As its title suggests, RE 1 has been catalogued by Dr Paul Wember, author of the artist's catalogue raisonné, as the very first of the highly celebrated series of sponge relief paintings that Klein began in 1958.
The sponge, like the blue monochrome, is one of Klein's signature motifs and a key element in his unique and profoundly spiritual aesthetic. Klein's sponge relief paintings not only combine the natural earthbound form of the sponge with an ethereal and essentially abstract expanse of color: In their very conscious materiality and three-dimensionality, they also represent the dramatic expansion of Klein's monochrome paintings into the real space of the viewer.
The sponge reliefs are a physical manifestation of the dialogue that Klein hoped to induce between the "sensibility" of the viewer and the vast monochromatic expanse of intense blue that emanates from his paintings. Blue was for Klein the color of the infinite and of the void--a colour "beyond dimensions." The sponge was its logical counterpart; a natural earthbound element that clearly offered itself as a metaphor for the ability of the viewer to "absorb" an understanding of the pregnant nature of space and the profound spirtual resonance of the void.
"When working on my pictures in the studio, I sometimes used sponges. Naturally they turned blue very rapidly! One day I noticed how beautiful the blue in the sponge was, and the tool immediately became a raw material. The extraordinary capacity of sponges to absorb everything fluid fascinated me. Thanks to the sponges I was going to be able to make portraits of the observers (lecteurs) of my monochromes, who, after having seen, after having voyaged in the blue of my pictures, return totally impregnated in sensibility, as are the sponges" (Cited in Yves Klein : A Retrospective, exh. cat., Houston, 1982, p. 111).
Inspired by Rosicrucian and alchemical ideas Klein felt that the monochromes and the sponge reliefs were impregnated with a higher dimensional essence which a specially trained sensibility would be able to experience. Viewers of his work, "gifted with a body or vehicle of sensibility", would be able to carry away the immaterial essence of what they see and in doing so would themselves become "extra-dimensional in sensibility, all in all, impregnated (like the sponges) with the sensibility of the universe" (Quoted in "Depassment" and "The Monochrome Adventure," cited in Houston exh. cat., p. 247).
Unlike the seemingly abstract immateriality of the flat planes of coloured pigment in the monochromes, the highly textured, organic and strongly material features of the sponge reliefs ground these strange apparitions and places them in the world of everyday reality. Looking like strange panoramas of a foreign planet or of the ocean bed, the organic nature of the sponges combines with the intensity of colour in a way that seems to actively invade the real space of the viewer and physically assert what Klein referred to as a "profundity of blue."
Incorporating sponges into his monochrome paintings allowed Klein to reintroduce compositional ideas into his work without abandoning the monochrome. In the most successful and refined of his sponge reliefs, the composition of sponges projecting from the monochrome picture plane is arranged in such a way as to suggest a natural rhythm. For Klein, the sponge as a natural phenomenon was a symbol of the gently alternating phases of the rhythms that exist between breathing in and out or between waking and dreaming states.
In RE 1, Klein's distribution of his sponges creates a composition which is neither asymmetrically balanced, nor mindlessly scattered, but is rather a sublime combination of mind and nature - seeming both random and yet also calmly controlled. In his remarkably delicate and refined ordering of these natural forms, Klein was almost certainly influenced by Eastern aesthetics and in particular the Japanese art of sekitei or stone gardening that he had seen during his stay in Japan between 1952 and 1953. In particular, the garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, with its strongly minimal, almost abstract quality, made a particular impression on him.
With its collection of sponges seeming to float in an infinite expanse of blue, RE I is not only the first of these remarkable sponge compositions, but also one of the finest. Placing larger sponges towards the top of the compositon Klein has encouraged a sense of the absence of gravity to permeate the mystic monochrome world of the picture.
With its large scale dominating the field of vision, RE 1 immerses the viewer in an entirely new environment that challenges the senses and leaves the viewer ultimately persuaded of a strong immaterial presence that has been conveyed only through the purity and depth of the artist's resonant blue pigment.
(fig. 1) The Painter of Space Hurls Himself into the Void!, 1960.
(fig. 2) Klein's blue sponge reliefs and blue monochrome paintings in the Gelsenkirchen, Germany, city theater, 1957-1959.
(fig. 3) Installation view of the exhibition Bas-reliefs dans un forêt d'éponges, Galerie Iris Clert, June 1959.
(fig. 4) Photograph of a Japanese garden taken by the artist, 1954.
(fig. 5) Ryoan-ji garden, Kyoto, Japan.
Pigment, synthetic resin, and sponges on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Kunsthalle Bern, Yves Klein, August 1971, p. 41, no. 36 (illustrated in color).
78¾ x 65 in. (200 x 165 cm.)
P. Wember, Yves Klein, Cologne, 1969, p. 80, no. RE 1 (illustrated).
Rotraut Klein, Paris.
Alfred Schmela, Cologne.
Sammlung Moenter, Germany.