As we enter Blenheim Palace from the blinding sunshine outside, our eyes adjust to the light and we find ourselves faced with a vast and undulating sea of colour. The installation is a startling assault on the eyes, a recreation of work made by artist Yves Klein in 1959. Klein’s own particular brand of blue pigment, patented International Klein Blue (IKB), is laid out on the floor in almost limitless depth. It’s a dazzling inversion of the sky on earth.
The exhibition is a collaboration with the Yves Klein Foundation, presenting fifty of his key paintings, sculptures and installations rarely seen together. The luminosity of Klein’s work jars pleasingly with the rich gold tones of Blenheim Palace, creating an otherworldly quality. Centuries of art history collide as we encounter Klein canvases jostling irreverently against Old Masters, vibrant sponge sculptures adorning ornate antique tables and dinner plates coated in cracked paint peeking from glass cabinets. Viewed as an artistic intervention rather than an exhaustive survey of the artist’s work is where this show succeeds. But when it comes to understanding Klein’s philosophy and wider artistic practice, colour tells only half the story. Monochromes seen in isolation will never do justice to Klein’s search for the sublime.
Art was not Klein’s first love. At 25, Klein became a Judo master acquiring the 4th dan black belt after years of study. He followed this interest to Japan where he was particularly influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism and The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception (1909) by Max Heindel. Klein was ultimately drawn to the abstract notion of the immaterial and separation of body and soul.
This influence led to ‘Monotone-Silence Symphony’ (1949). The composition consists of a single sustained chord held for 20 minutes followed by 20 minutes of sustained silence. Believed to have been created around the time John Cage wrote his similarly minimalist 4’33”, it was performed only once in Klein’s lifetime. In 1960, dressed in tails and gloves at a Paris venue, he conducted the orchestra’s performance accompanied by nude women covered in wet paint acting as ‘living brushes’ on large pieces of paper. At Blenheim Palace, a striking piece from the series takes residence in the sumptuous Red Drawing Room, slotting into the configuration of large oil paintings adorning the decorated walls. ‘Jonathan Swift (ANT 125)’ leaps out of the arrangement with its streaks and smudges of ultramarine blue against a pure white canvas.
These anthropometric performances also led to the ‘Fire Paintings’ series, employing the use of a naked flame to scorch the surfaces of canvases. Hung in the Long Library amongst the leather bound tomes, his ‘Untitled Fire Painting (F24)’ is a moody presence; the energy of its creation evident in its smoky, textured surface.
Klein continued to explore the edges of the immaterial in his famed monochrome paintings: uninterrupted fields of pure colour drawing the viewer’s eye into the void. His infamous work ‘Untitled Blue Monochrome’ (1960), is rendered in his iconic shade of ultramarine blue. It holds pride of place in the China Room at Blenheim Palace, accompanied by its monochrome counterparts of painted china ceramics composed in the trio of colours Klein considered most sacred: rose, gold and of course IKB.
In 1958 and in a bold gesture, Klein emptied the Parisian gallery Iris Clert of its contents, barring an empty glass cabinet. Over three thousand people thronged the venue, only to be faced with a void – or in Klein’s eyes – the immaterial. Acts like this would confound critics and Klein was often dismissed as a trickster. Seen through a contemporary lens his ideas seem prescient, touching upon modern-day anxieties surrounding materialism and existential crises of meaning. Klein sought ultimate freedom from the material, choosing to embrace emotion and expression over representation. One of Klein’s final works before his death is ‘Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility’ (1962), a performance piece in which the sale of the the ‘immaterial’ was handed from artist to buyer in the form of a cheque in exchange for gold. The cheque was to be ceremoniously torn up and half the amount of gold flung into the waters of the Seine. An image of this exchange along with some receipts sit in the Long Library at Blenheim Palace, the only records remaining of the work. Fifty years after his death, the objects he created – and chose to leave behind – retain all of their fizzing energy and enquiry.
Master of Monochrome
Location: Yves Klein at Blenheim Palace
Daily until 8th October 2018