BEYOND THE MONOCHROME: WORKS FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
‘There is an imaginary beyond, a pure beyond, one without a within. First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a blue depth’
With its saturated expanse of blue stretching almost a metre in height, Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 276) (1959) is an outstanding work from the series that lies at the core of Yves Klein’s oeuvre. The artist’s signature pigment – ‘International Klein Blue’, or ‘IKB’ – coats the canvas in vivid, otherworldly ultramarine: a hue that would become synonymous with his life and work. Technically innovative, optically transfixing and metaphysically charged, these ethereal monochromes effectively launched his practice into orbit, establishing a mission that would transform the post-War artistic landscape. Influenced by his engagement with martial arts, literature and art history, as well as the developments of the Space Age, Klein sought to create a visual experience that would allow humankind to sense the immaterial void that underpinned existence. Rejecting line and form, he embraced colour as his primary vehicle, adopting a holy chromatic trinity of gold, madder rose and blue. The latter, he believed, was the most abstract and sensory of all hues – the colour of the sea, the sky and the centre of the flame. Blending raw pigment with resin, rather than oil, he developed a piercing, disembodied tone that he believed had the power to impregnate its surroundings, thereby allowing the viewer to transcend their physical being and glimpse the invisible spiritual realm that lay at the heart of all matter. Klein would come to personally identify with these works as ‘Yves Le Monochrome’: a pioneering conquistador, leader of ‘the Monochrome Adventure’ and the ‘Blue Revolution’. Though he would later place other mediums at the service of IKB – sponges and even female bodies – the monochrome canvases remain the purest expressions of his artistic vocation. Art was no longer a window onto the material world, they proclaimed, but a portal to the unknown.
Though Klein’s first IKB monochromes date to 1956, the trajectory leading to their creation had been set in motion much earlier. In 1947, as a teenager, he had stretched out upon the beach at Nice with two friends: Claude Pascal, and the artist Arman. Between them, they whimsically divided up the world. Pascal claimed plant life, Arman the animal kingdom and Klein the mineral terrain. As he lay back and gazed at the great expanse of blue above, he imagined floating upwards like a balloon and signing his name on the underside of the sky, boldly claiming it as his first artwork. As a teenager, Klein had spent a few months studying Rosicrucianism – a set of sixteenth-century doctrines modernised in the twentieth century by Max Heindel. Several concepts would resonate with his thinking: in particular, the idea that the age of matter would one day come to end, allowing the omnipresent but invisible ‘Spirit’ to exist free from form and – ultimately – permitting mankind to levitate. His fascination with Judo, enhanced by a year spent in Japan, would reinforce his belief in the connection between bodily and spiritual realms. For Klein, who had already claimed creative ownership of the sky, the colour blue would come to be synonymous with the attainment of a formless, dimensionless immaterial state. He was thrilled to find affirmation of this connection in Gaston Bachelard’s 1943 treatise Air and Dreams, which described ‘an imaginary beyond, a pure beyond, one without a within. First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a blue depth’ (G. Bachelard, quoted in K. Ottmann (ed.), Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, Putman 2007, p. 73).
Klein’s belief in the power of colour came at a pivotal moment in art history. In a world traumatised by the horrors of the Second World War, sombre existential currents ran throughout art making, manifesting themselves in haunted visions of the human figure and in the encrusted material surfaces of Art Informel. Klein’s art, with its fantastical philosophical aspirations and unwavering subscription to higher powers, offered a buoyant alternative. Like Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni – both of whom showed early interest in his IKB monochromes – his views coincided with a reappraisal of art’s purpose in light of the discoveries of the Space Age. The canvas, these artists believed, was no longer the locus of art: instead, it was simply a vehicle – a prop – for revealing the external forces that surround and define us. The purpose of IKB, believed Klein, was to dematerialize the canvas, allowing it to function as a gateway to extrasensory experience. This was borne out by the nature of the colour, whose unique properties derived not only from the pigment itself but from the synthetic binder in which it was suspended: Klein used a volatile fixative which persevered the pigment’s natural luminescence. The resulting substance, later registered in his name, was applied quickly over treated linen with a roller, creating a seemingly weightless coating of colour that appeared to hover magically before the canvas. For this reason, claimed Klein, each work was an individual entity, imbued with its own unique metaphysical charge. In communion with IKB, he believed, the viewer might be lifted out of their dark, earthbound reality and brought face to face with the bright, shimmering essence of the void.
