As the first recorded Relief Eponge rosa in the artist's catalogue raisonné, Yves Klein's epic RE 3 is a stunning masterpiece representing one of the most important works in the artist's legendary oeuvre. Klein's extraordinary sponge reliefs, executed at his artistic climax just two years before his untimely death in 1962, represent the culmination of his vision. As number three in the sequence, the two proceeding works are painted in his signature International Klein Blue and of the forty-five total listed, only ten of these are coloured pink. It is suspected there are only fifty of the sponge relief works in existence, and RE 3 is believed to be not only one of the earliest works from this series, but also one of the most rare, potent and seductive examples.
RE 3 is one of the most sumptuous and evocative representations of Klein's austere art. With its rich texture and irregular pattern of sponges interrupting the otherwise seamless landscape, it alludes to the fantasies of other, unearthly territories, to the notion of the terrestre that would be other than our own. Devoted to the work of Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher of Air and Dreams, and to the Zen philosophy of spiritual and physical harmony that he first encountered in his training as a judo-ka in Yokohama in 1952, Klein surpasses all other artists of his time in the pursuit of the spiritual within art. Flight – with all of its allusions to the infinite, to the unknown, to the unimaginable – opposes itself to form, however, in Klein's sponge paintings, the raw material is transformed into a vessel for surpassing the questions and restrictions of medium, process and even the disavowal of form itself. Embedded in an ethereal rosa pigment, the material trace becomes a trace of the immaterial, otherworldly and transcendent.
The beauty portrayed in RE 3 is at once startling and alarming, evoking an array of emotions incapable of description. The deep, seductive tones of deep pink and red heighten the emotional impact of this work, immediately attacking the viewer's sensibilities. The powdery surface, a delicate and soft deep brooding red, heightened with tones of pink which vary according to the light and shadows cast by the relief of the various sponges, possesses a tantalizing tactile effect. These sensuous surfaces provide the viewer with a glimpse into Klein's deeply philosophical investigation into matters of space and form as seen through the realm of pure colour. Klein's previous experiments with the monochrome surface – most famously, his IKB paintings from 1956-1960 – are now enlivened and plasticized through the addition of pigmented sponges to the surface, lending the work an articulated relief. The viewer is thus treated to a stunning drama of palpable and spatial form within the theatre of saturated colour. In both its size and stature, RE 3 remains one of the most poignant examples of this series: a dramatic synthesis of the sensual anthropomorphism of organic mass with an almost Baroque elegance of one of Klein's rare but signature colours – rosa. Klein's initial commitment to the colour blue was later supplemented by the addition of only two other equally subjective colours: pink and gold. Pink, like gold, carries a number of spiritual connotations. For Klein, pink alluded to the notion of Spirit as professed in Catholic dogma. "In the Bible, the spirit is manifest as breath or flames. If one breaks down the hues of fire, one obtains a continuum from yellow through blue to pink" (Nicolas Charlet, Yves Klein, Paris 2000, p. 194). Pink also conveys carnal desires, sensuality and innocence. Perhaps cognizant of the diverse interpretations, Klein employed a more subjective definition of the colour pink as 'rose' or 'crimson' (rose carmine).
In RE 3, Klein employs a total of eight sponges, all of significant weight. In fact, these sponges are some of the largest in size that Klein used in his sponge relief works. Carrying a substantial density and soft and curving in form, it is as if his sponges are organic, growing out of the surface of his monochromatic surfaces. The distribution of sponges on this panel constitutes a composition which appears neither asymmetrically balanced, in the tradition of much Western painting, nor aggressively, mindlessly scattered. Rather, the placement of sponges appears random yet calmly controlled, and it surely drew upon Klein's memory of the Zen gardens he visited in Kyoto. The arrangement at the Ryoan temple garden there, of five groups of stones within in an architecturally bounded rectangle of raked gravel, presents an order that looks at once mentally conceived and natural, as if the stones had grown in place. The fact that the sponge reliefs were made of materials we associate with nature reinforces the parallel between them and the gardens of Kyoto.
