Why Yves Klein Apr 4, 2011

By Catherine Cabeen  

Into the Void is a performative, interdisciplinary collaboration inspired by the work of Yves Klein, a post WWII Nouveau Réaliste painter.  The work is providing an opportunity for me to connect my passion for 20th century art history to contemporary questions, aesthetics and opportunities. As an artist and scholar I am interested in the ways that research and creativity connect and in particular as a choreographer, how the body can be used as an intersection for ideas.

(photo by Phill Cabeen 2010)

I first saw Klein’s work when I was 11 years old and I still remember the impact the paintings made on me. When I was reintroduced to his work in an Art history survey course I took during graduate school at the University of Washington, several aspects of his life story inspired me to begin the research that now supports Into the Void.  What is exciting about being a creator and a scholar is that both research and the creative process are journeys and when engaged in simultaneously they ricochet off one another and open both arenas to new influences and surprising turns.  The movement vocabulary that you will see in Into the Void is different than other work I have made. It is tied to inquiries that have helped me to break creative habits and seek out new ways to build physical vocabularies.  Keeping the historic research I have been doing in dialogue with my body, helps me to understand both the past and the present more thoroughly.

Yves Klein's Untitled Anthropometry (1960), from the Hirshhorn’s collection.
Image from http://hirshhorn.si.edu/dynamic/pages/image_1_252.jpg

Klein is a celebrated yet problematic figure in Art History.  His work is conceptual, extremely abstract, and bridges many different media, so it is hard to categorize. Klein was a pioneer in a post-WWII conceptual shift in art making.  Visual artists at this time, in response to art’s increasing co-modification, began to experiment with the value of experience itself as art. Klein stated on many occasions that his paintings were but “ashes of his art,” and the real value in the work came from the energy he infused it with, during the process of creation. 

The “unframe-able” nature of Klein’s work however brings up many familiar issues for those of us steeped in dance scholarship, such as where does the artist end and the art begin?  If the art is not tangible how do we know it exists? And how does one catalogue art that consists of shared experience?

Following the idea that the spark in the work is what counts, in 1962, the year of his death, Klein conducted the sales of 7 Zones of Immaterial Sensibility.   Each zone existed only in the transaction between the buyer and the artist.  In an elaborate ritual the buyer was given a receipt for a weight of pure gold, which being a part of nature Klein saw as the only material that could be exchanged for the priceless immaterial sensibility that he was offering.  Half of the gold was then thrown into a natural body of water, the other half went to Klein, and the receipt was burnt so that there was no material trace for the transaction, and the energy of the Immaterial could flourish in the perception of the buyer.

In other words he sold, “nothing” for gold.

The sales of Zones of Immaterial Sensibility represent a culmination of Klein’s work, all of which was aimed at evolving the sensibility of the audience so that they could perceive the value of the Immaterial.  To collectors who were used to investing in objects these sales of essentially nothing represented a huge leap of faith, but as someone who creates ephemeral dances as works of art, these rituals strike me as beautiful articulations of placing value in singular moments of experience. 

This image is of a ritual transfer of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility to Dino Buzzati in Paris, January 26, 1962.
Image from http://www.qwiki.com/q/#!/Performance_art

Yves Klein was born April 28, 1928 in Nice to two painters, Fred Klein and Marie Raymond.  Growing up in a family of artists meant that Klein was privy to a great deal of talk about art making and its evolution.  Not wanting to follow in his parent’s footsteps, he resisted becoming a painter for most of his young adulthood.  However when he did decide to become a painter, his proximity to discourse on the arts meant that he knew all of the rules to break.   Which, in my opinion, is the best reason to study history.

As a young man Klein was enthusiastic about "adventure," travel, creation and spirituality.  He enjoyed Bebop and Swing dancing, studied Judo, meditated, and studied the Cosmology of the Rose cross with astrologer, Louis Cadeaux.

Illustration from The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception or Mystic Christianity
An Elementary Treatise Upon Man’s Past Evolution, Present Constitution and Future Development

By Max Heindel p257

The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception is the handbook of a mystic Christian sect that "scientifically" proves the connection between evolution and reincarnation, and explores the human body/ spirit as it manifests in this cycle.  It was written by Max Heindel around the turn of the 20th century.  Klein was enamored with the theories he found in this book and in June 1948, Yves joined the Rosicrucian Fellowship of Oceanside, California.

