Yves Klein is an artist who divided opinion in his time. His career spanned a brief period in the 1950s and 1960s before his premature death in 1963 from a heart attack aged just 34. A contemporary reviewer in The Times observed that his 1957 exhibition of blue monochromes at Gallery One in London, garnered ‘cries of “Hoax!” on several sides’.
The following year he staged: La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état de matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée, otherwise known as Le Vide. This proved to be one of his most controversial works – it was lambasted for being an ‘empty gallery’. In this new exhibition at Tate Liverpool, these well-known works are presented alongside others from his corpus, as well as compelling documentary evidence that reveals the importance of the performative processes in Klein's art, explaining that there is so much more to these works than that which meets the eye.
The show begins with Klein’s early work: pure-colour monochromes. The placement of these works mimics how they were originally exhibited, which drew critical comparisons to Mondrian that were unfavourable to Klein, and encouraged him to focus instead on series of single colour monochromes, notably blue, pink and gold.
This room also features delicate sponge sculptures that were the result of Klein’s experimentation with the materials of art-making, and turning the process into the art itself, something Klein would continue to challenge throughout his oeuvre. Klein wrote that the sponges should be viewed as “portraits of the readers of the monochrome, who, after seeing a blue painting, after travelling inside [it], are totally saturated with Blue like sponges”. It was this saturation with the sensibility of blue which Klein also sought in his later work, Le Vide.
In another room are examples of Klein’s fire paintings, with film and photographs documenting their creation, as well as his interests in Judo and architecture. The curator, Dominic Pih, said that: “Although the films are not artworks per se, they do express Klein’s performance-based approach to making art. It’s valuable, I think, to see Klein actually making his fire paintings at Gaz de France. Klein saw television and film as way of propagating his ‘blue revolution’. To me, they also express the humorous aspect of Klein.”
Indeed it is clear that Klein welcomed the dialectic of serious and playful in his work, and relished the shocked reactions that he provoked. The film, Monochrome and Fire, features ‘fire walls’, an example of architectural works which later developed into grandiose plans – ‘Air Architecture’ – in collaboration with the architects Werner Ruhnau and Claude Parent.
In the main room are some wonderful examples of Anthropometry paintings, which were allegedly inspired by the imprints of Judoka upon the judo mat. Klein sought a new way to apply paint to the canvas, and began experimenting with the use of ‘human-paintbrushes’. The Anthropometry paintings have understandably attracted a degree of ire, and they can sit uncomfortably with contemporary feminism, since Klein directed naked models to paint their breasts, torso and thighs and then drag themselves across the canvas in order to leave behind traces of blue. However, a more positive interpretation is possible.
Klein often spoke of his spiritual influences, and his desire to communicate a vital life-force, an occupation which was influenced through his experience of Judo and Rosicrucianism. For Klein the body was a vector for the transferral of blue – the living force – upon the surface. Given Klein’s aims, it is unsurprising that he found the female body better served his purposes. One can see that the traces left behind by the breasts, bellies and thighs are redolent with the signs of fertility: the ultimate life-giving force. The results are rather beautiful and haunting, particularly Untitled Anthropometry (ANT 84) and Untitled Anthropometry (ANT SU 22), which is painted upon a shroud. One cannot imagine the male body leaving behind quite such purposeful and appealing traces.
The exhibition features a room of IKB (International Klein Blue) monochromes, in an ode to how they were presented together in Klein’s Proposte Monocrome, Epoca Bleu, Milan, 1957, which subsequently travelled to Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, and Gallery One, London.
Unfortunately it is impossible to recapture the desired effect of these paintings. Instead of being able to gaze into the blue depths of the pigment, one is confronted with one’s own reflection due to the protective frames covering the monochromes. Pih explains that: “The majority of the works in the exhibition are loaned from museums and private collections across Europe and were transported within their protective cases. They are presented in this way for conservation reasons; essentially, the IKB paintings were made using under-bound ultramarine pigment, which makes their surfaces fragile.”
The predicament is disappointing, but understandable. To glean some idea of the original effect of these paintings, the Centre Georges Pompidou has a marvellous unframed example that is so vibrant it practically hums at you. This room also features photographs from the Shunk-Kender Photography Collection. Harry Shunk and János Kender were a photographer duo who were hugely important in recording the development of conceptual and performance art. They are responsible for the well-known Leap into the Void photograph. Another photograph shows Klein in the process of selling a ‘zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility’ to Dino Buzzati, and then throwing the gold into the river Seine.
Both are marvellous fun to behold, again underlining Klein’s humour. They also show an important collaborative aspect of Klein’s art, something which I believe often demands greater attention in presentations of his work.
The final room features films of Klein’s shows: Propositions Monochromes at Galerie Colette Allendy, 1957, and the infamous Le Vide, at Galerie Iris Clert, 1958. According to his own account of the opening night of Le Vide, Klein had painted the gallery white, installed a blue curtain along the entrance corridor and provided blue cocktails to ensure that spectators were ‘bathed in blue’ before entering the gallery. It was the logical conclusion of his experiments, moving from a pure blue, to the immaterial blue which permeated beyond the canvas and impregnated the spectator with its ‘pictorial sensibility’.
I wondered whether featuring the film in an empty room was an immaterial homage to Le Vide, following our own bathing in blue in the room of IKB monochromes. Pih confirmed this suspicion: “Yes, the film referred to as ‘The Void’ or ‘Le Vide’ documenting his exhibition at Galerie Iris Clert in 1958, is an ‘immaterial’ means of expressing that moment in Klein’s career. We decided to present the film alongside Klein’s performance photograph ‘Leap into the Void’ as well as the room of IKB monochromes, which are like windows into infinite space.”
Klein’s story does not stop with Le Vide, in fact the fire paintings came later, but the show ends appropriately with what was arguably Klein’s greatest contribution to art.
By Hannah Barton
Yves Klein at Tate Liverpool, 21 October 2016 – 5 March 2017
 The Times, ‘Artist with the Blues’, 12 July 1957.
 Yves Klein quoted in N. Charlet, Yves Klein, (Paris, 2000), p.144.