Well before the heyday of conceptual art in the late 1960s—before Robert Barry released inert gases into the ether, before On Kawara counted days, before Sol LeWitt championed ideas as the stuff of art—French painter Yves Klein (1928–1962) sought to realize a purely dematerialized art: one of ashes and molecules, of presence and space, of sensibility and ambiance. In his tragically brief yet remarkably prolific career, he produced thousands of works—paintings, sculptures, photographs, sketches, artist’s books, films, as well as plans for theatrical performances and architectural projects—not to mention countless pages of writing. The young artist, who died of a heart attack at age 34, conceived all of these objects—what he called the “ashes” of his art1—as gestures toward a realm of boundless space and spiritual plenitude he called the “immaterial.” In 2004, the Walker Art Center acquired Klein’s Suaire de Mondo Cane (Mondo Cane Shroud) (1961), a work that for Klein represented the culmination of his pursuit of the immaterial.
Klein’s obsession with immateriality derived not from the dominant art discourses of his day, but rather from an idiosyncratic cluster of youthful obsessions. From the phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, he derived his understanding of the human body as a sensate apparatus through which we come to apprehend the world. From Max Heindel’s Rosicrucian writings, he came to believe that “Spirit” permeates empty space, and that we may one day be freed from the worldly burdens of materialism.2 From his mastery of judo’s choreographed movements, he understood how to harness an opponent’s power and use it against him, intuitively redirecting the body’s lines of force in space and time. The result of this unlikely confluence of interests was an artist more concerned with posing philosophical propositions about the nature of time, space, and existence than making art for its own sake.3
At the heart of Klein’s aspiration to achieve the immaterial was his radical conception of painting as “pictorial presence.” He was an avid reader of Eugène Delacroix’s journals and cited them often in his own writings. One frequently quoted passage reads: “Woe to the picture which shows to a man gifted with imagination nothing more than finish. The merit of the picture is the indefinable: it is just the thing which goes beyond precision. What then is it? It is what the soul has added to the colors and to the lines.”4 Embarrassed by Delacroix’s romantic use of the word “soul,” Klein suggested replacing it with “sensibility” or “pure energy.”5 His prime obsession in this respect was color: “Color permeates everything just as indefinable sensibility permeates without form and without limit. It is spatial matter that is at once abstract and real.”6 The monochrome, a bounded field of pure color, functioned in Klein’s practice as a painting of space. Klein was not a painter of abstract pictures; he thought of himself very much as a realist, albeit one whose perennial subject matter was the most abstract and immaterial facet of our existence: the space between things. International Klein Blue (IKB), the painter’s signature hue of ultramarine, which he would use to paint most of his monochromes, had a symbolic function as it could refer to the ocean or the sky, expanses in the natural world too vast for the mind to grasp.7 Klein’s monochromes of the “Blue Period”—a term he jokingly used in reference to Picasso—have become the artist’s most recognizable work.
The inert materials conventionally associated with the medium of painting—canvas, pigment, brushes—were of little concern to Klein; they functioned simply as a means to an end: the stabilization of sensibility in space. Ultimately, Klein sought to do away with them completely. In May 1957, he presented a double exhibition in Paris at Galerie Colette Allendy and Galerie Iris Clert. Taking quite literally Delacroix’s notion of the “indefinable,” in a small room on the second floor of Allendy’s gallery, Klein realized his ideal conception of painting by installing a “series of surfaces of pictorial sensibility, invisible, of course, to the naked eye and yet very much present,” in a sense manifesting his pictorial sensibility by intention alone. He called the installation Surfaces et blocs de sensibilité picturale – Intentions picturales (Surfaces and Blocks of Pictorial Sensibility – Pictorial Intentions). Klein made a short film to mythologize his gesture. The sequence presents the artist standing before a white wall gesturing to a painting that is, by all accounts, absent. Seated on a radiator bench, he surveys the space. As he stands, the bench begins to clatter; with a quick adjustment he silences the intrusion. Nothing is allowed to disturb the ambiance he has instilled in the space. Here Klein presents himself, the artist, as a vital force capable of stabilizing artistic sensibility without material support. Painting in its most elemental form: pure, concentrated energy.8
Klein’s radical innovation of an immaterial art resulted in a host of other experiments. In 1958, he emptied Galerie Iris Clert and called it La Spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état de matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée (The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility), otherwise known simply as Le vide (The Void). In 1959, Klein’s modest contribution to Vision in Motion, a group exhibition at the Hessenhuis in Antwerp, was nothing more than a fleeting recitation of Bachelard’s words: “First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a deep blue.” In the early 1960s, as documented in his notebooks of the period, Klein made zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility available to willing collectors such as American screenwriter Michael Blankfort, critic Claude Pascal, and artist Edward Kienholz (all circa 1962); the ritual transfer of these zones involved casting gold into the River Seine and burning any evidence of the transaction. These, among other attempts to grasp the immaterial, are evidence of an art so obliquely misaligned with our faculties of perception and cognition that it resists the reach of our senses. It must be intuited; it must be taken on faith.
