Representing the very quintessence of Yves Klein's outstanding legacy, RE 9-I utterly exemplifies the artist's most sought-after body of work: the Relief éponge. Encompassing an incredible eighteen individual natural sponges compacted on to the intimate dimensions of the panel, RE 9-I is an undeniably ethereal and potent masterpiece. Possessing unmatched harmonic balance and a refined degree of surface splendour, this work embodies one of the earliest and most seductive examples from Klein’s extraordinary corpus. Executed in 1961 and designated number 9 in the sequence of 45 listed in Paul Wember’s Catalogue Raisonné, this work ranks among the most exquisite of the Relief éponge for its seductive scale and full, rich articulation.
Klein's extraordinary sponge reliefs, executed at his artistic climax briefly before his untimely death in 1962, represent the culmination of his vision. A historic work that could only have been conceived during a momentous epoch, RE 9-I's execution belongs to the year that John F. Kennedy was elected president, the Berlin Wall was constructed, the trial of Adolf Eichmann took place in Jerusalem, and Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into Space. 1961 also witnessed the retrospective exhibition Yves Klein: Monochrome und Feuer mounted at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld. Due to Klein's tragically short career, this was the only museum exhibition dedicated to his astounding artistic production during his lifetime. It is extremely telling that the central space of this exhibition, curated by the artist himself, was dominated by Relief éponge works – a status that firmly positions this corpus as the apotheosis of Klein’s extraordinary output.
Before they were incorporated into Klein’s exclusive inventory of materials, sponges were first used in the application of pigment for Klein’s famous monochrome IKB paintings executed between 1956 and 1960. In realising its highly evocative potential for the purposes of his immaterial inquiry, Klein began to work directly with the sponge as a simultaneously dynamic and symbolic compositional device: "In working on my pictures in my studio, I sometimes used sponges. They became blue very quickly, obviously! One day I noticed the beauty of the blue in the sponge; at once this working tool became raw material for me. It is that extraordinary faculty of the sponge to become impregnated with whatever may be fluid that seduced me. Thanks to the sponges – raw living matter – I was going to be able to make portraits of the observers of my monochromes, who, after having seen, after having voyaged in the blue of my pictures, return totally impregnated in sensibility, as are the sponges” (the artist in 1958, cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Houston, Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Yves Klein 1928-1962: A Retrospective, 1982, p. 111). With the Relief éponge Klein enlivened, ruptured and plasticized the surface of his monochrome canvases, and in so doing broke the confines of the two-dimensional picture plane. The viewer is thus treated to a stunning drama of palpable and spatial form within Klein’s theatre of saturated colour. The labyrinths of minute spaces within the sponges create multifaceted schemas of light and shadow and the extraordinary potency of Klein's blue seems to fill these void matrices with a colouristic energy independent of the physical forms. The sponge bodies loom towards us, and a myriad of recesses draws our world into the immaterial infinity of Klein's blue epoch.
With its rich, resonating texture and irregular pattern of sponges interrupting an otherwise seamless landscape, RE 9-I alludes to the fantasies of other, unearthly territories. In light of innovations in space travel during the early 1960s, Klein's own notes from around this time show that he was very much engaged with an evocation of the extra-terrestrial. Indeed, possessing a distinctly lunar quality, the otherworldly and organic surface of the present work implies the landscape of some unknown planet. Whilst each sponge has its own autonomous life, they all work in concert with each other, playing out their individual roles within the sensual and tranquil drama of the whole painting. What’s more, devoted to the work of Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher of Air and Dreams, and to the Zen philosophy of spiritual and physical harmony that he first encountered in his training as a judo-ka in Yokohama in 1952, Klein looked to a pursuit of the spiritual within his art. Indeed, the placement of the sponges in RE 9-I surely drew upon Klein's memory of the Zen gardens he had visited at the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto. The fact that the sponge reliefs incorporated actual elements of nature reinforces the parallel with the gardens of Kyoto. Expertly positioned to evoke maximum harmonic resonance, a feat compounded by the ethereal IKB pigment, the material presence of the sponge becomes a trace of the immaterial, ethereal and transcendent.
Having first observed the powerful chromatic effect of pure powdered pigment while in an art supply shop in London in 1949, through the 1950s Klein experimented with various fusions of asphalt, plaster, cement, sand, tar and other materials that he acquired from Edouard Adam, a chemicals and art supplies retailer in Montparnasse. From these trials the two men developed the legendary International Klein Blue, a synthetic medium that included the transparent binder Rhodopas M 60 A, which preserved the pigment as if it were still pure powder. It was also Adam who provided Klein with sponges from 1956, sourced from Greece and Tunisia. As aquatic animals sponges have evolved over hundreds of millions of years into bodies of maximum surface area and exceptional absorption qualities in order to extract food and oxygen as efficiently as possible from the constant flow of water passing through them. As a living being the shape of a sponge changes, but extracted from its life-support of plankton-filled seawater it is frozen in its final, ultimate form. In the present work these outstanding features of natural selection are profusely drenched in Klein's blue, resulting in an organic architecture of immeasurable chromatic depth. From his earliest experiments with monochromes Klein was gripped by sculptural possibilities: curved edges emphasised dimensions beyond the flat rectilinear canvas and in his first IKB exhibitions the works were projected away from the hanging wall so as to be suspended in space. This exploration into the prospects of hanging sculpture finds its apogee in the Relief éponge corpus where the three-dimensional elements project forward into the space of the viewer. In essence, Klein here expands the traditional boundaries of pictorial space, creating a painting that not only captivates our vision, but also questions the dynamics of our gaze.
Klein's meteoric career – ended barely before it had truly begun - was devoted to a relentless search for an immaterial world beyond our own. To this end the modes of expression developed over the prodigious span of his career fused together a sweeping array of profoundly held interests in aesthetics, nature and mysticism. Among these artistic dialects the Relief éponge issue the most effective manifestation of the complex mysteries that filled the artist's life. Forging the very crux of Klein's epoch of immateriality, these unreal masterworks deliver the crescendo promised by the IKB, gold and rose Monochromes, and bring to life the enigmatic shadows of the Anthropométries. While the Monochromes invite the viewer to step into the window of Klein's world, this Relief éponge advances out into the world of the viewer; similarly, where the Anthropométries narrate the trace of transient human presence, RE 9-I absorbs ancient creatures into the depths of its fathomless blue. Although it may be indicative of some alien planetary landscape or the deepest ocean bed, the topography of RE 9-I powerfully encapsulates the artist's seminal quest for a visual expression of the ethereal and intangible. Indeed, though invoking Klein’s deeply intellectual philosophy of art and life, the breathtaking physicality of RE 9-I bestows a potent and enduring impression of peace and tranquillity.