Galerie Bleue, Stockholm
Private Collection, Turin
Sale: Christie’s, London, Contemporary Art, 27 June 1996, Lot 59
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Yves Klein, ‘Speech to the Gelsenkirchen Theatre Commission’ (1959) in: Klaus Ottmann, trans., Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 40.
In 1957 one thousand and one blue balloons were released into the atmosphere on the occasion of Yves Klein’s landmark exhibition Propositions Monochromes at Galerie Iris Clert in Paris. This so-called Aerostatic Sculpture heralded the apogee of the most fundamental phase of Yves Klein’s career: l’Époque Bleue. The Blue Period inaugurated the public début of what would become the cornerstone of Klein’s revolutionary oeuvre, the incandescent ultramarine pigment – International Klein Blue. Located at the core of a highly conceptual, sternly philosophical yet deeply spiritual artistic inquiry, the IKB paintings collectively embody the purest vehicle for Klein’s articulation of the immaterial.
Invoking the indefinable qualities associated with a Kantian notion of the sublime, Klein sought the ultimate plastic expression of what he referred to as “pictorial sensibility” through celestial colour alone (Yves Klein, Lecture at the Sorbonne (1959) in: Klaus Ottmann, trans., Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 72). This endeavour to master a physical manifestation of infinity finds its consummate expression in the handful of IKB monochromes that possess a velvety smooth depth and uniformly fine surface. Among this small number, the present work is a flawless paradigm.
Expunging any trace of the human hand, Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 271) offers an untouched and pristine evocation of infinate space; Klein’s patented colour – a unique suspension of powdery raw pigment in liquid medium – envelopes the piece’s substantial square format, entirely covering all edges, to affect a hypnotic and truly enchanting intimation of sheer boundlessness through uninterrupted colour. Rich sediment accrued in imperceptible ripples horizontally swathe across and encase the surface’s substantial entirety, extending around the relief of the work’s remarkably deep wooden support. Possessing an extraordinary three-dimensionality that borders on the sculptural, Klein’s monochrome nonetheless thwarts dimensional boundaries and appears to weightlessly hover in front of us, freely radiating into ambient space. Depthless, abyssal and undoubtedly sublime, Untitled Blue Monochrome delivers a supreme portal for Klein’s pursuit of the spiritual absolute.
Yves Klein dedicated Untitled Blue Monochrome in 1960 to its first owner, the Italian artist Gianni Bertini. Three years earlier, in October 1957, both artists appeared in the same group exhibition, Arte Nucleare, alongside Piero Manzoni and Enrico Baj at the Galleria San Fedele in Milan. Associated with the Nouveaux Realistes, Bertini was also championed by Klein’s staunchest supporter – the most influential critic in France during the late 1950s and early 1960s – Pierre Restany. Significantly it was Restany who anointed Klein’s IKB paintings as ‘Monochrome Propositions’, the very title of his breakthrough exhibitions held at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in January 1957, and Galerie Iris Clert and Colette Allendy’s in Paris later that year. Restany’s title suggests that although the objective aspect of classical painting is preserved these works venture beyond pictorial tradition to invoke an abstract reality outside of representation and visual systems of symbolic reference.
In the exhibitions held at Apollinaire and Iris Clert, eleven monochromes of identical proportions and surface texture were installed in the intimate gallery settings in Milan and Paris on a system of brackets through which the works projected 20cm. from the wall. The effect appeared to abolish the sense of space that exists in front of the picture and the result was a sequence of paintings that invaded the space of the public itself.
Saturated in the heavy sediment of this abyssal ultramarine pigment and possessing a pronounced sculptural depth, Untitled Blue Monochrome is a powerful articulation of how these celestial paintings extend frontally and laterally beyond the boundaries of traditional painterly space. Herein, a contemplation of this magnificent work invokes the unsteadying sense of vertigo attendant to works of the most intensely affective artistic power. Though these works seem ostensibly similar in terms of their production, each IKB has an individual nuance – or sensibility – that marks them as utterly unique: “a pictorial quality… perceptible by something other than its respective material and physical appearance” (Yves Klein, 'Lecture at the Sorbonne' (1959) in: ibid., p. 84). To this end Klein famously placed different purchase prices on each of the eleven paintings at the ‘57 Propositions Monochromes exhibition, an audacious ploy that demonstrates Klein’s ingenious handling and overcoming of the disjuncture between art and commerce.