Klein’s ‘Monochrome Adventure’ would lead him to many places. It would lead him on a journey throughout art history, taking in the chromatic sensibilities of Eugène Delacroix, the synaesthetic declarations of Wassily Kandinsky and the frescoes of Giotto in Assisi. It led him to become a knight of the Order of Saint Sebastian, where he pledged his allegiance to ‘the cause of pure colour in order to defend it, to deliver it, and to lead it to triumph and its final glory’ (Y. Klein, quoted in S. Stich, Yves Klein, exh. cat., Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 1994, p. 80). It led him to the influential critic Pierre Restany – who mounted the first major showcase of Klein’s IKB monochromes at the Galleria Apollinaire, Milan, in 1957 – and to the Gelsenkirchen Opera house, where he completed a major commission of six monumental monochromes in 1959. As time progressed, his quest would become increasingly performative, involving everything from blue balloons to Bengal fireworks and letters to the government. He saturated sponges with IKB, seeking to create ‘portraits’ of his viewers. He painted naked women with the colour and choreographed their bodies across the canvas in his Anthropométries. The ‘Blue Revolution’ would lead him to embrace fire, with its evanescent blue heart. It would even lead him to stage his own ‘Leap into the Void’, resulting in the iconic 1960 photograph showing him suspended mid-air. Taken just two years before his untimely death at the age of thirty-four, it remains the single most enduring image of Klein: the great explorer, prophet and alchemist who sought to show us a world beyond the scope of our vision.
BEYOND THE MONOCHROME: Three Masterpieces by Klein, Fontana and Manzoni
A radiant trio in red, white and blue, the present three works represent the seminal achievements of a trailblazing triumvirate of postwar art: Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni and Yves Klein. United by their far-reaching innovations in relation to the picture plane, the artistic process, materiality, spirituality and transcendence – as well as a shared sense of irreverent humour – Fontana, Manzoni and Klein together forged a new era. Their works of the 1950s and early 1960s broke radically with tradition and paved the way for movements as diverse as Minimalism, Pop, Conceptual and Installation art that were to follow. Concetto spaziale, Attese (1959) is a stunning early example of Fontana’s tagli or ‘slashes’, which ruptured the canvas as part of his Spatialist mission to introduce an infinite fourth dimension into the work of art; made in the same year, Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 276) exemplifies Klein’s no less iconic ‘International Klein Blue’ monochromes, which sought to conjure a transcendent ‘Leap into the Void’; Manzoni’s Achrome (1957-58), again from the artist’s most celebrated series, takes the monochrome to ecstatic absolution, creating a colourless surface of pure, limitless potential.
Klein died in 1962, aged thirty-four. Manzoni was only twenty-nine years old when he died one year later. Both accomplished extraordinary things in their brief and meteoric careers. It was arguably Fontana, however – who outlived both younger artists to pass away in 1968, aged sixty-nine – who paved the way for their explorations. In works like Concetto spaziale, Attese, with its fifteen balletic cuts dancing across a vividly corporeal rust-red surface, Fontana escaped centuries of art history by slashing open the canvas. Neither destructive nor violent, these incisions were an act of creation. Fontana transcended the canvas to reveal an enigmatic space beyond: with this apparently simple gesture, he invited the viewer to be consumed by the dark infinity beyond the picture plane. In doing so, Fontana opened up, both literally and figuratively, a whole new dimension of possibilities to advance the course of art in what he saw as a new ‘spatial’ era, in line with mankind’s explorations of the universe. ‘As a painter,’ he said, ‘while working on one of my perforated canvases, I do not want to make a painting: I want to open up space, create a new dimension for art, tie in with the cosmos as it endlessly expands beyond the confining plane of the picture’ (L. Fontana, quoted in J. van der Marck and E. Crispolti, La Connaissance, Brussels 1974, p. 7).
There was a key element of ritual in Fontana’s process. After carefully preparing the canvas to be free of any evidence of brushstroke or human intervention, he would spend a long period contemplating the blank surface before making his decisive cuts. This performative, action-based aspect of creation was also central to the work of Klein, whose Anthropométries took art very literally off the wall, with the artist directing or ‘conducting’ nude women to paint with their bodies on a floor-bound canvas arena. During the performance, musicians played Klein’s Monotone Symphony – a single note played for twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of silence. Klein also shared Fontana’s fascination with the void, though his conception of infinity was rooted more in Eastern philosophy that in notions of space travel. His famous 1957 exhibition at Milan’s Galleria Apollinaire, Proposte Monocrome, Epoca Blu (Monochrome Proposition, Blue Epoch), saw the grand debut of his International Klein Blue pigment in works much like Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 276): a stunning field of pure, boundless colour. Klein preserved his pigment’s ultramarine brilliance by suspending it in a synthetic resin, creating these works’ distinctive, almost impossibly vivid hue, and a surface – like Fontana’s – free of any sign of the artist’s hand. Unlike his forebears Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt, who considered the monochrome the logical conclusion of painting, Klein saw pure colour as a portal to an undiscovered spiritual dimension. By limiting himself to a single, highly-concentrated pigment, devoid of expression, Klein sought a new, experiential purpose for art. His monochromes were no longer windows onto the physical world, but rather gateways to the invisible spatial realm that underpinned our very being. Fontana himself famously purchased a work from the 1957 show; he later proclaimed that ‘Klein is the one who understands the problem of space with his blue dimension ... He is really abstract, one of the artists who have done something important’ (L. Fontana, quoted in T. Trini, ‘The last interview given by Fontana’, in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1988, p. 34).
