‘The sponge has that extraordinary capacity to absorb and become impregnated with whatever fluid, which was naturally very seductive to me. Thanks to the natural and living nature of sponges, I was able to make portraits of the readers of my monochromes, which, after having seen and travelled into the blue of my paintings, returned from them completely impregnated with sensibility, just as the sponges’
‘While working on my paintings in my studio I sometimes used sponges. Evidently, they very quickly turned blue! One day I perceived the beauty of blue in the sponge, this working tool all of a sudden became a primary medium for me’
‘Blue has no dimensions. All colors bring forth associations of concrete, material, and tangible ideas, while blue evokes all the more the sea and the sky, which are what is most abstract in tangible and visible nature’
Blossoming organically from its stone base like a celestial flower, Yves Klein’s Sculpture-Eponge bleue sans titre, (SE 284) is a masterpiece of rare, otherworldly beauty. Opening towards the viewer like a delicate piece of coral, the outward bloom of its head stands alone within Klein’s oeuvre, forming a crater that invites the viewer to peer into its cavernous depths. Executed in 1959, it ranks among the very largest Sculpture- Eponges produced by Klein, six of which are held in museums, including the monumental ‘L’Arbre, grande sculpture éponge bleue’, (SE 71) (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), Sculpture-éponge bleue sans titre, (SE 160) (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) as well as Sculpture-éponge bleue sans titre, (SE 180) and Sculpture-éponge bleue sans titre, (SE 251) (both housed in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Pierced by a single hole, the work allows light to penetrate its dark interior, subtly illuminating its complex topography of folds and crevices. The earthbound material of stone – a rare natural support within the artist’s oeuvre – is exquisitely juxtaposed with the sponge’s elegant aerial form. Saturated with the mystic, unearthly splendour of Klein’s signature pigment – IKB, or ‘International Klein Blue’ – it evokes the vast, uncharted territories of sea and sky. Extending from the artist’s series of blue monochromes, the Sculpture-Eponges eloquently embody the artist’s quest to glimpse the immaterial void that lies at the heart of existence. For Klein, the sponge – an ancient, organic, ocean-dwelling creature physically indicative of both the wonder and the mystery of nature – was, when impregnated with IKB, the perfect symbol of the human brain’s ability to absorb and perceive the unknown dimensions of reality. A unique specimen within Klein’s output, the present work was included in the exhibition Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D. C., in 2010, subsequently travelling to the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis.
For Klein, colour was not a representative tool, but rather a real, living presence that had the power to impregnate its surroundings and absorb its onlookers. The purer the colour, he believed, the more it might overcome its own material boundaries, dispersing into space and transporting the viewer into the void. His quest for a new, transcendental pigment began in 1947 when, sitting on a rocky beach in Nice beside his friends Arman and Claude Pascal, he suddenly declared, ‘the blue sky is my first artwork’ (Y. Klein, quoted by Arman in T. McEvilley, ‘Yves Klein: Conquistador of the Void’, in Yves Klein 1928- 1962: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, 1982, p. 46). Having grown up surrounded by the deep azure of the Mediterranean, Klein considered blue to be the most immaterial of all colours, infused with the infinity of sea and sky. ‘Blue has no dimensions’, he wrote. ‘All colors bring forth associations of concrete, material, and tangible ideas, while blue evokes all the more the sea and the sky, which are what is most abstract in tangible and visible nature’ (Y. Klein, quoted in ‘Speech to the Gelsenkirchen Theater Commission’, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 41). Embarking on what he termed the ‘Blue Revolution’, Klein sought a tone that would radiate with an intensity appropriate for the mystic energy it harboured. After much experimentation, he devised the purest ultramarine hue possible, and had the colour officially patented in his name - ‘International Klein Blue’.
A seminal medium in the development of Klein’s philosophies, the Sculpture-Eponges evolved from his IKB monochromes. As early as 1956, Klein began to notice the absorbent potential of sponge as a means of capturing the immaterial properties of his pigment. ‘While working on my paintings in my studio,’ he recalled, ‘I sometimes used sponges. Evidently, they very quickly turned blue! One day I perceived the beauty of blue in the sponge; this working tool all of a sudden became a primary medium for me. The sponge has that extraordinary capacity to absorb and become impregnated with whatever fluid, which was naturally very seductive to me. Thanks to the natural and living nature of sponges, I was able to make portraits to the readers of my monochromes, which, after having seen and travelled into the blue of my paintings, returned from them completely impregnated with sensibility, just as the sponges’ (Y. Klein, in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York 2007, p. 22). At a pioneering exhibition at the Galerie Iris Clert in 1959, Bas-Reliefs dans une forêt d’éponges, Klein displayed an array of sponge sculptures alongside his already well-known monochromes. Installed together, the sponges became an otherworldly forest, a mystical vision of a new immaterial landscape. The transcendental sense of communion between artwork and viewer that Klein sought in his Sponge-sculptures was thus magnified onto a new, grand scale. He had successfully eliminated the trace of his own hand from his artwork, allowing the viewer to fully engage with the raw, innate properties of IKB.
Though very much a product of the space age, much of Klein’s aesthetic was founded on alchemical ideas that had fascinated him since his youth. In this context, the ‘savage living material’ of the saturated sponge was the perfect natural symbol of the relationship between the immaterial realm of the spirit and the material world of nature. Capable of absorbing and retaining a variety of elements simultaneously – water, air, sand and grit – the IKB-infused sponge encapsulated his notion of a base, elemental material impregnated with the essence of a higher dimension. ‘I seek to put the spectator in front of the fact that colour is an individual, a character, a personality’, he explained. ‘I solicit a receptivity from the observer placed before my works, this permits him to consider everything that effectively surrounds the monochrome painting. Thus he can impregnate himself with colour and colour impregnates itself in him. Thus, perhaps, he can enter into the world of colour’ (Y. Klein, quoted in S. Stitch, Yves Klein, Cologne 1994, p. 66).