As a member of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood Klein saw his artwork as part of a spiritual quest to shift how humanity perceives the world.  As a long time yoga practitioner who sees an undeniable connection between my spiritual practice and my creative work, this aspect of Klein's work intrigues me.  In particular Klein was interested in the spiritual potential of space and the fact that matter essentially blocks the flow of spirit. 

The spiritual and the political intersect in Klein’s work.  Much of Klein’s interest in Immateriality is also connected to his desire to create provocative anti-consumerist work in the face of the US's Marshall Plan that was causing a massive shift into over consumption of mass produced objects in the consumer ethos in post-WWII Paris.

Here is another place I feel a kinship with Klein, as I believe that our current economy is in part such a mess because of over-consumption. In order to really change this, American culture needs a major systemic shift in what it values in terms of space/ energy / material.   And, I agree whole-heartedly with Klein, that art can be a powerful tool in shifting perception.

There is some interesting imagery evoked in The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception.  I am using many of its kinesthetic and body referential words/ ideas to create movement phrases, and I'm using the spiraling descriptions of reincarnation and evolution to clarify the arc of the piece as a whole.

Ex-voto for Saint Rita of Cascia by Yves Klein, 1961
Image from http://www.centrepompidou.fr/education/ressources/ENS-klein-EN/popup10.html

In 1958 Klein took his first pilgrimage to the Saint Rita Monastery in Cascia in Italy.  He went back several times throughout his career to pay homage to St Rita before his most daring endeavors.  St Rita, Klein’s guardian, is the Patron Saint of the Impossible.  Klein’s mother and his Aunt Rose, who took care of him throughout his life, were devotees of St Rita. 

Klein was also a Black belt Judo Trickster.  In 1952 he traveled to Japan to study at the Kodokan Institute. He stayed 15 months and achieved the fourth Dan black belt, the highest level in Europe at that time. However, when he returned home, France refused to recognize his belts.  This occurred shortly after WWII while tension remained high between the Allies and the Axis powers.  So Klein traveled to Spain and taught there for several years before returning to France to start his own school. 

Klein’s physical practice fueled his awareness of the interconnectivity of matter and energy.  He writes about Judo in a way that is familiar to me as a yoga and dance practitioner in terms of understanding kinesthetically what it is to feel momentum, power and weightlessness.  His famous trick photograph, “The Leap into the Void” was inspired by the potential for levitation that he felt in his Judo practice.

In preparation for Into the Void I began to study Judo last summer and while I am certainly nowhere near a black belt.  The study did give me great material for creating another physical vocabulary.  As I mentioned before Klein also enjoyed swing dancing. Ironically, at the same time I took the art history seminar that reintroduced me to Klein, I was taking a Swing class at the University of Washington with Juliet McMains.

When I began to look at videos of Judo and Ariel swing I got really excited about how similar the body mechanics were in each form of partnering.  That observation has also played a big role in creating movement for the piece.

1960 (The Leap into the Void), at 3, rue Gentil-Bernard in Fontenay-aux-Roses, photographed by Harry Shunk and John Kender
Image from http://www.centrepompidou.fr/education/ressources/ENS-klein-EN/popup03.html

Klein’s interest in the importance of empowering energy over matter eventually led him back to painting.  In the spring of 1955, he submitted an orange monochrome, to the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, a group show for abstract artists. The rectangular wooden panel was uniformly covered with matte orange paint, and was signed YK, dated May 1955.

The jury, whose members explained the reasons, turned down the monochrome:
“You know, it’s just really not sufficient, if Yves would accept to add at least a little line, or a dot, or even simply a spot of another color, then we could show it, but a single color, no, no, really, that’s not enough, it’s impossible!”
(Yves Klein, L’Aventure monochrome, part one, op. cit.)

