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Yves Klein: the agency of colour

Yves Klein is considered a critical figure in post-war European art. Born in Nice, 1928, Klein’s highly influential practice is often viewed as an inspiration to and a forerunner of Minimalist art; as well as Conceptual art, Pop art and Performance art.

Yves Klein is considered a critical figure in post-war European art. Born in Nice, 1928, Klein’s highly influential practice is often viewed as an inspiration to and a forerunner of Minimalist art; as well as Conceptual art, Pop art and Performance art. Klein is best known for his trademark ultramarine pigment, which he patented as International Klein Blue in 1961, ‘Blue has no dimensions; it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not... All colours arouse specific associative ideas... while blue suggests at most the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.’ Klein’s blue pigment featured firstly as vast monochrome canvases, which acted as a precursor to his Anthropometry series, in which Klein smeared nude women with his signature pigment and used them as human paintbrushes, sometimes as part of elaborate performance pieces.

Yves Klein, International Klein Blue, 1958

Yves Klein’s love affair with blue began after a trip to the French Mediterranean which left the artist obsessed by the natural blue luminosity of the sky. For Klein, colour - and blue in particular - represented a kind of freedom, a remedy to the limits imposed by lines. In Klein’s view, the overarching blue of the ocean and sky are an intrinsically connected, never-ending entity. In relation to his work, Klein referred to Gaston Bachelard, a literary critic and philosopher, ‘First there is nothing, then there is deep nothing, then there is a blue depth’. In collaboration with a Parisian art paint supplier, Klein developed his own unique shade of blue, dubbed by Klein as International Klein Blue (IKB). The uniqueness of IKB does not derive from its ultramarine colour, but rather from the matte synthetic resin binder in which the colour is suspended. This binder allows the pigment to maintain as true to its original properties and colour intensity as possible.

"Blue has no dimensions; it is beyond dimensions" - Yves Klein

Yves Klein, Large Blue Anthropometry, 1960

With this trademarked colour, Klein set about making artwork in various forms: from vast embossed canvases, to tables containing accumulations of IKB pigment and sculptures composed of sea sponges soaked in the pigment. Although Klein considers his blue works ‘monochromes’, the rich variation of effect his work creates when you sit in their presence is what was of most interest to Klein.

Yves Klein, Untitled Anthropometry, 1960 

Yves Klein’s practice is far more complex than his singular legacy suggests. To focus exclusively on his blue monochrome artworks would be to disregard some of his most daring works: The Void (1958) to name an example, was an exhibition in which Klein elegantly addressed the concept of emptiness by presenting an empty gallery interior to an audience of collectors. The Void conveys something about Klein’s interest in Eastern Philosophy, internal emptiness and the disavowal of the self. This interest was initially cultivated during an early trip to Asia, during which Klein trained to become a master of judo. 

Yves Klein, The Void, 1958

Yves Klein’s career was unfortunately cut short when he suffered a heart attack whilst at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962. His untimely death, at aged 34, has been linked to the inhalation of the pigments with which he loved to work. Despite the unfortunate brevity of Klein’s career, his works appear in museum collections around the world, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Kunsthaus Zurich.

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