Each of these gestures speaks to Klein’s interest in the transitory nature of the present moment. For Klein, we are but sensate beings caught in the flows of time and space; it is art’s function to register what he called “the mark of the immediate.”9 Indeed, as the artist moved away from his monochromes in the late 1950s, he sought other ways of harnessing the materials of painting in the service of giving form to life’s evanescence. “After all,” Klein wrote in 1961, “my purpose is to extract and conclude the trace of the immediate from any incidence of natural objects—human, animal, vegetable, or atmospheric circumstances.”10 For one series of paintings, he worked outside on the banks of the River Loup, casting dry pigment onto wet reeds and dragging paper and canvas through the sand. With these works, which he titled Cosmogonies (a term that refers to philosophical inquiry into the origins of the universe), he attempted “to register the signs of atmospheric behavior by recording on a canvas the instantaneous traces of spring showers, of south winds, and of lighting.”11 For his Planetary Reliefs, Klein hurled stones at wet plaster, producing craterlike effects that index specific variables of force, mass, and acceleration. Even Klein’s Gold Paintings, with their loosely leafed surfaces, seem to flutter in response to atmospheric conditions. With these bodies of work, Klein forged a uniquely responsive art. Hung on walls, these paintings are out of their element. They are meant to be in the world, for they are coextensive with the natural materials, properties, and phenomena that brought them into being.
Klein’s most sensitive body of work, however, was a series of paintings he initiated in 1958 in which he used the human body as a “living brush.” He called these works Anthropometries, and by the time of his death in 1962, he had produced some 200 of them. Klein borrowed the term “anthropometry” from the social sciences, referring to the branch of physical anthropology concerned with the comparative study of human body measurements for the purpose of classification. Despite the term’s origin, Klein had a different mode of measurement in mind, for by covering the body in paint and pressing it against the canvas, he sought to register the fleeting presence of the body in time and space—to capture a moment of the body’s existence that could never be recaptured. But why the body?
Klein’s impulse to use “living brushes” first developed from his monochrome painting practice, which oddly enough required the presence of models in the studio. He did not employ them to pose; the monochromes did not purport to represent the figure as such. With these paintings, Klein did however aim to present stabilized immaterial sensibility for which the presence of a living body provided him the most tangible substitute. As Klein’s widow Rotraut Klein-Moquay recalls, “It was important for him simply to have someone else nearby when he went about his work with these immaterial energies.”12 In his 1960 essay “Truth Becomes Reality,” the artist writes:
“In the past, the painter used to go to the subject, working outdoors in the countryside, both feet on the ground. It was healthy!
Today, easel painting has become completely academized, so much so that it has imprisoned the painter in his studio face to face with the atrocious mirror of his own canvas …
… In order not to retreat by shutting myself inside the excessively spiritual regions of artistic creation, using the plain common sense that the presence of the flesh in the studio would benefit my incarnate condition, I consequently engaged nude models.
The shape of the human body, its lines, its colors of between life and death are of no interest to me; it is the emotional atmosphere that I value.
The flesh … !!!!”13
If the presence of flesh came to inform how Klein sought to stabilize sensibility in his monochrome paintings, then it was only a matter of time until he would seek a more direct way to transpose the body’s vital energies into a painted state. He continues:
“One will easily understand the process: at first my models laughed at seeing themselves transposed onto the canvas in monochrome, then they became accustomed to it and loved the values of the color, different for each canvas, even during the blue period where it was more or less the same tone, the same pigment, the same technique. Then while pursuing the adventure of the ‘immaterial,’ little by little, I ceased producing tangible art, my studio empty, even the monochromes were gone. At that moment, my models felt that they had to do something for me … They rolled themselves in color, and with their bodies painted my monochromes. They had become living brushes!”14
In 1958, Klein’s models began to apply paint to their bodies. That spring, at a private performance in the spring of that year in Robert Godet’s apartment, Klein instructed his models to paint a monochrome with their naked bodies. The resulting work, IKB Godet (1958), features an expressionistic yet uniformly chromatic surface of drips and smears: the traces of bodies once in contact with paint and support. At that time, legible body prints were not of interest to Klein; he called them “pagans in my religion of absolute monochromy.”15 Nevertheless, he practiced them with his models in the privacy of his studio until March 9, 1960, when he staged the first live “technical demonstration” of his Anthropometry process at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris.16 With approximately one hundred onlookers in attendance and a nine-piece orchestra playing his Symphonie Monoton-Silence (Monotone-Silence Symphony) (a musical composition consisting of a single note played for twenty minutes followed by twenty minutes of silence), Klein directed the movements of three nude female models as they painted their bodies blue with sponges and proceeded to leave impressions and marks on sheets of paper placed on the floor and on the wall. The artist titled the performance Anthropométrie de l’époque bleue (Anthropometries of the Blue Period) and hired a camera crew to film the proceedings. In the film, two models press their bodies against a large hanging sheet of paper, while another model works on the floor, covering a single sheet with blue in the style of the earlier IKB Godet piece.
