Lot 37
  • 37

Yves Klein

15,000,000 - 20,000,000 USD
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  • Yves Klein
  • Rélief éponge bleu (RE 51)
  • signed and dated 59 on the reverse
  • dry pigment and synthetic resin, natural sponges and pebbles on board
  • 40 3/4 x 40 3/8 x 3 1/2 in. 103.5 x 102.5 x 9 cm.


Galerie Iris Clert, Paris
Lucio Fontana, Milan 
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in 1959)
Private Collection, Europe (by descent from the above)
Christie's, London, June 27, 2012, Lot 12 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above)
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Paris, Galerie Iris Clert, Bas-reliefs dans une forêt d'éponges, June 1959
Lissone, XV Premio Lissone internazionale di pittura, 1967
Rome, Galleria l'Obelisco, Yves Klein, le monochrome, 1970, cat. no. 7
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Metamorfosi dell'oggetto, January - February 1972, cat. no. 4, n.p., illustrated
Milan, Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea, Azimuth & Azimuth. 1959: Castellani, Manzoni e..., June - July 1984, p. 40, illustrated (incorrect orientation)
Parma, Galleria d'Arte Niccoli, Un probabile umore dell'idea, 1989, p. 21, illustrated in color and illustrated in color on the cover
Venice, XLV Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte. La Biennale di Venezia, 1993
Milan, Fonte d'Abisso Arte, Nouveaux Réalistes anni'60: La memoria viva di Milano, October - December 1997, cat. no. 29, p. 53, illustrated in color


Exh. Cat., Houston, Institute for the Arts, Rice University (and travelling), Yves Klein 1928-1962: A Retrospective, 1982, fig. 45, p. 311, illustrated (in installation at Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, June 1959)
Exh. Cat., Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Yves Klein, 1983, p. 347, illustrated (in installation at Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, June 1959)
Exh. Cat., Tokyo, The Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Yves Klein, 1985, fig. 78, p. 122, illustrated (in installation at Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, June 1959)
Exh. Cat., Cologne, Museum Ludwig and Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (and travelling), Yves Klein, 1994, p. 161, illustrated (in installation at Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, June 1959)
Exh. Cat., Nice, Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Yves Klein: Long Live the Immaterial!, 2000, p. 225, illustrated (in installation at Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, June 1959)
Exh. Cat., Frankfurt, Schirin Kunsthalle Frankfurt (and travelling), Yves Klein, 2004, p. 220, illustrated (in installation at Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, June 1959)
Denys Riout, Yves Klein. L'aventure monochrome, Paris, 2006, p. 49, illustrated (in installation at Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, June 1959)
Exh. Cat., Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Yves Klein. Corps, couleur, immateriel, 2006, p. 296, illustrated (in installation at Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, June 1959)
Rotraut Klein-Moquay and Robert Pincus-Witten, Yves Klein USA, Paris, 2009, n.p., illustrated (in installation at Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, June 1959)


This work is in excellent condition especially considering its age and the nature of the material and composition. Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at +1 (212) 606-7254 for the condition report prepared by Wilson Conservation. The work is framed in a wood frame, painted white, with a large float and removable Plexiglas cover.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Ever since its legendary exhibition in Iris Clert’s ‘forest of sponges’ exhibition in Paris in 1959, Yves Klein’s exquisite Rélief éponge bleu (RE 51) has represented the pinnacle of the artist’s creative innovation. It is perfectly archetypal of the artist’s legendary Rélief éponge corpus and embodies an artistic event beyond mere painting or sculpture; epitomizing the act of Klein’s genius. It was first owned by Lucio Fontana, the Italian luminary who is without question one of the pre-eminent, most revered pioneers of twentieth century abstraction. Fontana, in an expression representative of his extreme admiration of Klein, owned five works by Klein, each from Klein’s most significant, distinct series.

Both the visual effect and physical presence of RE 51 are magnificently unique and impossible to reproduce adequately. The powdery, velvet blue surface continually evolves according to the play of light across the spectacularly articulated surface. While the sponges and pebbles 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 schemas 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 infinity of Klein’s blue epoch.

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 he developed modes of expression that fused together a sweeping array of profoundly held interests in aesthetics, nature and mysticism. Among these artistic dialects the Rélief éponges issue the most effective manifestation of the complex mysteries that filled the artist’s life. Forging the kernel 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 into Klein’s world, this Rélief éponge advances out into the world of the viewer; whereas the Anthropométries narrate the trace of transient human presence, RE 51 absorbs ancient creatures into the depths of its fathomless and immaterial blue. Although it may be indicative of some alien planetary landscape or the deepest ocean bed, the topography of RE 51 encapsulates the artist’s pure concept of an ethereal and intangible state.

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 in Adam's shop where Klein discovered sponges in 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 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 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 Rélief éponge corpus where the three-dimensional elements project forward into the space of 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. Indeed, the placement of the sponges in RE 51 surely drew upon Klein’s memory of the Zen gardens he had visited in Kyoto. In the Ryoan temple garden there are five groups of stones placed within a rectangle of raked gravel, presenting an order that appears entirely natural as if the stones had grown in place. The fact that the sponge reliefs incorporated actual elements of nature reinforces the parallel with the gardens of Kyoto. 

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. RE 51 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.