Please note that this work has been requested for the upcoming Yves Klein exhibition to be held in Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, from May to September 2010 and Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, from October 2010 to February 2011.
'The year 1960 saw Klein focussing on the poignancy of colour ... It was gold in particular that challenged him to new heights of technical mastery. Klein had learned the technique of gilding in London in 1949, and was awed by the potentials of this costly and difficult material. What especially fascinated him was the fragile nature of "the exquisite, delicate gold, whose leaves flew away at the slightest breath". For the medieval alchemists, the search for a way to make gold corresponded to a search for the philosopher's stone. Their attempts to combine chemically what they called earthly and heavenly elements, apart from the pragmatic aim of transforming base metals into the most precious currency, gold, were informed by a higher, metaphysical idea - that of the enlightenment and salvation of mankind.' (H. Weitemeier in Yves Klein 1928-1962 International Klein Blue, Cologne 2001, p. 69).
With its extraordinary sculptural relief and otherworldly presence, bathed in a gorgeous sea of intense, glistening gold, RE 47 II is the second and slightly longer of only two gold sponge reliefs known to have been created by Yves Klein. The other is RE 33 and between them, these two works encapsulate the essence of Klein's art, in the marriage of two of his greatest series, the Relief Eponges (Sponge reliefs) and Monogolds, and epitomize nothing less than the revolution in painting and sculpture which occurred at this time. Executed in 1961, this was the same year that Yuri Gagarin had pierced the Earth's stratosphere to become the first human in space. His galactic journey proved that existence is not limited by earthly dimensions but is ultimately located in spatial infinity. If this was the defining event of the century, it was the group of artists around this time who would redefine the ambitions of artistic practice for generations to come, to match humanity's new boundaries. Yves Klein was the key progenitor and had been obsessed with this potential eventuality since the mid 1950s, culminating with his famous Leap into the Void in 1960 (see above), a year before. Through his development of a conceptual ideology for art which aspired to reach outside our world and reflect a sense of space which had never been explored before, Klein influenced not just the likes of Fontana and Manzoni, his peers, but also the birth of Conceptual and Minimalist art and beyond. If Bacon focused on the inner turmoil of our psychological and bodily existence after the war and Warhol on the exterior obsession with surface in our product and celebrity centric culture, Klein focused on the spaces which surround and define us and our psychosomatic desire to further the boundaries of our existence.
Eternally radiant, beautifully composed and extending beyond the boundaries of its rectangular plane, the variety of sponges, including the large voluminous ones at the centre and right of RE 47 II, are nature captured for eternity in the intensity of pure gold. As one of the only metallic colours whose fragile, yet highly reflective powers make it exist and also not exist in a permanent state of transmutation between the material and immaterial, gold arguably sums up Klein's search for the ultimate colour of the void. At the same time, having grown up on the coast of the South of France, Klein became fascinated with the nature of the material of sea sponges and, conceptually, their ability to become impregnated with any material and adapt their forms to new environments, almost chameleon-like. This creates a direct and profound synergy with the same characteristics of gold. Thus these two series became the ultimate statement of the proximity between the material and the immaterial both in chromatic and sculptural form - here they are united as one. Painstakingly created by the careful application of pebbles and natural sea sponges in a composition which appears as if totally unenhanced by man, Klein then sealed the natural state with synthetic resin before the extraordinary rendering of gold leaf across the entire composition allowing it to sink into and become a part of the materials. The nature of gold, as dense, soft, shiny and the most malleable and pure metal known, gives it the ability to shift states from the most intense colour to an almost transparent 'non-appearance' as it almost entirely reflects the world around it, and here across the entire composition, the different textures, colours and forms interplay within one 'monochrome' painting.