As Klein’s Anthropometry practice developed, the artist and his models tested a wide range of stylistic approaches, from wild gestural abstraction to subtle impressions of the body. Klein also employed the body as a kind of stencil; he used spray paint to record the contours of his figures. The body then was not only a tool for painting, but also a means of generating pictorial voids. Working primarily in blue, he experimented with other colors including pink, purple, gold, and, early on, according to Klein-Moquay, ox blood.17 The latter, of course, prefigures, if by only months, the gestural and performative abstractions that resulted from Hermann Nitsch’s “painting actions,” in which he employed his entire body in their rapid execution, often working on the ground. The Gutai group in Japan was also developing an explosive mode of gestural abstraction with affinities to European practices. The paintings of Kazuo Shiraga seem particularly resonant in this context as the artist applied paint to horizontal canvases in thick, viscous smears with his own swinging body.
Back in France, Klein’s Anthropometries did bear some resemblance to the reigning modes of gestural abstraction grouped under the broad designation Art Informel. Over the rational calculations of modernist forbears, many painters in the postwar period associated with the movement began to embrace gestural spontaneity in the service of psychological expression. From Jean-Paul Riopelle’s impulsive palette knife work to Hans Hartung’s vigorously scratched canvases, the movement pointed toward a performative conception of painting as executed in space and time. Georges Mathieu embodied this impulse with his unique, often histrionic style of action painting, which involved the artist leaping in the air in an aggressive attack on the canvas. (Many of Klein’s Anthropometries present the appearance of levitating bodies.) Contrary to the Surrealist notion of automatism that supports this tradition, Klein accused his contemporaries of literary pretentions. “Abstract painting is the picturesque literature of psychological states,” the artist wrote in his journal in 1957. “It is impoverished. I am delighted that I am not an abstract painter.”18 Indeed, the reason why Klein avoided the use of brushes in the first place is that he thought of them as “too excessively psychological.”19 He wanted to achieve a distance from the materials of his creation, and his Anthropometries didn’t even require him to dirty his hands.
While Klein generally executed his Anthropometries on canvas and paper mounted to canvas, the Walker Art Center’s Mondo Cane Shroud is one of only a few extant Anthropometries executed on gauze. The painting presents the impressions of seven female bodies arrayed laterally across two layers of fabric and staggered in height. Some figures reveal the faint impressions of outstretched hands, but imprints of torsos dominate the composition. Klein writes:
“I very quickly perceived that it was the block of the human body, which is to say, the trunk and a part of the thigh that fascinated me. …
Certainly, the entire body consists of flesh, but the essential mass is the trunk and the thighs. It is there that one finds the true universe, hidden by our perception.”20
Unlike other Anthropometries, which feature the presence of the figure in dramatic smears and splashes, Mondo Cane Shroud renders the body’s presence in ghostly diaphanous forms, not unlike the Shroud of Turin, which purportedly features a latent image of Christ’s body transferred at the time of his burial. The delicacy of these impressions in Klein’s work suggests a transfer of perspiration rather than viscous paint, and Klein-Moquay has likened their elusive transparency to a breath.21 So ethereal is the presence of the body here that it appears as if it has levitated through space and passed through the woven fabric, leaving behind only the faintest trace of its sensibility—miniscule particles of IKB suspended in the warp and weft of the gauze. Curator Philippe Vergne has argued that the Mondo Cane Shroud is indeed the “ultimate Klein” for this very reason. “[T]his particular Anthropometry,” he writes, “in which the bodies are atomized by the transparency and porosity of the fabric, more than in other works from this series, emphasizes how far Klein was reaching, the intensity with which he sought to give a visual presence to a cosmic, spiritual body.”22 As Vergne describes, this body is molecular, evanescent, immaterial, atomized.
