Yves Klein: ‘He had no limit’
Ninety years on from the French artist’s birth we speak to Daniel Moquay, manager of Klein’s estate and the husband of his widow, Rotraut Uecker, about the artist’s relationships with spirituality, Japan, the colour blue — and judo
What inspired Yves Klein? What was he trying to convey in his art?
Daniel Moquay: ‘Above all, Yves Klein [1928-1962] was deeply spiritual. Across his career we see him, in various ways and in a range of mediums, attempting to inject this spirituality into his work.
‘This is reflected in Klein’s first love, which was not art but judo. He was the son of two well-established artist parents, and initially at least, he wanted to do something totally different. He became very interested in judo, and in 1952 — at the age of 24 — decided to go to Japan. This is just seven years after the end of the Second World War, so much of the country was still devastated. Judo was a very, very serious thing in Japan, especially in the immediate post-war years.
‘Klein spent 15 months in Japan and earned a 4th dan black belt; he was one of the very first Europeans to do so. [Klein also published a book on the martial art, Les Fondements du Judo (The Foundations of Judo), in 1954.]
‘For Klein, judo, which stresses defence, was itself deeply spiritual. [In 1952, Klein wrote: ‘My interest in Judo, what fascinates me, is Movement, and while the end of Movement is always abstract and purely spiritual, it can be combined with the passion and emotion of the moment.’]
‘In addition to judo and the Eastern religions and philosophies he encountered in Japan, other religions, such as Rosicrucianism and Catholicism, also played a significant role in his work. He was raised as a Catholic — his aunt, who was very religious, took him more than once to Santa Rita da Cascia in Italy.
‘By the time he began his career as an artist, Catholicism was not very fashionable. Most of his peers at the time were much more into socialism or Communism. Klein was not the kind of Catholic who went to mass every Sunday; he was a Catholic who very much invented a personal dialogue with the divine. He was a true believer.’
For newcomers to Klein, what are some highlights or key periods in his career?
DM: ‘Klein’s career was extremely short — only seven years. [he died in 1962, aged 34.] But in that time he produced thousands of works, and a similar number of pages of text. What he achieved is absolutely remarkable.
‘His career really began in 1954 with the publication of the artist book Yves Peintures, a series of monochromes that was essentially a parody of a catalogue raisonné. After that he had a couple of small shows of monochromes in Paris that weren’t particularly successful.
‘The monochromes were more difficult for audiences to get into; certainly no one at the time had seen anything like them before. And they were certainly considered a provocation by the post-war art establishment in Paris, which was centred around Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism. Even now they are not easy to “understand”, because they require an investment on the part of the viewer. You have only the colour — there’s no action. There’s no story.
‘Those shows were unsuccessful, but they led Klein to realise that he needed to make a big statement with monochromes. That’s when he decided that he would work only in blue.
‘Also at this time, he learned about a new chemical, a kind of paste sold by a paint dealer in Paris, that would allow pigment to retain its vivid colour when made into paint. The resulting powdery ultramarine he developed is what he would trademark as International Klein Blue. From this point on, blue became extremely important for Yves Klein.
‘In 1958, for his 30th birthday, he created The Void, emptying the Iris Clert gallery in Paris and painting it entirely white. He slept in the space — he wanted to “fill it with his sensibility”. It took time for people to appreciate that this was a work of art, to take it seriously.
‘His experimentations with the application of colour led him to work with different kinds of rollers, and then sponges. Eventually he hit on an idea he called “Anthropometry”, or using the bodies of nude female models, painted blue and laid on top of canvases.
‘The “Anthropometries” were very shocking back then, because you had women putting paint directly on flesh, working with their bodies. Of course Klein knew that he was going to shock people, that it looked obscene. But that’s not at all what it was about for him. It was extremely serious; he saw it as a kind of religious event.’
Why blue? What did this colour represent for Yves Klein?
DM: ‘In 1959, at a lecture at the Sorbonne, Klein said: “Blue… is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not… All colours arouse specific ideas, while blue suggests at most the sea and the sky.” Remember that he was born in Nice, in the south of France, where pretty much everything is blue. So for Klein, blue recalled the water, the sky. But more than this, the sky has no limit, and he was a person who had no limit. Blue signified this quality of limitlessness — ultimately, I would say that it represented the spirit.’
What do you think people still do not appreciate about Yves Klein that should be known?
DM: ‘He was not only a visual artist. He also wrote extensively — probably one thousand pages of writing in which he tried to define not only his work as an artist, but how he envisioned the future. I was the first person to read most of these documents. I spent months going through everything and trying to tease out everything he was trying to say. There are certain pages that he rewrote probably seven, eight times, changing only a couple of words. He was obsessed with these written materials.
‘He was also quite interested in nature. He once drove from Paris to Nice with a painting on the roof of his car, so that the painting would essentially be crafted by the elements to which it was exposed.
‘The key thing, and what is often misunderstood, is that none of this — The Void, the Anthropometries, the paintings on the roof of the car — was for show. He was someone who really believed in what he was doing. He wasn’t simply trying to be different in order to make a name for himself, or to make a career. He was different. He didn’t think like us.’
On the 90th anniversary of his birth, how do you think his legacy has evolved?
DM: ‘The first works I ever saw by Yves Klein were two small monochrome pieces, orange and yellow, in a gallery owned by a friend. I was quite sarcastic about them, and my friend was smart enough not to try to change my mind. He just said, “Well, they’re not easy”, and we moved on to something else. But when I started to get into Klein, to appreciate the spirituality that is central to his art, my perspective shifted. After 50 years of being in his company, I see these works differently.
‘I think this is the core of his legacy, and ultimately the place he has assumed in art history: he injected spirituality into post-war Western art. After Klein, it became so much easier for Western audiences to appreciate a Lee Ufan, for example, or other minimalist art. Interestingly, though, Japanese audiences have always shown great interest in his work. In Japan, you do not have to explain Yves Klein.
‘Over the last few decades, his work has been taken up and championed by a younger generation, which is so encouraging to see. Even today, though, I still think that Klein remains something of an artist’s artist.’
How did the Yves Klein Archives get started, and what is its role today?
DM: ‘I started the Archives in Paris some 30 years ago, with one assistant. Today, we are a team of seven people. Over the years we have published some 50 books and catalogues on Klein’s work. It’s an endeavour that has expanded vastly over the years as more people start to discover Klein and see his exhibitions. I have helped to mount more than 50 shows around the world. Currently, we are working on a show that will open two years from now and that will tour in China and Japan.
‘The Archives are responsible for confirming the authenticity of all Klein works, which we do without any charge. We have someone who analyses pigment for us, who knows the exact composition of Klein pigments. And we are constantly doing research.
‘One of our next big projects will be putting out a new catalogue raisonné, as the one we did in 1999 is now obsolete. It will probably take five years to complete, but I think Yves Klein deserves it.’
This year, to honour the 90th anniversary of the artist’s birth, Blenheim Palace will present an exhibition of over 50 of his works. Running from 18 July to 7 October, this will be the most comprehensive Klein exhibition in the United Kingdom to date.