Executed in 1961, RE 47 II, was created during his breakthrough year in the holy grail of art world success at the time, America. Following hot on the heels of an exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, Klein travelled to the West coast and created this piece in Malibu for his exhibition at Dwan Gallery, which has become legendary in his career. The work has since then been shown in several of the most important retrospectives of Klein's work, at the 1983 tour of America which included the Guggenheim, New York, Rice Museum, Houston and MOCA, Chicago, and then almost 25 years later again at the major Centre Georges Pompidou exhibition of his work in Paris in 2006, where it was the centrepiece of a 'Gold' room with a wall to itself. It is a tribute to the quality of this work that it was formerly in the collection of François de Menil, the son of Dominique and Jean, the celebrated collectors, philanthropists and founders of the museum in Houston of the same name who themselves were so instrumental in showing Klein's work to a wider audience. It was acquired directly from François de Menil by the present owner circa 1980.
Gold: The Material of the Immaterial
Beyond its material value, gold symbolised for Klein a spiritual atmosphere that transcended all ages and cultures. Gold formed a part of a triumvirate within Klein's art, a system of colours which were uniquely his own, alongside pink and his patented IKB, or International Klein Blue. 'All three live in one and the same state, each impregnated in the other, all being perfectly independent one from the other,' he explained (Klein, quoted in S. Stich, Yves Klein, Ostfildern, 1994, p. 194). However, the gold works within his oeuvre are rare, in part due to the sheer cost of using gold leaf. Thus, there is only one other sponge relief in gold, RE 33, whereas the 1969 catalogue raisonnné prepared by Klein's friend Paul Wember lists thirty-two sponge reliefs in blue and eleven in pink.
Klein's fascination with gold dated back to his first journey to London, when as a young man he had managed to secure work with a picture restorer, a friend of his father, Fred Klein, who was himself an artist. In Robert Savage's workshop, Klein was often involved in gilding frames:
'And the gold, it was something! These leaves that literally fluttered with the least current of air on the flat cushion that one held in one hand, while the other hand caught them in the wind with a knife. And then, the comb that one runs through one's hair, the leaf that one sets delicately on the surface to be gilded, previously coated with a base and wet repeatedly with gelatinous water. What a material!...
'The illumination of matter in its deep physical quality, I came to embrace it during that year at the 'Savage' frame shop' (Klein, quoted in S. Stich, Yves Klein, Ostfildern, 1994, p. 193).
His interest in gold had been sharpened by a range of influences, not least his voyage to Japan in 1952-53, where he became a Fourth Dan black belt in Judo, a sport that, with its Buddhist foundations, was a huge influence on Klein. In Japan, he saw gold screens and golden Buddhas, as well as some of the Zen gardens which RE 47 II so resembles in its gravel base and composition. Gold has long been associated with the highest of ambitions in religious art, with Russian and Greek icons, with Baroque decorations in churches in short, with the spiritual, so it seemed only natural that all of these disparate histories would eventually become a significant influence on the concepts of his work.
Gold is also obviously famously associated with material wealth, and indeed its first appearance in Klein's work came in 1959 when he made his first transaction in gold ingot form for a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility. This groundbreaking work in the history of art, is one of the first truly Conceptual gestures, as described by one of his first clients, Michael Blankfort, who met Klein at the Dwan Gallery show in 1961:
"First I had to buy 160 grams of of pure gold in sixteen ingots. Then it was arranged for us to meet at the Seine near the Pont Neuf at eleven o'clock in the morning, it was February 2 1962. When my wife arrived, we found Yves, his wife, and several witnesses, among them Francois Mathey of the Louvre, Madame Bordeaux Le Pecq of the Musée d'Art Moderne, Virginia Dwan and Pierre Descargues, the critic. Klein directed me to take half the ingots from the box which held them. I was tense, my body taut. The eight ingots seemed very heavy in my hand. I looked at Klein, his face was young and his neatly combed hair was only slightly touched by the breeze ... "Now", Klein said in a low voice "Throw the gold pieces into the river" At this point, I'm not sure how long I hesitated. The act of literally throwing money away was not consonant with either my upbringing or my character. Nevertheless I felt a wave of exaltation and with a kind of creativity which i had experienced before only a few times while writing. It was a sensation of being outside my body, not completely myself, a paradox of taking in more than I gave out. Slowly my hand lifted itself high in order to reach the Seine some yards away, and in a surge of ecstasy I threw the gold pieces towards the river. I followed the course of their rise, shining in the sun and then disappearing with modest splashes in the water. I felt purged, it was as if I had flown with them, leaving behind the baggage of daily living ... [Klein] handed me a sheet