NEW YORK - Yves Klein: Incandescence, a 241-page monograph on the French ‘artist of the immaterial,’ was officially released last week. With text by Frederic Prot—an artist, rock musician, and poet—and an afterword by Patti Smith, Godmother of Punk, one can imagine Yves Klein might be pleased knowing his legacy is in the hands of likeminded spirits.
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To give you a snippet, Smith, free-associating on the artist’s Monotone Symphony, writes, “He is the one who expressed the density of silence and called it music… He birthed it into the night, releasing a mute howl and producing a cunning shift in altitude. Want to hear, not to hear, and then to float?” Prot is equally poetic throughout. In his analysis of Klein’s use of fire as a medium he asks, “Could this water, without a ripple while the flame on top is burning, be the image of impassiveness? Could it be the image of a dormant power suddenly turning to action? A dark realm from which a being suddenly springs?” Still musing on this point, a few lines later Prot circles back, asking, “Or is beauty a proud secret laid over the world like fire perched on water?” The beautiful, verging on strange, prose is accompanied by photographs, letters, and articles that tether Prot and Smiths’ words to Klein’s body of work.
While the monograph itself was an unexpected pleasure to dive into—in the way that a book about a painter/composer/alchemist/judo master/performance artist, written by two rock musicians might be—it was even better to hear the stories directly, from Yves Klein’s former wife and sometimes collaborator, Rotraut Klein-Moquay.
On Monday night, as part of a cocktail reception for the monograph’s publication, Sotheby’s screened the short film, Yves Klein Making Fire Paintings, and for almost an hour, we listened to Rotraut herself, and Prot, as well as Daniel Moquay, her husband and also Director of the Yves Klein Archives, as they shared memories about Klein with us. When asked by someone in the audience if Rotraut had ever participated in Klein’s famous Anthropometry paintings, she talked about recognizing one’s own soul in the physical bodies imprint. Although Rotraut and Yves were only married for six months before Klein died, in a ceremony where she wore a blue dress with a veil topped by a tiny blue crown, her words seemed to pull a thread all the way back to 1962. You could rightly envision Klein, wielding an 80-pound flame-flower in a freezing warehouse in the Paris suburbs, using fire and water to reveal the ghostly outlines of female bodies, his “living brushes,” on the canvases before him. The oft-used phrase “the male gaze” does not apply to these ethereal creations; as Rotraut expressed so beautifully, they were about something far more primeval, about purity, and about nature’s footprint being laid down for art histories consideration.
These are the events that help make sense of what we do as Specialists, Cataloguers, and Auctioneers at Sotheby’s; watching footage of a great artist as he creates, listening to stories told by someone who really understands. And go buy the book. I promise you won’t just let it sit on your coffee table.