Untitled blue monochrome, 1960
Image from http://www.centrepompidou.fr/education/ressources/ENS-klein-EN/images/m/3I01549.jpg

But the impossible was exactly what Klein was interested in so he began to paint only monochromes and declared a War between Line and Color.  He felt that all lines oppressed the raw energy and personality of color.  In order to empower the life of the color he let it expand to the edges of the canvas.  He used colors that were extremely saturated and rich so that when they were observed by an audience they could, “impregnate the viewer” with their potency.

His multi colored monochromes quickly gave way to his blue period.

International Klein Blue (IKB), which Klein felt, was the embodiment of energy is actually not paint.  It is aquamarine blue pigment suspended in Resin.  Klein found that when the pigment was crushed into oil and then it dried it lost all its resonance.  IKB was his attempt to maintain the integrity and wholeness of each particle of pigment to preserve their luminosity and to connect them through the resin so that IKB is a substance that simultaneously connects individuality and unity.

This is exactly what I am enthusiastic about in collaboration.  I have no interest in working with other dancers by crushing them into a semblance of myself or anyone else. Each of my collaborators is celebrated in the work for the strengths they have.  I am asking several of them, including myself to play characters, but everyone is different and unique and IKB has been helpful in my articulation of that goal.

Klein also created a series of monochrome canvases, which he then burnt with a blowtorch or left out in the rain, in order to allow the elements to finish the painting.  The contrast between fire and water, between rapid chemical changes and slow deterioration, is another aspect of Klein’s working method that resonates with me as a dancer.  Our bodies are made primarily of water and animated with energy so there is always a play between those elements within us.  In the creation of the work’s choreographic vocabulary I am exploring how the body can be used to convey the transformative power of both fire and water; of rapid chemical change and slow deterioration.

In 1957 when Klein shifted to his Blue period, he presented a double exhibition: one part at Iris Clert gallery: Yves, Propositions monochromes, the other part at the Colette Allendy gallery, Pigment pur.  At Iris Clert’s, Yves presented the Monochrome Propositions, while Allendy showed sculpture sketches of Klein’s proposed fire/water/air architecture.

Klein’s other attempts to incorporate energy as a material led to his designs of fire and water sculptures and air architecture. Several of these designs were actually built in 1959, though Klein’s air architecture remained in the theoretical realm.  These designs were connected to an articulation of a utopian vision of a future world where solid walls (and clothing) would be unnecessary. Connie Yun and Tivon Rice, two of my collaborators are also using light, a form of fire, as their material.

In 1958 Klein took another pilgrimage to St Rita’s shrine before creating The Void.

On April 28, 1958 the exhibition La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée, Le Vide (The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void) opened at Iris Clert gallery. This installation marks the beginning of Klein’s pneumatic period.

In Le Vide (The Void), Klein emptied Iris Clerk’s Gallery J, white washed the walls, and sat in it for two days of meditation, filling it with energy.  He advertised the work extensively and on opening night 3,000 people showed up, to see nothing.  While most people would agree that a dance concert is “something,” it has an undeniably ephemeral nature. Filling space with energy is exactly what dance does, inspiring me to play with the meeting of Klein’s Le Vide and the nature of dance as a performative medium.

Le Silence est d'or (Silence is Golden), 1960
Image from http://www.centrepompidou.fr/education/ressources/ENS-klein-EN/popup05.html

Klein created Monogolds between 1960 and 1961, integrating fine gold, both a precious and a symbolic material, into their composition. Certain Monogolds bring together series of rectangles assembled into grids; others are made up of mobile gold leaves affixed to a panel covered over in burnished gold, which quiver at the slightest breath; still others are concave reliefs of which the covering sheets of gold are painstakingly polished until they take on a genuine power of reflection.

"The gold of the ancient alchemists can actually be extracted from everything. But what is difficult is to discover the gift that is the philosopher's stone and that exists in each of us" (Y. Klein quoted in Yves Klein: A Retrospective, Nice, 2000).

Klein saw gold as the embodiment of light in matter and felt that, it’s value came from the material’s connection to nature.

Image from http://sgtr.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/yveskleinworkingonanthropomtrie.png

Anthropométries de l’Epoque bleue (Anthropometries of the Blue Period), opened at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, 253, rue Saint-Honoré in Paris March 9th 1959.   For perhaps obvious reasons this body of Klein’s work has been subject to intense feminist criticism for many decades. 
While the Monotone Symphony was being performed, Yves Klein had three nude models cover themselves in blue paint and affix their body prints on the white papers, laid out on the gallery walls and floor.

