Tate Liverpool turns blue

Yves Klein, the young Frenchman who pre-dated the pop art youthquake
By Rob Mead | Art | 1 November 2016

Yves Klein ‘Untitled Anthropometry’ 1960. Courtesy Tate Liverpool

Top image: Yves Klein ‘Untitled Anthropometry’ 1960. Courtesy Tate Liverpool

Yves Klein’s life may have only been 34 years long, but his progressive approach to art has reverberated through the decades since his death in 1962. One of the most influential artists of the post-war era, Klein cut a provocative path with astonishing creativity and a daring approach to art and life. Now, the Tate Liverpool are showing the first major solo museum exhibition Klein’s work in the UK for twenty years.

Presenting around thirty major works the exhibition throws fresh light on a diverse artistic practice which embraced painting, sculpture, performance, theatre, music, film and architecture. Wielding the elements – air, water and fire – he burnt and blue-splashed his way to become a household name, in France and beyond. From patenting a shade of blue (titled, ‘International Klein Blue’) to filling a gallery with literally nothing (in his infamous 1958 exhibition The Void), Klein’s work was deeply significant for later creative movements, from pop to performance art.

As exhibitions and displays curator Darren Pih here explains, Klein pioneered new attitudes that shook the European art world and left a huge legacy that will be felt for many decades to come.


Rob Mead: This is the first major solo museum exhibition of Yves Klein in the UK for twenty years, how significant do you think this is for British culture?
Darren Pih: Klein is someone who has really changed the course of art and whose work is hugely influential, you can see the influence on many generations of artists especially in the 60s and 70s on the development of pop, conceptual and minimal art. There hasn’t been a solo show in the UK since the mid-nineties so I think to refocus and look again at his work with this major survey show makes this a really timely exhibition.

RM: The show brings together major works from around the world. Will we be able to see new pieces in the exhibition that haven’t been shown in the UK before?
DP: Absolutely, the thing about Klein is there is only one work held in an institutional collection in the UK – the Tate – but there are around 40 works in this show all loaned by museums, institutions and private collections across Europe so it is a substantial show, and there are many works that haven’t been seen before in the United Kingdom.

RM: The show is complemented by photography that demonstrate how Klein managed his own image through personal and publicity photographs presenting him as an artist, visionary showman and even judo master, what led you to take the decision to show these images alongside his artworks?
DP: Well what I would say about Klein is that his first solo show was in 1956 and although his career was short he was operating at the birth of the mass media age and marks a shift from the sense of introspection and existential trauma – which you can see immediately after the second world war – in people like Rothko: artists were interested in the state of mankind. Klein was a kind of reaction against that idea of introspection, more about performance, creating work in public – things like the Anthropometry paintings where it became a whole event, a ‘happening’ that demonstrated the production of his work before a live audience – or the creation of his fire paintings: the way in which the production of the work was enacted in a very public way. I think he’s somebody that marks that shift from the sense of the artist in the studio like Pollock who was traumatised; to “you get dressed up, you put on a suit” he’s more like Joseph Beuys, like a shaman or showman. I think he links in more with this idea or with Warhol perhaps.

“Klein was a reaction against the post-war idea of introspection – he was more about performance… his works became a ‘happening’ that demonstrated the production of his work before a live audience.”

Yves Klein realising ‘Fire Painting’ 1961. Courtesy Tate Liverpool

RM: Could there be a relationship with his creation of persona and questions of identity and self-image to today’s environment of social media and heightened awareness of self-image?
DP: In terms of now, there was certainly a sense of self-publicity about Klein, on the one hand work such as the monochrome painting is coming from a very neo avant-garde trajectory – there’s a touch of Dada in there, as well as the references to symbolism and spirituality. But there is also something about this parallel idea of self-image – the way he was photographed, and was very aware of the power of mass media. Like when he was making the fire paintings – that became a news story and it was very controversial. I think there was a sense of showmanship. He was also fundamentally concerned with communicating and dispersing his work in quite a broad sense – things like the Dimanche newspaper that he produced: on one hand it is a propagation of his ‘blue revolution’ – it and is a work in the form of the newspaper that is dispersed for 24 hours but the front cover is him leaping into the void. So I think there is something about always going beyond the parameters of painting away from material artwork into something more ephemeral and performative and more ‘in the world’.