of paper and asked me to read it. It was the bill of sale. "What do you want to do with it" he asked. My impulse was to fold it and put it away, but a look of intense expectancy in Klein's eyes held me back. "Since this is an immaterial", I murmured, "Lets keep it that way". I fumbled in my pocket for a match. Before I could light one, he had one of his own lit and handed it to me. Silently we all watched the contract turn to ash and as it floated up, Klein pushed it towards the river ... The ashes disappeared and for a moment we were silent. The Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity, as Klein called the event was mine as long as I live. I must add that I've had no other experience in art equal to the depth of feeling of this one. It evoked in me a shock of self-recognition and an explosion of awareness of time and space."(Michael Blankfort, in Yves Klein USA, Paris 2009, p 181)
Thus here Klein was exploiting both the physical and conceptual properties of gold to further his explorations of the immaterial. Not only through the physical and spiritual act of throwing something of such beauty and potential invisibility into the natural form of the water but also in the physical exchange of a contract to record the action. Poetically sprinkling gold leaf into a river in order to sanctify the transaction, allowing those reflective flickers to dissolve into the breeze and into the water. While this illustrates his revolutionary use of ritual and performance within his artistic practice, a phenomenon that would arguably pave the way for much Conceptual Art, it also reveals how for him, it was not just gold as currency that intrigued him; it was the immaterial quality of this pure metal, as is clear from his comments about the flickering, almost non-existent gold leaf in Robert Savage's workshop. This was a presence which he would go on to explore in his major series of Monogolds, first premiered at the group exhibition "Antagonisme" at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1960. These works involved different sized panels treated in different ways, to produce different undulations of surface and then laced with gold leaf to produce pure monochromes. These works were displayed with a receipt for a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity to underscore the direct link between Klein's 'surrender rituals' and the gold employed in the panels.
Part of his fascination with the material/immaterial state was in its relationship with mortality and life/death and, as he called it "the presence of absence". In one of his final artistic acts before his tragic death in 1962, Klein called a photographer to his studio to take a photograph of him lying beneath "Here Lies Space" (1960, now collection Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), a Monogold panel, which he asked his wife to scatter with roses as a last resting place. Half in jest, perhaps half in a kind of magical incantation, he said he wanted his artistic spirit to partake in the myth of eternal presence beyond the grave. Thus the colour gold was the one that he felt most closely associated with eternity and life after death.
If Klein's great artistic breakthrough was in the creation of the Monochrome painting, in which colour and surface came to symbolise something much more than just their appearance, it is arguably in gold that, late in his life, he had found the most enduring for its character, colour, metaphor and association. Here, in gold, was the highest sense of the ethereal, the fragile, the material presence of the invisible immaterial. In RE 47 II, Klein has himself explored the visual effect of gold, its inner glow, to great effect, not least in the incredible three-dimensionality of the surface itself, which adds to its shimmering quality. The sponges are impregnated and saturated with gold, a mark of themselves but also reflecting something else, not themselves. it is to an extent in this tradition that Klein himself continues in RE 47 II, which is a religious painting for a new, more secular but nonetheless spiritual age.
Sponges: Living, Breathing Material
Growing up on the coast in Nice, Yves Klein had evident visual exposure to natural sea sponges from an early age. From 1956 onwards, in an attempt to find a new sensorial surface with his breakthrough IKB monochromes, he used the sponges, purchased from his friend Edouard Adam in Paris, to apply the pigment to the support. Klein explained that, 'While working on my paintings in the studio, I sometimes used sponges. Very quickly they obviously became blue! One day I noticed the beauty of the blue in the sponge; in an instant this working instrument became raw material for me. It is the sponge's extraordinary capacity to impregnate itself with anything fluid that attracted me' (Klein, quoted in Yves Klein, ed. O. Berggruen, M. Hollein, I. Pfeiffer, exh.cat., Ostfildern-Ruit, 2004, p. 90). Klein had also seen a large sponge in the window display of the paint shop belonging to Edouard Adam who, on noting the artist's fascination with it, presented it as a gift. That huge sponge was then incorporated into one of the sculptures, acting as a planet-like microcosm for his own beliefs, and a way of spreading those beliefs: 'Thanks to the sponges - living, savage material - I was able to make portraits of the readers of my monochromes who, after having seen ... come back totally impregnated in sensibility like the sponges' (Klein, quoted in Stich, op. cit., 1994, p. 165).
