In 1961, Piero Manzoni filled ninety tin cans with his own excrement. A label on each can identified the contents as ‘Artist’s Shit’, contents 30gr net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961.’ Each was numbered on the lid (the Tate owns number 004).
Yves Klein’s work, currently on display at Tate Liverpool, is prettier and, no doubt, sweeter-smelling – but just as provocative. Coming away from this exhibition with its po-faced, art-speak commentary (‘Klein’s vision was to express absolute immateriality and infinite space through pure colour’), I did wonder who was conning who. Described variously as a joker, prankster, provocateur, and ‘a dandy in a black silk suit, who dreamed of cosmic infinity,’ Klein once sold empty gallery space for gold; later (in a scene witnessed by an art critic), the buyer destroyed their certificate of ownership while Klein threw the gold into the Seine.
As a young man Yves Klein, lying on the beach in Nice, declared that ‘The blue sky is my first artwork.’ In 1949 he created his Monotone Symphony: a single twenty-minute sustained note followed by a twenty minute silence, in his view a representation of a monochrome painting. In his 1957 show, Monochrome Proposals, Klein displayed eleven identically sized blue monochromes, each priced differently, to ‘focus attention on the sensitivity of artistic expression and the role of the audience.’ Then there are the paintings which form the centrepiece of the Liverpool retrospective: his Anthropometries, works made using nude female models smothered in blue paint as ‘living paint brushes’ while Klein – dressed in evening wear – directed their movements as they transferred a ‘material imprint of life’ directly on paper while musicians played his Monotone Symphony.
Now I know people will correct me and point out that Klein, like Manzoni, was making a serious point in these artworks – perhaps about the ephemerality of art, the inanities of the art market, or his desire to erase the boundaries between life and art. In his performances he pushed audiences to consider new possibilities of what art could be, taking painting out of the frame which he felt had imprisoned it.
But, presented with a room in which a series of seemingly identical blue squares are hung, I had my doubts. We’re re-painting our living room at the moment, and I’ve been looking at a lot of paint cards with their multiple squares of infinitesimal colour variations, so this room produced the hallucinatory sensation that my task here was to identify the right variation.
There are, in fact, slight variations between each canvas, though these ‘monochromes’ are all painted in IKB Blue, the colour invented by Klein. In search of the infinite, expressed as Klein saw it by the blue of the sky, Klein developed a synthetic binding material to retain the brilliancy and texture of a distinctive, rich ultramarine which he registered as a trademark under the name International Klein Blue (IKB). After 1958 IKB became his colour of choice for his work, including the monochromes and sculptures created from sponge – as well as being daubed on the bodies of the naked women who rolled around on large sheets of paper. Klein explained, ‘First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a blue depth.’ So there you have it.
Klein’s reported aim was to focus our attention on a direct encounter with pure
colour ‘freed from all external impurities.’ Created using mechanical paint rollers, the monochromes were intended to emphasise a non-expressive gestureless presentation of pure pigment, affirming his refusal to ‘provoke colour relations’. He believed meaning could be conjured in the space between artwork and viewer, activating the viewer as an ‘artist, creator and specialist in sensibility’. The monochromes can also be interpreted as reflecting Klein’s vision of the absolute: in 1948, after reading The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception or Mystic Christianity, a text which merged scientific knowledge and esoteric speculation with elements of Christian belief, he had joined the Rosicrucian fellowship, seeking to achieve ‘a purity of vision’ driven by the ‘immateriality of the divine.’
Klein had abandoned Rosicrucianism by the time he staged his performance art spectacle, Anthropometries of the Blue Period in Paris in 1960, choreographing nude models as they sponged themselves with IKB Blue before imprinting their bodies onto paper surfaces, accompanied by a live orchestra playing his Monotone Symphony. One of the resulting works – Ant 84 (above) – is a large and splendid piece, the highlight of the exhibition, which has echoes of Matisse’s La Piscine. But, whereas Matisse spent several weeks working on his composition, placing and moving the cut-out shapes of swimmers’ bodies in blue gouached paper to achieve the final sense of bodies moving with fluidity and spontaneity through air and water, I can only assume that Ant 84 is a random, happenchance outcome of the messy writhing on the floor of a Parisian gallery. This feeling is reinforced by the banality of the other Anthropometries displayed alongside. One looks like nothing as much as one of those ‘snow angels’ that kids make with their limbs in the snow. Or, maybe, Mickey Mouse.
Klein’s most famous stunt was the creation of a remarkable photographic image: Leap Into the Void, made in 1960. As with the Anthropometries in which he used nude females dipped in blue paint as paintbrushes, this photomontage was staged to create the impression of freedom and abandon through a highly contrived process. In October 1960, Klein hired the photographers Harry Shunk and Jean Kender to make a series of pictures documenting his supposed leap from the second-floor window of a house in the Paris suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses.
On the street below, a group of the artist’s friends held a tarpaulin to catch him as he fell. Two negatives – one showing Klein leaping, the other the surrounding scene without the tarpaulin – were then merged to create the illusion that he was capable of flight: ‘Where the void is found, there also lies fire’, proclaimed Klein.
Leap into the Void is undoubtedly a breathtaking image. Klein, in a suit, his face determined and seemingly fearless launches himself into space. But it’s a classic piece of trickery, a photomontage, described later by Shunk as a ‘confection’. Klein was never in any danger and was caught by friends in a tarpaulin, while a stack of judo mats also cushioned his fall. Nevertheless, the image remains one of the most famous performance photographs.
Ultimately, I think my reaction to Yves Klein’s work come down to this: while other artists have created works which questioned the prevailing orthodoxies of the day, ridiculed the pretensions of art critics or challenged the mercenary tendencies of the art market, Klein spent his whole career doing nothing else. He was simply a prankster. There is nothing in his work that suggests an artist grappling with the concerns of the greatest art: to express human experience and emotions and respond to the world in which we find ourselves.