As a feminist scholar I am interested in revisiting Klein’s 1960, Anthropometrics of the Blue Age in order to manipulate the gender representation with in it. While the idea of human bodies as living paintbrushes makes perfect sense to me as a choreographer, the imbalance of gendered power in this work of Klein’s is hugely problematic.  In Into the Void I will be performing as Klein in drag, complicating the idea of masculinity, and will ask both men and women to paint with their bodies.

I had expected this section of the work to be infused with a fair amount of anger.  However, my whole take on this aspect of Klein’s work was transformed by a visit I took to the Walker in Oct. to see the Klein retrospective: I had the pleasure of meeting Klein’s former wife who was one of the women who frequently modeled for the anthropometries, and I was able to ask her directly about the feminist critique of the work and how it felt to be a part of it. 
Rotraut's face lit up with a huge smile. “That’s me.” She said, pointing to a huge canvas on a near wall, “We had so much fun!”

Daniel said that he actually had requested letters from several of the models for a different catalog because he was so tired of those kinds of critiques when in fact the models unanimously remembered the events as exciting, and rigorous, ritualistic performances. Most of them were dancers who were as excited about having the movements of their bodies recorded as Klein was. “We got to be sensual and free.” Rotraut said, “and it was so fun to see the images your body would make!”
“Klein created anthropometries with male models as well.” Daniel said.
“And he did them with his own body, and all of the Nouveau Realistes [who were mostly men].” Rotraut added.
“There was no hanky-panky going on. These were spiritual experiences for Klein.” Daniel started.
“People who see it as objectionable to women are people who bring that themselves.” Rotraut finished for him, “They brought that. We were enjoying ourselves immensely.”

Needless to say, this primary research has changed the quality of the sections of Into the Void that are inspired by the Anthropometries.  The anger has been replaced with joy.

Tomb, 1960
Image from http://artruby.com

This very misunderstanding, of the Anthropometries being lascivious in nature, is credited with having contributed to Klein’s death.

On May 12, 1962, at the Cannes Festival, Klein attended the screening of Mondo Cane. He left utterly humiliated by how he was represented in the film, which completely distorted his work. Without telling him, the editors of the film cut the sequence featuring his work from twenty minutes down to five, the Monotone-Silence Symphony was replaced by a raunchy slow jazz tune, and the models were filmed making lascivious gestures, bearing no relation whatsoever to the choreography of actual Anthropometries staged by Klein. The same evening, Yves showed the early signs of his first heart attack. He suffered a 2nd heart attack 3 days later, and the next month Yves Klein died at his home in Paris of a third heart attack.

It is hard to separate Klein’s work from the mythology of the creator.  He died very young, (34) at the peak of his powers.  His interest in the intertwined nature of life and art makes his sudden, literal immaterialization almost seem like yet another creative gesture and can inspire all of us to consider our lives a work of art. 



Yves Klein Long Live the Immaterial!  -Gilbert Perlein, Brunno Cora 4/28-9/4 2000 Musee D Art Moderne Et D’Arte Contemporain Nice
9/23, 2000-1/10 2001
Museo Pecci Prato.  Blue Gold, Pink: The colors of the Icon, Alain Buisine
And Blue Company or. Yves Klein Considered as a World Economy, Nicolas Bourriaud

The Evolution of Art Towards the Immaterial Lecture at The Sorbonne, Yves Klein. Air Architecture Yves Klein, edited by Peter Noever Francois Perrin
@ the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles (5/13-8/29, 2004)

Yves Klein: With the Void Ful Powers. Hirshorn/ Walker Art Center, Organized by Kerry Brougher and Phillippe Vergne Texts by Kerry Brougher and Kaira Cabanas, Klaus Ottman, and Andria Hickey

Catherine Cabeen and Company / dance / Yves Klein


Farrah Fawcett did a Yves

Farrah Fawcett did a Yves Klein-inspired playboy shoot in 1997, in gold body paint:http://danasdirt.com/2009/06/26/farrah-fawcett-playboy-picture/farrah-pl...