Another enthusiast of Klein’s monochromes was Piero Manzoni, who, after repeatedly visiting that same 1957 exhibition in Milan, embarked on his own series of Achromes in November that year. A true conceptual pioneer as well as an instigator of Arte Povera, Manzoni is notorious for works like Fiato d’Artista (Artist’s Breath) (1960) and Merda d’Artista (Artist’s Shit) (1961), which, like Klein’s installations and happenings, played gleefully with the role of the artist and the transubstantiation of matter in the creative act. It is his Achromes, however, that are perhaps his most enduring series. Emptying his works of colour entirely, in the Achromes Manzoni found the perfect solution to his quest to return art to a primal, virgin state, completely expunging the presence of the artist and transforming the work into a singularly self-defining and self-referential entity. This was a radical redefinition of the possibilities of painting: the canvas was now an empty receptacle, liberated from representation, narrative and the artist’s ego, waiting instead to be activated by the mind of the viewer. These ‘non-pictures’ were startlingly autonomous presences that articulated only their own formal and material properties. In early Achromes like the present work, Manzoni used fluid kaolin, a white clay used in porcelain manufacture, to petrify the folds and pleats of wrinkled canvas surfaces. The clay’s enigmatic, chalky texture and colourlessness fixed the canvas into a permanent sculptural form that severed all ties with figurative reality. As Manzoni explained, ‘the question as far as I’m concerned is that of rendering a surface completely white (integrally colourless and neutral) far beyond any pictorial phenomenon or any intervention extraneous to the value of the surface. A white that is not a polar landscape, not a material in evolution or a beautiful material, not a sensation or a symbol or anything else: just a white surface that is simply a white surface and nothing else (a colourless surface that is just a colourless surface). Better than that: a surface that simply is: to be’ (P. Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, no. 2, Milan 1960, in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, Reliefs & Objects, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London 1974, pp. 46-47).
There are complex exchanges of influence going in all directions between the work of Fontana, Klein and Manzoni. Not only was Manzoni inspired by Klein’s monochromes, and Fontana a collector of Klein: Fontana would also become an admirer of Manzoni’s work, and something of a mentor, sponsoring Azimuth, the short-lived gallery and journal that Manzoni launched with Enrico Castellani in December 1959. Fontana and Manzoni exhibited together as early as January 1958 in ‘Fontana Baj Manzoni’ at the Galleria Bergamo; Manzoni wrote later that year that ‘I have recently taken part in an exhibition with Fontana, the founder of Spatialism, and with [Enrico] Baj, the founder of the Nuclear Movement. I am a kind of symbol of the union of the three initiators of the three Avant-garde movements in Milan’ (P. Manzoni, letter to Valentino Dori, Milan, November 1958, in F. Battino and L. Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni. Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 1991, p. 35). Along with Baj and others, both Manzoni and Klein had signed the Gruppo Nucleare’s manifesto Contro lo stile (‘Against Style’) in September 1957, which declared ‘The last stylistic works that we recognise are the “monochromes” of Yves Klein (1956-1957)’. Fontana, Klein and Manzoni also all worked with Heinz Mack and Otto Piene’s ZERO group, a European collective founded in 1958 and dedicated to a direct, tabula rasa exploration of light and space without representation or illusion. Born in the midst of this brilliant creative period, the present three works stand as an exceptional trinity. As beautiful and radical as the day they were made, each by itself represents the pinnacle of its maker’s unique practice; taken together, the rich formal and conceptual conversations between all three display the profound significance of Fontana, Klein and Manzoni’s combined legacy in twentieth-century art.
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BEYOND THE MONOCHROME: WORKS FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 276)
, inscribed with the artist's star monogram and dated ‘Yves 59 *’ (on the overlap); inscribed ‘Dieses Bild ist ein Original von Yves Klein Paris den 8.9.1971 R Klein Moquay’ (on the reverse)
Yves Klein (1928-1962)
Galerie Bischofberger, Zürich.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in the 1970s.