Invisibility and The Art of Yves Klein

This post is part of our deep dive into Invisibility.

Yves Klein was not your typical artist. He did not use your typical materials to create art. His first piece? He claimed it was the blue sky.

With that sort of audacity it might not come as a surprise that he also patented his own color: International Klein Blue. His works are provocative and intriguing and at times, for some art critics, infuriating. Like us, he found invisibility worthy of exploration – lack of sound, lack of structure, single-colors and empty spaces all served as materials from which to create his art.

For me, learning about him was like entering a whirlwind – with every piece expectations dropped and I was wound up in wonder. If I had to compare him to a type of artist it would be more of a director then a painter. His vision is what makes his art special. He orchestrated experiences with art.

What follows are a few hand-picked works by Yves that I felt would support our deep dive into Invisibility.

The Void

Emptiness. Invisibility. Voids. How do you create something out of nothing? What is nothingness? How does the ‘lack of’ effect us. There is an eloquence in absence. But more, absence can be threatening, joyful, humiliating, desired. Klein found ways to structure absence and art. Many of his works explored the idea of what was missing versus what was there.

One of Klein’s most famous works is literally called The Void. Imagine the scene. It’s April 1958 and a crowd of hundreds of people are waiting outside the Iris Clert gallery in Paris.  Some of the people in line hold small postcards stating:

Iris Clert invites you to honor, with all your affective presence, the lucid and positive event of a certain reign of the sensible. This demonstration of perceptive synthesis sanctions the pictorial quest of Yves Klein for an ecstatic and immediately communicable emotion. (Opening, 3, rue des Beaux-Arts, Monday, April 28, 9 p.m.–12:00). Pierre Restany

The gallery entrance is draped in blue and on either side of the door are Republican Guards dressed in full regalia. Besides them, two guards who according to Klein were meant to guard the guards.  The crowd is full of the energy that comes with anticipation…excitement and a slight sense of unease.  The crowd is so large that police and fire vehicles are on the scene anticipating as well. What is behind those doors?

The attendees are at last let in by Yves himself, barely able to move because the crowd is so vast.  They fill up an empty space and look at the only thing there is to look at, a single display case, painted white and empty.  They might have heard Yves explanation of the work before they came:

Recently my work with color has led me, in spite of myself, to search little by little, with some assistance (from the observer, from the translator), for the realization of matter, and I have decided to end the battle. My paintings are now invisible and I would like to show them in a clear and positive manner, in my next Parisian exhibition at Iris Clert’s

Some people laugh and walk out, others stay for hours pondering nothingness.

I remember when I was younger thinking this type of work was meaningless – maybe it was just to abstract to me.  But now I understand absence (and abstraction) at a deeper level.   I imagine for each person absence means something different.  Is it purity?  Is it loneliness.  Does it make you afraid or does it comfort you?  It seems to me that Klein was trying to move towards purity with a boldness that made that movement special. For someone who once said “My paintings are the ashes of my art.” the invisible might just be the perfect medium of expression.

On a side note, if you ever get the chance to time travel and feel the call to attend this event, DO NOT drink the blue cocktails.  Attendees reported urinating blue for a week after the exhibition (much to Klein’s delight).

Leap Into The Void

When I was a photography student I fell in love with photo montages (not the digital kind – I like those, but there was something special about the ones created before we had the technology to make them so easily).

Leap Into The Void expresses so many things at once.  First is the idea of danger (again related to invisibility).  Is the man in the photograph really leaping into nothingness?  Our will something at the last minute save him? Or…can this man fly?  We will never know the answer only the moment captured and the moment is enough.

What I love is that Yves really did leap.  He HAD to leap to create this piece and he did it all while wearing a suit! He was caught by a net, but still he did leap.  At first glance it seems a clever trick, something that makes you look twice, but for me there is truth in the jump he took.  For a moment he was flying, he was freedom, there most likely was fear and the void was real.

It’s as if he captured the human condition perfectly – the way we move through life, at times leaping with no safety net, at times believing that we just might be able to fly, at times fully of defiance and joy.

Love this work? Check out these derivative works by Yasumasa Morimura and Ciprian Mureşan.

Monotone Silence Symphony

“Even in its presence, this symphony does not exist”  – These were the words Klein used to describe his Monotone Silence Symphony. He only performed this work once in  his life. It consisted of a group of musicians holding a continuous tone for 20 minutes straight followed by twenty minutes of silence. The performers were performing silence as well as their instrument.

The work has been performed many times since his death but I particularly loved a story about one of the performances from the New York Times about a performance in Paris in 2007.
The performance was held at a church and the door to the church was open. During the performance a pigeon came in and sat in the church where everyone could see them and for the entire 20 minutes of silence he did not move. When the silence ended he flew away.

There is a power in what we can not see or hear, an energy you might say and this work allows us to focus on it. Time weaves itself into the mix as well. Imagine 20 minutes of silence, what it feels like at the 5 minute mark and how that differs from what it feels like at the 10 or 20 minute mark. And what of the moment when the sound turns to silence? I can only imagine how abrupt that might feel, how disconcerting.

In some ways I wish I never read about Yves work, I wish I could experience it without the knowing. There is something lovely about the way he surprises and shocks. He was an artist who used the unexpected to startle viewers, to wake them up. He saw depth where there was no visible depth, he forced us to feel silent shadows and empty spaces. His work makes me want to rethink the limitations I place on myself and my work. It makes me want to open myself up to abandon and cut back some of the constraints of how I approach life.

What did he see in the invisible that we do not? What did he hear in the silence that we fail to hear?

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