A sensational constellation of oceanic architecture drenched in Yves Klein’s unmistakable International Klein Blue pigment, SE 168 is the definitive archetype of the legendary Sculptures éponges oeuvre that epitomizes Klein’s art of immateriality. Held aloft over forty inches by its supremely elegant stem, this magnificently articulated marine phenomenon is truly exceptional for its spectacular scale and the intricacy of its sponge composition. Klein’s unprecedented output has forever eluded ready categorization and this sublime sculpture, exceptionally rare and of incomparable quality, is the ultimate testament to an artist who was nothing less than visionary.
While a number of Sculptures éponges works today reside in the permanent collections of the most esteemed international museums, the sheer scale and simply awe-inspiring effect of the present work is exceptional. Elevated to confront the spectator at eye-level, this unearthly, celestial flower emanates a chromatic intensity that is not only uniquely indescribable due to the composition of Klein’s famous pigment, but is also continually changing due to the constantly shifting schema of light and shadow across its countless surfaces. As we experience its three-dimensions in the round we experience an intense evolution of color, light and form.
Showcased in Iris Clert’s legendary 1959 Paris exhibition Bas-reliefs dans une forêt d’éponges, SE 168 was acquired in the year of its execution by the collectors Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, without question among the most revered connoisseurs of Modern and Contemporary art of their time. Following a 1984 exhibition of their collection, The New York Times reported “Not only is the art a first-rate sampling of American and European modernism, much of it acquired within a year or two of its creation, but it is also a clear reflection of unaided taste… This may explain why the names Burton and Emily Tremaine, seldom seen on the society pages, command such respect among curators.” (Vivien Raynor, “Prominent Collection is in Atheneum’s Spotlight,” The New York Times, March 4, 1984) The reviewer clearly had the present work close to mind as she went on to single out “Klein's huge sponge soaked in the artist's distinctive blue.” The sculpture thereafter entered the private collection of the eminent art dealer Sidney Janis, who had known Klein in the 1950s and had staged exhibitions of the artist’s work at his gallery. In the preface to his 1986 exhibition catalogue Mr. Janis wrote “Having long expressed his ideas on life and art in empathy with the supernatural, [Klein’s] earlier beliefs had led him to a space-color, a deeply pigmented blue which was to bear his name… Klein’s International Blue is one of today’s esthetic phenomena.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Monochrome Paintings and Sponge Reliefs by Yves Klein, 1986, n.p.)
Yves Klein’s life and career witnessed the ultimate confluence of spectacular innovation and tragic brevity. Few others in recent cultural history have ignited such a dramatic artistic revolution within such a short space of time. During the half-century since his shocking early death at just thirty-four years of age, Klein’s legacy has been a benchmark against which major advancements in abstract, conceptual and performance art have been measured. More than this, beyond mere labels and categories, Klein’s aspiration to the purest form of creativity has been an inspiration for generations. His life was devoted to innovation and his art remains unlike anything else: it is, quite simply, unique. Despite an impressive output for such a transient existence, his oeuvre is highlighted by an elite number of works in which the various facets of his manifold artistic ideology resonate together in brilliant concert. These extraordinary vestiges of his influence possess profound conceptual depth and broadcast astonishing aesthetic allure. Indeed, for decades these pieces have imbued their viewers with nothing less than pure wonderment. Positioned at the forefront of this cadre and long-recognized as an outstanding triumph of Klein’s meteoric career is the transcendent SE 168. The pure, distilled essence of his sensational, provocative and sublime art, this work can only reasonably be described as a masterpiece.
Klein's meteoric career - ended barely before it had begun - was devoted to a relentless search for an immaterial world beyond our own. To this end he developed modes of expression that fused together a sweeping array of profoundly held interests in aesthetics, nature and mysticism. Situated at the heart of Klein's epoch of immateriality, the unreal Sculptures éponges 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 Sculpture éponge advances out into the world of the viewer; whereas the Anthropométries narrate the trace of transient human presence, this three-dimensional phenomenon absorbs ancient creatures themselves 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 this sculpture encapsulates the artist's pure concept of an ethereal and intangible state.