Klein began to include sponges on the surface of his paintings - as opposed to using sponges, which he chose with fanatical precision from suppliers in Greece and Tunisia, to apply paint to his surfaces - when he began working on a commission from a new theatre in Gelsenkirchen, in Germany's Ruhr valley in 1958-1959. Gelsenkirchen's vast window-lined auditorium, entered around a glass-enclosed rotunda, was the perfect site for an artist obsessed with the elements of space and light. Klein first purchased sponges in 1956 from his friend Edouard Adam, who also supplied him with his specially developed ultramarine blue pigment (IKB) and was one of major retailers of artist's materials in Paris. One day Klein was struck by the beauty of this natural material and found it covered in blue pigment in his studio, and spontaneously pressed it on to the surface of one of his monochromes. The result was a dramatic relief effect, and the nature of the sponge and its absorption qualities seemed to be the perfect vehicle for Klein to delve deeper into the realm of the colour field exploration. Klein varied the types of sponges he used, usually employing soft ones used for bathing and cleaning, which he hardened with a binder before painting or occasionally using a kind of spiny, calcified sponge known as white coral. The fact that the sponges literally project from their grounds – and in some cases project laterally beyond the parameters of their rectangular grounds, as in the present example so to suggest a strangely organic version of what was soon after termed a "shaped canvas" – once again points to the way the monochrome panels themselves come forward from pictorial space to inhabit the viewer's actual space. As Nan Rosenthal observes, "The sponge reliefs were also an inventive way for Klein to reintroduce composition into wall-hung objects without abandoning monochromy and without recourse to "relational" painting" (cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Houston, Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Yves Klein 1928-1962, A Retrospective, 1982, p. 145).
Klein saw his own paintings as living autonomous presences that create atmospheres and sensitive climates. The very tactile qualities of RE 3 afford a number of effects, suggestive of the seabed or the landscape of some unknown planet. Klein's own notes from around this time show that he was inspired by space travel, and this work was executed the year before Yuri Gagarin would take the first manned space flight. Indeed, the lunar quality of the surface, together with a sense of the mystical and ethereal that is imbued in RE 3, suggest as much. The procreative, rather than creative impetus of Klein's artistic vision is confirmed when one considers the artist's thoughts about colour. In 1957 the artist wrote, "For me colours are living beings ... [they] are the true inhabitants of space ... there are myriads of nuances of all colours, each with its particular worth". These 'myriad of nuances' lend RE 3 an expansive power and vital serenity. Like a divinely cultivated Zen garden, the deliberate composition combines a delicate balance of monochromatic quietude with a dynamic protrusion into real space. Whilst each sponge has its own autonomous life, they all work in concert with each other, playing out their individual roles within the drama of the whole painting. They sensually undulate over the rich surface, appearing to levitate above the highly-worked surface. In essence, Klein here expands the traditional boundaries of pictorial space, creating a painting that captivates our gaze, but also questions the dynamics of that gaze.
The work of Yves Klein thus presents one of the most provocative paradoxes in Post War art: aspiring to overcome all barriers to 'total physical and spiritual freedom', it is also one of the purest experiments in form of its time. Relinquishing variations in color as he had earlier revoked line, Klein purifies painting of its conventional attributes only to render the monochrome as a realm for ceaseless experimentation. Klein's art is a synthesis of the modern and the post-modern: it engages with abstract art, taking non-representational art to its logical conclusion, whilst challenging the viewer's conception of what art is, or should be. Klein's interest in process connects him to a number of other artists, all of whom were making similar investigations in the realm of 'making'. One finds a nexus between Klein's Relief Eponges and Jasper Johns' meticulous use of encaustic; Claes Oldenburg's soft sculptures; Lucio Fontana's ruptured canvases and Piero Manzoni's pleated canvases soaked in kaolin. All of these pioneers carved a niche for themselves and their processes of expression and execution within deeply iconoclastic territory: all the visual experiments Klein made were executed at a time when the image still remained a concrete symbol and idea. RE 3 is a majestic example of Yves Klein's unique artistic language. This is a profoundly lyrical work in which the dematerializing rose pigment enhances both the sponges and the highly textured ground. Moreover, the delicate play of light and shade that moves across the holes of the sponges further animates the entire composition. This is a seminal work that boldly confronts the viewer with a deeply intellectual philosophy of art and life and, yet, leaves the viewer with an overwhelming sense of peace and calm that is so characteristic of Klein's oeuvre as a whole.
Sponges, pebbles and dry pink pigment in synthetic resin on panel
New York, The Jewish Museum, Yves Klein, 1967
Nuremberg, Kunsthalle, Yves Klein, 1968, p. 17, no. 66, illustrated
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum, Yves Klein, 1968, p. 15, no. 61, illustrated
Paris, Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, Yves Klein, 1969
Hanover, Kunstverein, Yves Klein, 1971, p. 35, illustrated
Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Städtische Kunstsammlungen, Yves Klein, 1974
Krefeld, Museum Haus Lange, Wendepunkt: Kunst in Europa um 1960, 1980, p. 33, no. 25, illustrated
Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Sammlung Helga und Walther Lauffs - Amerikanische und europäische Kunst der sechziger und siebziger Jahre, 1983-84, p. 35, no. 191, illustrated in colour
Krefeld, Museen Haus Esters und Haus Lange, Im weißen Raum: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, 1994-95, p. 70, no. 15, illustrated in colour
79 by 60cm. 31 1/4 by 23 5/8 in.
Paul Wember, Yves Klein, Cologne 1969, p. 80, illustrated
Rotraut Klein-Moquay, Paris
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1969