The revelation of the potential of the sponge to encapsulate so much that was central to Klein's pioneering artistic crusade is evident from the fact that, at the end of that year, Klein presented his plan for the mural project for the opera house in Gelsenkirchen, in Germany: he sought to punctuate the vast white expanses of wall in the modern building with sponge reliefs. However, he did not realise until the contract had been awarded and he was beginning to create the projected reliefs that the sponges were too fragile and perishable for his purposes. With his combination of tenacity and luck, he discovered a technique by which he could preserve the sponges through a fellow artist, Paolo Vallorz, who was also a car enthusiast and had recently made a lightweight car out of resin (ibid., p. 116). Klein discovered that the sponges could be coated in this resin, a process that allowed them to be preserved but that did not change their appearances. In turn applying these sponges to the surface, he managed now to create, both in Gelsenkirchen and in RE 47 II, his 'tapestry woven with sponges' (Klein, quoted in ibid., p. 114).
The role of the sponge, and its ability to be 'impregnated' by the Immaterial, had specific resonances for Klein, especially due to his fascination with Rosicrucianism, about which he had read a great deal. In the first chapter of Max Heindel's seminal 1909 work, The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception, or Mystic Christianity: An Elementary Treatise Upon Man's Past Evolution, Present Constitution and Future Development, the author explained how the various dimensions of existence, ranging from the basest material order to the heights of the divine Immaterial, could exist simultaneously and in the same place by using the sponge as an illustration: the sponge can be saturated by sand and water, the latter itself containing air and in a continual state of flux. Thus, this once living organism could embody the oceanic scope of diverse spiritual realms. This idea of the different interlacing levels of existence, with the Immaterial co-existing with our more material dimension, intrigued Klein and fuelled much of his work, and it is this that he has captured in RE 47 II.
In RE 47 II, the variegated surface and the hollow areas in the sponges mean that Klein's golden realm of the Immaterial bleeds into our universe, blurring the boundaries. The sponge, as an organic growth, impregnated with gold, seemed to Klein the perfect illustration of an 'impregnation with pictorial sensibility', since sponges were naturally pre-destined to serve as vehicles for
another pervading element.
"The sponges, Klein explained were intended to suggest a portrait of the viewer, a testimony to a state of interpermeating intellectual or spiritual levels. As a natural phenomenon, the sponge could be taken as a symbol of the gently alternating phases of such vital rhythms as breathing in and breathing out, or the transition between waking and dreaming, leading to a deep sleep that promises immersion in a timeless wisdom. " (H. Weitemeier in Yves Klein 1928-1962 International Klein Blue, Cologne 2001, p. 37). Thus for the first time in art history, a readymade object was being used to describe a sensation, feeling or state of mind, something which has become commonplace in recent times with the likes of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Indeed Jeff Koons would go onto find similar symbolism in the humble vacuum cleaner.