Inaugurated by the 1957 exhibitions Klein arrived at this breakthrough series of works via years of prior conceptual and physical investigation. Having first discovered the “illumination of matter as a profoundly physical quality” in 1949 whilst working in London at a framer’s on Old Brompton Road, he commenced work on a series of technical experiments to preserve the exuberant spectral quality of colour (Yves Klein, 'The Monochrome Adventure' (1958) in: ibid., p. 154). Klein found that traditional fixative and binding mediums dulled the vitality of raw colour and instead sought other means of suspending and conserving the magnetism of radiant powder without tempering its impact. As outlined in his famous 1958 thesis, The Monochrome Adventure, Klein looked to transpose the incandescence of unalloyed pigment onto a classical pictorial format to communicate colour as unrestrained and resonating presence totally liberated from the classical supremacy of line and form: “What I desired, at the time, was to present, in a perhaps somewhat artificial style, an opening onto the world of presented color, a window opened onto the freedom to become impregnated with the immeasurable state of color in a limitless, infinite manner” (ibid., p. 155). Though Klein experimented with a wide spectrum of monochromatic paintings in the years prior to l’Époque Bleue, most notably as part of his first major exhibitions in Paris 1955 and ‘56, he abandoned this approach after detecting the public’s conception of these works as a distracting schema of decorative polychromy. In order to fully plunge himself and the public into the sensibility of pure colour without interference, Klein identified blue as the ultimate agent for an intimation of the void.
Having come across Eugène Delacroix’s published journals in 1956, Klein became a stalwart disciple of the nineteenth-century artist’s aesthetic championing of colour in relation to the constricting restraint of line; a pioneering engagement that greatly influenced the Impressionists in their collective aim to transmute light and atmosphere through diffuse and unbridled colour. Where Klein conceived of Delacroix as having “sought the total expression of himself in and by colour”, his written works endlessly cite the forefather of Impressionism’s insightful painterly musings, specifically his prophetic notion of the pictorial ‘indefinable’. Through his idiosyncratic shade of blue, Klein felt he was “closing in, more and more, on the indefinable of which Delacrioix spoke in his journals as being the one true merit of painting“ (Yves Klein, 'Overcoming the Problematics of Art' (1959) in: ibid., p. 46). Significantly, Klein considered the Blue Period as his true artistic initiation into pure pictorial sensibility. In the 'Chelsea Hotel Manifesto' of 1961 he outlined the foundational status of his seminal monochrome opus: “The explanation of the conditions that led me to pictorial sensibility is to be found in the intrinsic power of the monochromes of my blue period of 1957. This period of blue monochromes was the fruit of my quest for the indefinable in painting, which Delacroix the master could already intimate in this time” (Yves Klein, 'The Chelsea Hotel Manifesto' (1961) in: ibid., p. 200).
In a further metaphysical turn, Klein’s immersion into a world of undisturbed colour was greatly influenced by the poetics of French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard. One of the artist’s key myths chimes with and greatly evinces the Bachelardian bent of his artistic practice: “When I was an adolescent, I wrote my name on the back of the sky in a fantastic realistico-imaginary journey, stretched out on a beach one day in Nice… I have hated birds ever since for trying to make holes in my greatest and most beautiful work!” (Yves Klein, 'Yves The Monochrome 1960: Truth Becomes Reality' (1960) in: ibid., p. 185). Celebrated for his poetics of science, Bachelard proposed a highly imagistic project of re-spiritualisation of the world via a contemplation of the four elements of life: earth, air, fire and water. The works made by Klein following the formative Parisian shows in May 1957 suggest a visual manifestation of Bachelard’s philosophical immersion into the life of poetic images that surround the prima materia. With the IKB monochromes at their very core, the Anthropometries, Relief and Sculpture Éponges, Zones of Immateriality, Cosmonogies and the Fire and Fire Colour Paintings orbit this essentialist elemental quest for a deeply spiritual sensibility of the ooid. Endlessly cited within his writings and even proclaimed in public, Klein quoted Bachelard’s poetic 1943 text, Air and Dreams, as a vital adjunct to his Monochrome Adventure: “There is an imaginary beyond, a pure beyond, one without a within. First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a blue depth” (Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams, quoted by Yves Klein in: ibid., p. 159). Colour of the infinite sky, the depthless ocean and the true colour of fire, blue is the ultimate spectral shade of the elemental and the immeasurable.
Redolent of the eighteenth-century aesthetician Immanuel Kant, Klein’s monochromes court an intimation of the indefinable associated with the philosophical Sublime and its integral attribute – 'negative capability'. A term coined by the Romantic poet John Keats but entrenched in Kant’s work, negative capability gives expression to the essential human inability to conceive of the absolute; an overwhelming failure and intellectual malaise that itself possesses an essence of the Sublime that escapes comprehension. In this regard, Klein considers his monochrome panels, not as direct sublime embodiments of the void, but as the closest possible witness of the inexpressible pictorial moment. As he famously wrote: “Painting is no longer for me a function of the eye. My works are only the ashes of my art” (Yves Klein, 'Yves The Monochrome 1960: Truth Becomes Reality' (1960) in: ibid., p. 185). As worlds of sheer colour, the IKB monochromes collapse the distinction between imagination and the real world. Highly intellectual yet astoundingly beautiful, Untitled Blue Monochrome and the foundational corpus to which it belongs, embodies the quintessential spirit and inhabits the very nucleus of Klein’s truly revolutionary and philosophically undervalued aesthetic practice.
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