When Annie and I visited the MoMA, she pointed at Yves Klein’s Blue Monochrome (above, from 1961) and declared it her least favorite work in the place. Annie’s not alone. Born April 27, 1928, Yves Klein’s monochrome works, all done in his famous “own” color, International Klein Blue, rank high up there on the “I can do that” and “That’s not art” lists. Klein’s importance lies not in his technical skills but in the thought behind his art. Whereas Kazimir Malevich worked with white and black to plumb the depths of spirituality in his monochromatic Suprematism, Klein found a sense of infinity and even fun in his blue worlds. After studying Rosicrucianism and Eastern religions, Klein brought a personal sense of Zen to his art, combining the emptiness of the void with the purity of sensory appreciation found in color. “All facts that are contradictory are authentic principles of an explanation of the universe,” Klein once wrote, trying to explain the dual nature of his monochromes that are simultaneously empty and full. “Truly, fire is one of these principles, essentially contradictory, one from the other, since it is both the sweetness and torture that lies at the heart and origin of our civilization.” By painting his troublesome monochromes, Klein truly played with fire, holding a torch to the traditions of art while also shedding new light on how to see the world.
Klein used both traditional brushes and “living brushes” to create his works, which he called Anthropometries (one example above). Klein would often “paint” his works by applying paint to the nude bodies of young women and then orchestrate their movements on the paper. In 1960, Klein created a multimedia monochromatic, Zen moment when he conducted The Monotone Symphony. As a crowd of a hundred people watched and listened, Klein led a group of ten musicians playing a single note for 20 minutes as three nude women rolled in paint poured on a huge sheet of paper. Klein combined the showmanship of Salvador Dali with the philosophical depth of Marcel Duchamp. Which of those two poles—Dali or Duchamp—Klein favored more, however, is in the eye of the beholder.
Klein himself staged a performance piece for the photograph Leap Into the Void (above, from 1960). Working without a net, Klein himself leaps from a wall and appears headed towards certain injury on the hard street below. Klein claimed that the photo proved he was capable of flight, making the Space Race going on at the time superfluous. By jumping into the clear, blue sky, Klein physically acted out what he wanted us to all do imaginatively with his monochromatic paintings. “Malevich was actually standing before the infinite,” Klein once said of his predecessor. “I am in it.” Sure, anyone can paint a plain blue canvas, but how many people can say that they’ve lived in it?