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Contemporary Art

21 Facts About Yves Klein

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YVES KLEIN IN THE NEW TOWN THEATER GELSENKIRCHEN, WITH TWO OF HIS MURALS IN THE BACKGROUND, 1959. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF BPK/CHARLES WILP / ART RESOURCE, NY.

1. Yves Klein was born 2 April 1928, in Nice, France – the child of two artists. His mother, Marie, was a prominent artist in the Art Informel movement, while his father Fred, a Dutch émigré, painted in a Post-Impressionistic style. 

2. He had no formal artistic training. He studied at the École Nationale de la Marine Marchande and the École Nationale des Langues Orientales from 1942 to 1946, where he became interested in jazz, esoteric literature, Eastern religions and – his lifelong passion – the mixed martial art of judo.

3. At the beach in Nice, Klein and his childhood friends the poet Claude Pascal and the artist Arman Fernandez metaphorically divided the universe between themselves – Pascal choosing language and Arman the realm of the animals. A nineteen-year-old Klein symbolically claimed the sky, with a flourish of his hand. "The blue sky is my first artwork," the artist later remarked.

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YVES KLEIN, VICTOIRE DE SAMOTHRACE (S 9), 1962. SOLD FOR £100,000 IN CONTEMPORARY ART DAY (27 JUNE, LONDON).

4. Klein's ardor for the pristine heavens resulted in a distaste for all winged creatures. In his 1961 Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, penned ahead of an exhibition at New York's Leo Castelli Gallery, the artist elaborated on his avian aversion: "As an adolescent, I wrote my name on the back of the sky in a fantastic realistic-imaginary journey . . . . I have hated birds ever since for trying to make holes in my greatest and most beautiful work! Birds must be eliminated."

5. In 1949, he moved to London where he worked as an apprentice in a frame shop. It was here that he became familiar with gesso, gold leaf, pastel and pure pigment – the materials that would become the foundation of his œuvre. 

6. He began creating monochrome works in the late 1940s as experiments in immersive space. The early monochromes ranged far beyond Klein's signature blue hue – his 1956 Paris exhibition Yves: Propositions Monochromes featured 20 paintings, each composed of a different single color, including orange, yellow and red.

A PHOTOGRAPH OF KLEIN PRACTICING JUDO FROM HIS 1954 BOOK LES FONDEMENTS DU JUDO.

7. Klein's fascination with concepts of pure space and its reflective "void" carried beyond the visual arts. In 1949 he composed The Monotone-Silence Symphony, which consisted of a single chord sustained for twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of complete silence. In 1960 – in the only documented performance of the piece during his life – Klein conducted a group of musicians while clad in a white tie and black dinner jacket. 

8. A passionate student of judo, Klein moved to Japan in 1952 where he became a fourth-dan black belt at the Kodokan Institute. After returning to Paris in the mid-1950s, he opened a judo school and published Les Fondements du Judo (1954), a book illustrating the fundamental movements of the martial art.

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YVES KLEIN, UNTITLED ANTHROPOMETRY, (ANT 5), 1962. SOLD FOR £6.8 MILLION AT CONTEMPORARY ART EVENING (26 JUNE, LONDON).

9. After years spent creating monochromes in a variety of colors, Klein marked the beginning of his Blue Period in 1957 with his Aerostatic Sculpture – the release of 1,001 blue balloons into the Paris sky. 

10.  Klein collaborated with a chemist to create his own uber-chromatic shade of blue, made of pure color pigment and a binding medium. He trademarked the color under the name International Klein Blue (IKB).

11. Rose and gold were also potent symbols within his artistic iconography. Together with IKB these colors represented the Holy Trinity – gold for the Father, blue for the Son and rose for the Holy Spirit. 

12. Giotto’s masterful 1305 ceiling at Scrovegni Chapel in Padua numbered among Klein’s favorite artworks.

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REALISATION OF AN ANTHROPOMETRY DURING THE FILMING OF THE DOCUMENTARY “THE HEARTBEAT OF FRANCE”, STUDIO OF CHARLES WILP, DUSSELDORF, FEBRUARY 1961. IMAGE: © BPK / CHARLES WILP. ARTWORK: © ARTISTIC ACTION BY YVES KLEIN/THE ESTATE OF YVES KLEIN C/O ADAGP, PARIS, DACS, LONDON 2018.

13. A spiritual, even mystical person, Klein was influenced by Rosicrucianism, an occult society that combined the teachings of Hermeticism, Jewish mysticism and Christian Gnosticism and that claimed to have divined a secret order in the universe. 

14. In 1960 Klein and the art critic Pierre Restany founded Nouveau Réalisme, a movement that paralleled American Pop Art. Their encompassing ambition was to discover "new ways of perceiving the real."

15. The ever-experimental Klein painted with a variety of instruments from sponges to rollers. Of these, his "human paintbrushes" were certainly the most provocative – the artist invited nude female models to coat themselves in blue paint, then imprint their bodies onto a canvas – the resulting works were known as the Anthropometries. 

16.  The eternal provocateur,  Klein once exhibited an empty gallery – to huge success. At his 1958 exhibition at Paris's Galerie Iris Clert – ambitiously titled The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, or "The Void" – more than 2,500 guests lined the streets as Klein ushered in just ten persons at a time. Behind an blue velvet curtain the artist unveiled a monochromatic white and completely bare gallery space.

17. The evening's theatricality didn't end there. Attendees were served a cocktail of Cointreau, gin and methylene blue, which, when leaving the body, dyed the imbibers' urine Klein's trademark hue. 

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"LE SAUT DANS LE VIDE, OBSESSION DE LA LÉVITATION" (THE LEAP INTO THE VOID, OBSESSION WITH LEVITATION). 1960. PHOTOMONTAGE BY YVES KLEIN AND HARRY SHUNK. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF ADOC-PHOTOS / ART RESOURCE, NY.

18. On 27 November 1960 the artist published a one-day fake newspaper titled Dimanche. Printed on the front page was his photographic montage, Leap Into the Void (1960), which appears to show the artist diving off the parapet of a house. 

19. Believing in the artist's ability to imbue virtue into an artwork, Klein created Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility in the late 1950s – essentially artist-sanctioned (and monetized) spaces of "pure pictorial sensibility." In January 1962, Yves Klein and Italian author Dino Buzzati performed a "ritual transfer of immateriality" on the banks of the Seine. Buzzati purchased "pictorial sensibility" paying Klein in gold leaf, and receiving in turn a receipt for his "zone." Klein then tossed half of the gold into the river and burned the receipt, so that almost nothing remained.

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YVES KLEIN, LE RÊVE DU FEU, CIRCA 1961. IMAGE: © YVES KLEIN, ADAGP, PARIS © HARRY SHUNK-JOHN KENDER / ROY LICHTENSTEIN FOUNDATION.

20. Befitting his alchemical interests, Klein created of series of fire-based artworks. Letting flames from a torch gun morph and sear canvases, he attempted to harness the destructive power of fire as a generative and creative force.  

21. He died at only 34 years old after suffering three consecutive heart attacks. The first occurred in May of 1962 while Klein was screening Mondo Cane, a film in which he appeared, at the Cannes Film Festival. Another heart attack followed days later. On 6 June, the third claimed his young life.

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