"In working on my pictures in my studio, I sometimes used sponges. They became blue very quickly, obviously! One day I noticed the beauty of the blue in the sponge; at once this working tool became raw material for me. It is that extraordinary faculty of the sponge to become impregnated with whatever may be fluid that seduced me. Thanks to the sponges – raw living matter – I was going to be able to make portraits of the observers 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"
The artist in 1958, cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Houston, Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Yves Klein 1928-1962: A Retrospective, 1982, p. 111
The quintessence of Yves Klein's most highly sought-after series, RE 49 embodies the pinnacle of creative innovation that revolutionised visual culture in the post-war era. It is the archetype of the artist's legendary Relief éponge works that, on such a grand scale and of such extreme beauty, are fantastically rare and near unattainable. This masterwork would provide an outstanding focus of any international museum, and is directly comparable to masterworks housed in such esteemed collections as the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; The Menil Collection, Houston; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; and The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. As mesmerizing as the most alluring canvas by Mark Rothko and as revolutionary as the most exciting painting by Jackson Pollock,RE 49 represents an artistic event beyond mere painting or sculpture; epitomising and entombing the act of Klein's genius.
A historic work that could only have been conceived during a momentous epoch, RE 49's execution belongs to the year that John F. Kennedy was elected president, the Berlin Wall was constructed, the trial of Adolf Eichmann took place in Jerusalem, and Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into Space. 1961 also witnessed the retrospective exhibitionYves Klein: Monochrome und Feuer mounted at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld. Due to Klein's tragically early death on 6th June 1962, this was the only museum exhibition dedicated to his astounding artistic career during his lifetime. It is extremely telling that the central space of this exhibition, curated by the artist himself, was dominated by Relief éponge works alongside IKB monochromes and sponge sculptures, presented as the apotheosis of the artist's extraordinary output.
Klein's meteoric career – ended barely before it had truly begun - was devoted to a relentless search for an immaterial world beyond our own. To this end he developed modes of expression that fused together a sweeping array of profoundly held interests in aesthetics, nature and mysticism. Among these artistic dialects the Relief éponges issue the most effective manifestation of the complex mysteries that filled the artist's life. Forging the kernel of Klein's epoch of immateriality, these unreal masterworks deliver the crescendo promised by the IKB, gold and rose Monochromes; and bring to life the enigmatic shadows of the Anthropométries. While the Monochromes invite the viewer to step into the window of Klein's world, this Relief éponge advances out into the world of the viewer; whereas the Anthropométries narrate the trace of transient human presence, RE 49 absorbs ancient creatures into the depths of its fathomless blue. Although it may be indicative of some alien planetary landscape or the deepest ocean bed, the topography of RE 49 encapsulates the artist's pure concept of an ethereal and intangible state.
RE 49 is dedicated on the reverse to Klein's friend Charles Wilp: d'abord il n'y a rien, ensuite il n'y a un rien profound, puis une profondeur bleue chez Wilp ('first there is nothing, after which there is profoundly nothing, then a deep blue with Wilp'). The multi-talented Charles Wilp (1932-2005) was an influential photographer, artist, advertising designer, art director, film editor and composer. Through photographs he documented the artist working on the monumental sponge and IKB murals for the foyer of the Gelsenkirchen opera house in 1958-59 and took the iconic shots of Klein's legendary action-spectacle Anthropométries de l'époque bleue at the Galerie Internationale d'Art Contemporain on rue Saint-Honoré on 9th March 1960. Indeed, Wilp was at the heart of the 1960s zeitgeist, also photographing Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Jean Tinguely, Jean Cocteau, Ingrid Bergman, and the West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, among many others, as well as contributing to Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972. Thus Klein's dedication of this work and its provenance ties together their great talents: today RE 49 stands as physical testament to a shared spirit of courageous innovation when the boundaries of artistic enterprise were fundamentally redrawn.
Both the visual effect and physical presence of RE 49 are magnificently unique and impossible to emulate entirely adequately. The powdery, velvet blue surface continually evolves according to the play of light across the spectacularly articulated surface. While the sponges and pebbles afford a beautiful compositional structure, their arrangement also reinforces the effect of the monochrome. Indeed, the sheer power of the IKB pigment unifies the whole work to such a degree that the exact topography of the surface is not always discernible and the spellbinding blue intermittently overcomes silhouette and contour. The labyrinths of minute spaces within the sponges create multifaceted schemas of light and shadow and the extraordinary potency of Klein's blue seems to fill these void matrices with a colouristic energy independent of the physical forms. Thus while the sponge bodies loom towards us, the myriad recesses draw our world into the immaterial infinity of Klein's blue epoch.