“There was certainly a sense of self-publicity about Klein… he was very aware of the power of mass media.”

RM: This is interesting as it seems for artists’ today self-image and self-promotion is incredibly important alongside their practice and it seems like he might be a proto model for this?
DP: Yes there is something about the public presentation of self and if you ever see images of Klein he is always incredibly well turned out – and in the way Klein had himself photographed making his work and that was propagated and known about – in the same way as Pollock was photographed by Hans Namuth in a barn – but Klein is photographed in a way that makes Pollock look like a painter and decorator, Pollock’s in the studio traumatised, chain smoking and Klein is all about communicating with quite an expansive sense.

Yves Klein ‘Untitled Fire Painting’ 1961. Courtesy Tate Liverpool

RM: In Klein’s Anthropometry paintings he choreographed nude models as living paint brushes to transfer blue pigment onto canvas and in his pyrotechnic Fire Paintings he created work using a flame thrower. How did works like these shift the relationship between painting and performance? And was this something being explored by other artists at the time?
DP: I think he was always removing himself from the production of his work and so you have images of him with his early monochrome and the works are being created with paint rollers and it is this shift; moving away from the touch, the artistic gesture or the idea of artistic intent, of pictorial content, he is moving our attention onto the pure perception of colour. There is no sense of representation and somehow the meaning is generated in the space between the work and the audience. The Anthropometry performances are a step further: Klein is not holding a paint brush, he’s not actually producing his work he’s choreographing it and invites an audience: it is stage managed. There are images of him wearing white gloves, he’s not getting his hands dirty, he’s well turned out, wearing a suit as he transforms the nude models into living paintbrushes, who actually could be called artist assistants or collaborators.

“There are images of him wearing white gloves; he’s not getting his hands dirty, he’s well turned out, wearing a suit as he transforms the nude models into living paintbrushes…”

There is a sense of going beyond what has previously been imagined as the painter, away from the ideal of the artist expressing themselves using a paintbrush, working with the media and towards removing himself and demonstrating the production of work before an audience. He was delegating authorship in the way that Warhol was working in the Factory in the 1960s; he had assistants producing his work for him. Klein was producing kind of ‘happenings’ not unlike Allan Kaprow who was imaging artworks as a set of instructions. The lived perception and engagement is part of the production of meaning, the event, the temporal qualities are the work. I almost think of the Anthropometry as being traces of a performance, the residue of live action, on the one hand they assert painting and at the same time are going away from painting in a performative direction.

RM: The relationship with infinite space in particular the idea of the Void, are underlying fascinations in Klein’s work where did this interest stem from? And how did colour come to be key part of his exploration of these ideas?
DP: The idea of the void or absence is central to his work and throughout his practice there is a shift away from physical artwork and material to something that is actually space, there is a famous story of him lying on the beach of the age of nineteen with Claude Pascal the poet and Armand Fernandez a fellow artist and together they split the universe into three and Armand claims the earth, Pascal claims the air and at this point supposedly Klein claims the infinite blue sky, this is an idea of appropriation which goes back to Dada. It’s always unclear with Klein what is true, as he writes his own history after the events – he makes the claim that the blue sky was his first artwork. Nevertheless, it does get you quite close to understanding that the idea of the infinite and absolute space and freedom could be denoted by a blue sky. That relates quite closely to his monochrome painting, if you ever see one of his works in the flesh it is raw ultramarine pigment, and there is something very depthless, you can’t really sense the surface, it is like a fluid space, and I think of these works as being portals into the unknown, as windows of sorts and the closest Klein got to articulating this absolute freedom of infinite space and the immaterial.

“Klein was delegating authorship in the way that Warhol was working in the Factory in the 1960s.”