Klein at the Dwan Gallery and Beyond
"The atmosphere [of Los Angeles] was different, the air was not the same. I have always believed that change of scenery starts with the first breaths; the wind, the salt, the humidity certainly nothing new for Yves, who rediscovered a little piece of his native Côte d'Azur. Virginia Dwan had a guesthouse - next to her house in Malibu, on the beach where we could almost dive off the terrace into the ocean ...We puchased some materials in order to finish a few pieces, such as small Monogolds, several blue Monochromes and two or three sponge reliefs, including a gold one, which we finished in the beach as we found the house too chic to use as a studio." (Rotraut Klein-Moquay in Klein in USA, Paris 2009, pp. 8-9)
1961 was a busy year for Yves Klein, in which his international profile was raised dramatically. The Dwan Gallery exhibition for which RE 47 II was made, came only months after the only solo museum show dedicated to the artist during his lifetime, held at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld and on the heels of his exhibition at Leo Castelli gallery in New York. That exhibition, dominated by blue monochromes, had not been met with the reception anticipated; Klein, with his typical tenacity, reacted with a flood of productivity, first writing his Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, a defiant defence of his artistic output, and then during his stay in Virginia Dwan's home, creating several new pieces especially for the forthcoming Los Angeles exhibition, including the present work. This meant that the show, entitled Yves Klein le monochrome, presented a rich cross-section of works, incorporating many of the different disciplines and media that he had turned to his purposes over the recent years.
The Dwan Gallery was the perfect venue for Klein. Founded by Virginia Dwan, it was a forum for art at the cutting edge, as would come to be demonstrated by the range of artists whose works she showed and advocated. It was one of the only such outlets on the West Coast at the time, and therefore all the more crucial a looking glass for the artists working in California at the time; one of the only other places this sort of exhibition could be seen was the Ferus Gallery. Dwan showed the works of artists including, but by no means limited to, Carl André, Arman, Philip Guston, Ed Kienholz, Sol Lewitt, Walter de Maria, Robert Morris, Ad Reinhardt and Robert Smithson. She was instrumental in the foundation of Minimalism and Land Art, and was also the first person to show Rauschenberg on the West Coast; Warhol even created his first Brillo Boxes for a group exhibition she organised.
Yves Klein le monochrome was a hugely influential show, both in terms of the positive impact that its reception had on Klein and of its influence on the artistic community of Los Angeles at the time. Kienholz bought one of Klein's Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, while John Baldessari said that his visit was one of the great liberating epiphanies. This was prompted by his initial reaction, which he admitted was: 'You can't do that! That's not painting!' (Baldessari, quoted in Yves Klein: Corps, couleur, immatériel, exh. cat., Paris, 2007, p. 209). It was thus the example of the works that included RE 47 II that set him on his own historic and trailblazing path.
This was one in a string of exhibitions in which Klein had managed to influence and encourage the artists around him, repeating the effect of 1957's Yves Klein, proposte monocrome, epoca blu, held in Milan's Galleria Apollinaire. That earlier exhibition had been visited by Lucio Fontana, who bought one of Klein's works and struck up a friendship with the younger artist, seeing in his works an affirmation of the path he had been following, and Manzoni, who saw it several times and likewise came to know Klein; it is no coincidence that, having seen the Monochromes, Manzoni changed the tack in his own output and began to create his own Achromes, his 'colourless,' often kaolin-based monochrome works.
Thus Yves Klein had a direct and immediate influence on many of his most important peers, both in Europe and America, and subsequently beyond. During the same year that Klein created RE 47 II, Fontana would go on to create his renowned Venezia cycle of paintings which incorporated the use of gold paint in order to invoke reflections on the water in Venice and the baroque and provided a foil to his explorations of space, leading to the Fine di Dio series. For Manzoni, it represented a tabula rasa, a stripping away of everything specific in order to create a zone of infinite potential and universal meaning. Furthermore, almost as a direct result of his exhibitions in America in 1961, Klein's monochrome paintings would come to have an impact on a range of artistic developments, not least Minimalism and, by extension, Conceptual Art. Klein was the first artist to focus on the purity of the idea behind the work as the driving force of its poetry and aesthetic. One can look and wonder at the sheer ethereal beauty and wonder of RE 47 II, but when one becomes aware of the wealth of intellectual ideas and histories revolving around his choice of materials, natural sea sponges, pebbles and pure gold leaf, one becomes aware of entirely new approach to art and art-making, which has driven the most progressive art of the last 50 years. In a sense, it is his use of gold which best encapsulates the complexity of his Monochrome project. After all, blue and pink, which often recurred in his work, are colours, they are paint; whereas gold is a pure material, a substance in its own right, reinforcing the intense, authoritative objecthood of RE 47 II.