Having first observed the powerful chromatic effect of pure powdered pigment while in an art supply shop in London in 1949, through the 1950s Klein experimented with various fusions of asphalt, plaster, cement, sand, tar and other materials that he acquired from Edouard Adam, a chemicals and art supplies retailer in Montparnasse. From these trials the two men developed the legendary International Klein Blue, a synthetic medium that included the transparent binder Rhodopas M 60 A, which preserved the pigment as if it were still pure powder. It was also Adam who provided Klein with sponges from 1956, sourced from Greece and Tunisia, which the artist first used to apply paint to his surface before being struck by the extraordinary aesthetic of soaking them in IKB. As aquatic animals sponges have evolved over hundreds of millions of years into bodies of maximum surface area and exceptional absorption qualities in order to extract food and oxygen as efficiently as possible from the constant flow of water passing through them. As a living being the shape of a sponge changes, but extracted from its life-support of plankton-filled seawater it is frozen in its final, ultimate form. In the present work these outstanding features of natural selection are profusely drenched in Klein's blue, resulting in an organic architecture of immeasurable chromatic depth. From his earliest experiments with monochromes Klein was gripped by sculptural possibilities: curved edges emphasised dimensions beyond the flat rectilinear canvas and in his first IKB exhibitions the works were projected away from the hanging wall so as to be suspended in space. This exploration into the prospects of hanging sculpture finds its apogee in the Relief éponge corpus where the three-dimensional elements project forward into the space of the viewer.
Klein was fascinated by the work of Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher of Air and Dreams, and by the Zen philosophy of spiritual and physical harmony that he first encountered during his training as a judo-ka in Yokohama in 1952. Indeed, the placement of the sponges in RE 49 surely drew upon Klein's memory of the Zen gardens he had visited in Kyoto. In the Ryoan temple garden there five groups of stones are placed within a rectangle of raked gravel, presenting an order that appears entirely natural as if the stones had grown in place. The fact that the sponge reliefs incorporated actual elements of nature reinforces the parallel with the gardens of Kyoto. His attentions were also deeply absorbed in Rosicrucian principles developed by Max Heindel in La Cosmologie de Rose-Croix, first published in 1909 and obtained by the artist in 1947. Heindel's words provide a startlingly apt parallel to Klein's works, and specifically RE 49: "the dematerialization of all finite figures into the infinite ground of the immaterial constituted the passage into the next age ....which would no longer be characterized by figures with limits, but by pure space, the absence of figures, the lack of boundaries, the world of 'colour,' the passage into the infinite." (cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Berlin, Deutsche Guggenheim, On the Sublime, 2001, pp. 71-72). Furthermore, Heindel enlisted the sponge itself as a metaphor to explain how diverse, isolated and separate elements of existence can simultaneously inhabit the same space. In the same way that sand, water and the air within water together saturate a sponge, various facets of material and immaterial worlds saturate our existence. RE 49 translates this multifaceted conceptual philosophy into breathtaking material physicality.
Yves Klein's artistic contribution to contemporary culture is most frequently described as visionary, and the scope of his artistic innovations was utterly without precedent. The works he left behind are testament to a genius that perceived things others could not. RE 49 expedites the artist's career-long investigation into how to communicate these concepts through artistic means, and because his language is so utterly unlike any other and precipitates a unique response in each individual spectator, this profoundly engaging and immensely beautiful work will always transcend and surpass our expectations of what art can achieve.
Natural sponges, pebbles, dry blue pigment and synthetic resin on canvas laid down on panel
Frankfurt am Main, Schirn Kunsthalle; Bilbao, Fundación del Museo Guggenheim, Yves Klein die Blaue Revolution, 2004-05, p. 96, illustrated in colour
Turin, Unicredit Private Banking Spa, 2005-06
Vienna, BA-CA Kunstforum, Monet-Kandinsky-Mondrian und die Folgen - Wege der Abstrakten Malerei, 2008
122.5 by 98cm. 48 1/2 by 38 1/2 in.
Charles Wilp, Cologne
Neumann & Partners GbR, Düsseldorf
Achenbach Kunstberatung, Düsseldorf
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1996