Both the intense aesthetic and incomparable physical experience of SE 168 are magnificently unique and impossible to emulate adequately. The powdery, velvet blue surface continually evolves according to the play of light and while the sponges afford a beautiful compositional structure, their arrangement also reinforces the effect of the monochrome. Indeed, the sheer power of the IKB pigment unifies the whole work to such a degree that the exact topography of the surface is not always discernible and the spellbinding blue intermittently overcomes silhouette and contour. The labyrinths of minute spaces within the sponges create multifaceted schema of light and shadow and the extraordinary potency of Klein's blue seems to fill these void matrices with a coloristic energy independent of the physical forms. Thus while the sponge bodies loom towards us, the myriad recesses draw our world into the immaterial infinity of Klein's blue epoch.
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 he 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, which the artist first used to apply paint to his surface before being struck by the extraordinary aesthetic of soaking them in IKB. 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 nourishment 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 construction of immeasurable chromatic depth. From his earliest experiments with monochromes Klein was gripped by sculptural possibilities: curved edges emphasized 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 Sculpture éponge corpus where the three-dimensional elements exist independently in the same space as the viewer.
Klein was fascinated by the work of Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher of Air and Dreams, and by the Zen philosophy of spiritual and physical harmony that he first encountered during his training as a judo-ka in Yokohama in 1952. The composition of the sponges in SE 168 harbors some parity with the Zen gardens Klein had visited in Kyoto, where stones are grouped together on raked gravel in the Ryoan temple, presenting an order that appears entirely natural as if the stones had grown in place. Klein’s attentions were also deeply absorbed in Rosicrucian principles developed by Max Heindel in La Cosmologie de Rose-Croix, first published in 1909 and obtained by the artist in 1947. Heindel's words provide a startlingly apt parallel to Klein's work: "the dematerialization of all finite figures into the infinite ground of the immaterial constituted the passage into the next age ....which would no longer be characterized by figures with limits, but by pure space, the absence of figures, the lack of boundaries, the world of 'color,' the passage into the infinite." (Exh. Cat., Berlin, Deutsche Guggenheim, On the Sublime, 2001, pp. 71-72) Furthermore, Heindel enlisted the sponge itself as a metaphor to explain how diverse, isolated and separate elements of existence can simultaneously inhabit the same space. In the same way that sand, water and the air within water together saturate a sponge, various facets of material and immaterial worlds saturate our existence. SE 168 translates this multifaceted conceptual philosophy into breathtaking material physicality.
Inasmuch as Yves Klein’s art was a self-determined extension of his existence (he was after all a pioneer of performance art), his lifelong passion for judo proves also to be pertinent to interpretation of SE 168. Already a judo enthusiast in France, Klein travelled to Japan from 1952-1954 to further his mastery in judo in the prestigious Kodokan Institute, which treated the discipline as both a combat technique and a way of meditation. While 'Ju' means adaptability or pliability, 'Do' means way or path. The suffix Do also implies a profession or practical activity, as well as a secular method for teaching Taoist and Zen principles. Hence judo is not only a martial art but a ritualistic and meditative practice rooted in Zen Buddhism. The attraction of judo was not simply that it gave one power, but that it made power beautiful: tangible force and power becoming a dance and an art. “Judo has helped me to understand that pictorial space is, above all, the product of spiritual exercises” Klein declared. “Judo is, in fact, the discovery of the human body in a spiritual space.” (Yves Klein, ‘On Judo,’ in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, 2007, p. 2) Functioning on a scale that closely relates to the human domain, SE 168 is intensely corporeal, and aside from the organic, living genesis of its sponge forms, its continual evolution in appearance projects a powerful sense of ‘being.’ This sense finds close analogy with the artist’s Anthropométries inasmuch as these artworks do not merely reflect or record life, but have been invested with a life of their own. Klein's ability to impregnate art with life, as definitively embodied by this sculpture, surely finds its roots in his fixation with the realm of bodily experience as learned through the art of Judo.
Yves Klein's artistic contribution to contemporary culture is most frequently described as visionary, and the scope of his artistic innovations was utterly without precedent. The works he left behind are testament to a genius that perceived things others could not. SE 168 expedites the artist's career-long investigation into how to communicate these concepts through artistic means, and because his language is so utterly unlike any other and precipitates a unique response in each individual spectator, this profoundly engaging and immensely beautiful work will always transcend and surpass our expectations of what art can achieve.
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