In 1958 Yves Klein staged an exhibition that had nothing in it. Lured by an elaborate publicity campaign, around 3,000 guests turned up to a gallery in Paris, its entrance framed by theatrical blue curtains. When they went inside, they found themselves in a white room that was totally empty. Klein was interested in mysticism, and “The Void”, as the event became known, was partly an attempt to make art that was immaterial – that happened only in the imagination. But it was also a colossal send-up of the pretensions of the art world. Rather than being left to praise or tut at the work on the wall, guests unwittingly imbibed the essence of the artist himself (almost literally: they were served cocktails which, Klein was delighted to discover, stained their urine his patented shade of International Klein Blue for days).
Klein died of a heart attack four years later, when he was only 34. The trouble with staging any exhibition of his work after his death is that, by default, it’s condemned to reverse the effect of his stunt. Klein was a showman, a maverick who influenced everything from conceptualism to Gilbert and George, and who was making statements with waistcoats half a century before England manager Gareth Southgate. Without his guiding presence, the objects he created risk becoming the conventional works of art he was reacting against.
A current exhibition of Klein’s work at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire plugs the gap where Klein’s personality should be with the personality of the stately home itself. The problem is that nothing could be further removed from Klein’s aesthetic than the opulent profusion of the house where Winston Churchill spent his childhood years, and where – a week before the exhibition opened – Donald Trump and Theresa May sat down to a black-tie dinner. In one particularly jarring juxtaposition, one of Klein’s red monochrome paintings hangs above a vitrine that heaves with Napoleonic toy soldiers. With his monochrome paintings, Klein wanted to create “psychological spaces”, realms of colour where the mind could freely wander. In the context of these miniature martial fetishes, however, the red paint takes on the impression of smeared blood. The thought can’t help but affect how you look at these works by an artist who believed that “Art is total freedom; it is life”.
“Pure Pigment” (2018; recreation of 1957 artwork)
When Klein arranged dry blue pigment in a wooden tray on the floor of a Parisian gallery in 1957, he rewrote the rulebook for post-war artists. It was the first time viewers had engaged with a “painting” on a completely horizontal plane, pre-empting the flat, minimalist sculptures of Carl Andre by a decade. The viewer orients themselves not as to a painting on a wall, but as though to a living landscape, which draws the eye along the ground toward a horizon. The work also signified a total break, one anticipated but never quite accomplished by Jackson Pollock’s drip-painting, between the artwork and the hand of the artist. Instead of recording the gestures of its creator, Klein’s paint achieves a state of what he called “extraordinary autonomy”, presenting nothing but “the colour itself”.
In Blenheim’s great hall, at the start of this exhibition, shafts of daylight are thrown 20 metres downwards from the high windows, picking out zones where the loose, crumbling texture of the powdery pigment is visible and defining them against what otherwise appears as a uniform expanse of ultramarine. It’s almost as though the artwork on the ground is straining to escape the antiquated, columned environs of the hall around it, and reunite with the limitless blue of the sky.
“Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 68)” (1961)
Blue, with its associations with sky and sea, was for Klein “beyond dimensions”; by producing paintings in this colour and nothing else from 1957, he hoped to instil a sense of the infinite.
But with this work tucked in a dark corner of Blenheim’s China Ante Room, with poorly positioned spotlights bouncing off the glass, the attempt to engage with this monochrome universe is compromised by self-consciousness, as the viewer is confronted with the reflection of their own moon-wide eyes staring back at them.
“‘Jonathan Swift’ (ANT125)” (c. 1960)
Klein describes the moment he began creating his “Anthropometries” as one of accidentally breaking out of a rut. He had been on a seemingly inevitable trajectory towards the “immaterial” – “my studio empty, even the monochromes were gone” – when his models apparently took it upon themselves to “roll themselves in colour, and with their bodies paint my monochromes”. Though Klein would return to the immaterial, the “Anthropometries” demonstrate perhaps more than any other works the artist’s nimble-mindedness, his endless delight in turning the tables upon himself.
During provocative (and not a little absurd) public performances, his models would daub their bodies in paint and press themselves onto a blank canvas. It would have been good to display these paintings alongside photographs of them being made, but to see them in the flesh (as it were) is still remarkable. Traditional painting may be gestural – the critic Roger Fry once called the painted line the “record of a gesture” – but for Klein the connection between paintbrush and canvas was always “too psychological”. Instead, these works inscribe the whole body in motion.
“Untitled Blue Sponge Sculpture (SE 89)” (1960)
As with so much of Klein’s best work, his paint-laden sponges, mounted as free-standing sculptures, manage to be intimate and impersonal at once. The artist’s tools, usually hidden in the private sanctuary of the studio, are held up here for public scrutiny – but they also supplant, with their brute materiality, the canvas itself, which an older and more romantic generation had understood as the site where personal thought and feeling could find formal expression.
Klein believed that everyday objects could assume the status of art. Displayed behind a cordon in one of Blenheim’s grandiose state rooms, however, with the viewer unable to get close enough for a sense of the material’s texture, these sponges just look out of place.
“Transfer of a ‘Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility’ to M. Blankfort, Pont au Double, Paris, 1962” (1962)
Klein sold “ownership” of a “Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” to various buyers in 1962, cashing their cheques and exchanging them for several ounces of gold leaf. Instructing the buyers to burn their receipts, Klein returned half of this gold and threw the rest into the river Seine, destroying both the immaterial “artwork” along with its material value. The work would exist only in memory – and in carefully staged photographs, which conclude the display at Blenheim. They’ve been blown up and hung along one wall of the Long Library, whose shelves heave under the weight of 10,000 books. In the presence of so much historical material, it is nigh on impossible to glean any sense of Klein’s “immaterial” at all. You walk out, instead, with an impression of emptiness – and not in the sense Klein would have liked.
Yves Klein at Blenheim Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire until October 7th