development of Conceptual Art in the late 1960's.
In 1960, Klein began a series of paintings called the "Anthropometries", by using nude female models as paint brushes. Covering their bodies with IKB, Klein would then have the models press there bodies against a painting surface, which of course would leave a blue impression of the female form. These were first done in the studio, but later became a form of performance art, done in public accompanied by a string orchestra playing classical music.
In 1961, Klein began a series of fire paintings using a flame-thrower. These works continued his exploration of air and the immaterial, but with the addition of fire as an essential element. These experiments with fire resulted in paintings that are strangely beautiful.
In 1962, two years after marrying and becoming a father, Klein died from a heart attack.
A retrospective of his work was held in 1983 at the Musée National d'Art Moderne (National Modern Art Museum), at the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris. In 2000, another large retrospective was held at the Nice Modern and Contemporary Art Museum. The retrospective traveled to the Luigi Pecci Contemporary Art Museum of Prato, Italy in late 2000 and early 2001.