RM: With such a diverse range of different artworks how did you approach the curational layout?
DP: There are around 40 works overall and it was important to represent all the major series, his career was short around seven years of artist production but he was quite prestigious throughout this period – it is about the shift from the material artwork from his show at Gallery Colette Allendy in 1956 where he wanted to draw our attention to pure colour without representation or any pictorial content and that show comprised simple colour monochromes but quickly blue became his preferred colour. So it is shifting away from the material artworks towards something more elemental and more expansive, such as fire which he saw as a source of energy and the immaterial in nature and then something more performative and Anthropometry paintings again the shift away from material to something more dispersive performative and temporal. The final room is called Leap into the Void and presents an absolute freedom through the blue monochromes. In terms of the leap into the void that is quite closely linked to his experience as a judo master. He began learning judo when he was in nice in 1947 and he goes to Tokyo and becomes a judo master. He began to understand judo in artistic terms I think, about harnessing the body as a source of energy, he saw the forms of judo as being aesthetic and we can see this in the shift to the Anthropometry and the performative and he saw the leap into the void as an example of absolute freedom the body equal in space. There’s a quote where he talks about this:

“In terms of the leap into the void that is quite closely linked to his experience with judo, he began learning judo when he was in Nice in 1947 and went to Tokyo to become a judo master.”

‘Judo’, he wrote, ‘helped me to understand pictorial space and the discovery of the human body in a spiritual space.’ In this sense, Klein’s performance art action Leap into the Void of 1960 can be read in the context of judo, the artist self-staged in equilibrium with infinite space.” There is also a spirituality and simplification of thought which is really clear in his monochromes and gold-leaf and very simple, austere East Asian thinking definitely an aspect.

Harry Shunk and János Kender ‘Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void’, Fontenay aux Roses, France, 1960. Courtesy Tate Liverpool

RM: Do you feel that the exhibition will be challenging for visitors or are we now more familiar with the kind of work Klein was producing?
DP: The Anthropometry pieces are the most challenging works but in a way they fall within an image of pop performance and around that time live action became part of the standard language of art making. What will hopefully be apparent is that Klein had this huge influence on the next generation, on Nouveau Réalisme a very French branch of pop art and something about that serial production of work, that idea of identical works that is both minimal and a form of pop art as well. You can see his influence in the people like James Lee Byars and in the 1970s James Turrell beginning the idea of Californian Light and Space art in the late 1960s again moving away from materiality and towards a pure experiential and phenomenological blue light, and questioning the materialisation of artwork. He foresaw this, he seems to have set the scene for the major artworks that emerged in the 1960s and the persona, Klein’s persona is magnetic and there is something quite interesting about the idea, like Beuys, that the artist is a showman and a conduit choreographing the work in a public way.

RM: What does the show mean for Liverpool culturally, are there any extra challenges in arranging exhibitions outside of the capital?
DP: Well Tate Liverpool has a great track record for bringing some of the great modern artists; I always say we have an international mission as well as being Tate in the North. We’ve had Pollock in recent years, Mondrian, Magritte, Picasso; so major artists. I think Klein dips into that lineage. In terms of Klein in Liverpool the art scene in the city around the same time 1950s-60s was really the beginnings of the beat era where there was performance poetry and Adrian Henri was staging happenings at what was called Hope Hall – now Everyman Theatre, and that was in 61/62. So around that same time as this idea of a pop performance and ‘happenings’, Henri was also teaching at the art school and he was definitely in contact with Kaprow so there is something about the sense of the artist having a public presence and social role that was occurring around the same time in the city. I’m sure Adrien Henry was aware of Klein’s work at the time and for that to be happening in the city at the same time is interesting.

RM: So Liverpool was key site in the 60s cultural shift of which Klein was part of?
DP: Yes the art school was very lively and it was the beginning of the youth craze helped by cheap rents around the Georgian area of Hope Street. It was the beginning of the pop era, Liverpool was a major cultural centre and there was a growth of optimism about youth culture’s capacity to change the world.

‘Yves Klein’ run until 5th March 2017 at Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool Waterfront, Liverpool L3 4BB. There will be a programme of events, talks and study days around the exhibition with visiting speakers including Kassia St Clair and Elena Palumbo-Mosca. Head to the website for further info and bookings. 

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