In his writings, Klein often characterized his contemporary moment as the “atomic age,” suggesting that “all matter can suddenly vanish to leave behind nothing but what can be imagined as the most abstract.”23 Indeed, the artist named one of his paintings Hiroshima in reference to the US bombing of Japan in 1945. An azure haze permeates this Anthropometry, offering only the faintest suggestion of figure and ground. Here the body’s imprint is absent; only a molecular void remains. “Hiroshima,” Klein wrote in 1960, “the shadows of Hiroshima in the desert of the atomic catastrophe, terrible evidence, without a doubt, but evidence of hope all the same, hope for the survival and permanence, albeit immaterial, of the flesh.”24 The atomization of the body can also imply a seizure of time. In 1961, when Shomei Tomatsu was commissioned to document the aftermath of the Nagasaki bombing, the photographer trained his lens on a cracked wristwatch that had stopped at 11:02, the precise moment of the bomb’s explosion in 1945. Tomatsu’s timepiece is a mute witness to the harrowing reality of the body’s vaporization. Similarly, Klein’s Hiroshima presents the body as a fragile, molecular being, through which energies—destructive or restorative—may pass.
Unfortunately, the existential weight of Klein’s Anthropometry practice and the Shroud has been overshadowed by the work’s notorious cinematic mediation. In 1961, Klein staged an Anthropometry demonstration for Italian documentary filmmaker Gualtiero Jacopetti. (The Walker’s Mondo Cane Shroud resulted from a rehearsal for this film.25) The director and his partners were in production on a “shockumentary” travelogue that would come to be called Mondo Cane, a colloquial expression translated literally as “Dog’s World.” What Klein hoped might be an opportunity to promote his philosophy of immateriality to a broader audience turned into an exploitive montage of aboriginal cultures, pet cemeteries, snake charming, animal slaughter, and culinary oddities. Jacopetti’s camera mocks Klein as a charlatan whose overpriced paintings are nothing but a pretext for an erotic display of female nudity.
In Jacopetti’s final edited version of the film, Klein’s sequence opens with a monochromatic frame, a blinding, unmodulated expanse of International Klein Blue. Sliding into the center of the frame from the right side of the image, the artist dressed as an emcee in black tie raises his right hand. Thrusting it forward as an orchestral conductor might to signal a crescendo, Klein’s gesture prompts the camera’s rapid retreat. It tracks backward to reveal a small all-male chamber orchestra, consisting of three cellos, three flutes, three violins, a double bass, and two singers performing his Monotone-Silence Symphony. Moving toward the camera and coming to rest in silhouette against a large blue monochrome, he surveys the group of players, with his arm outstretched.
As Klein turns away, the camera pans right to reveal a group of women, standing and sitting naked in a shallow bath of blue paint.26 The monotone score transitions to gratuitous smooth jazz, as the models luxuriate in their pool. Although chaste in its representation of female nudity, the footage is undoubtedly composed to titillate. It is a far cry from Klein’s 1960 footage, in which his models execute a decidedly perfunctory affair. Two overlapping sheets of gauze hang before a large piece of glass. The transparency of the material allows Jacopetti to shoot through the scrim, as the women approach and press their bodies against the surface of the painting. The music swells and the editing alternates between images of the gawking orchestra members and shots of the nude women caressing each other. To add insult to injury, Jacopetti cuts from an image of Klein’s finished painting to a similarly composed shot of Polynesian hula dancers. It is often said that Klein’s anger with the film precipitated a heart attack at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
Despite Klein’s exploitation by Jacopetti, the artist had high aspirations for the film, evidenced by a rough typewritten screenplay, which outlines a very different sequence of actions than the one depicted in Mondo Cane.27 Klein envisioned the opening of the sequence as a tableau. As the script describes, the action would take place in a large studio decorated with a few blue paintings on the wall. A group of models sit posing on a large piece of white paper on the ground. Nearby stands a pool of blue paint, not unlike the one featured in the film. As Klein writes, “The idea: one single palette, one single color.” The script also describes an easel with a white canvas, two other blank canvases on the floor, and a set of painting implements: a thick paintbrush, a large roller, and two sponges.
Then, what follows is a carefully orchestrated sequence of actions. First, Klein transforms the canvas on his easel into a blue monochrome using a brush dipped in the large pool of pigment. He paints the second canvas on the floor with a roller, followed by a third using his sponges, “furiously erasing the effects of handprints.” Interestingly, in reference to Klein’s earlier use of models in his monochrome painting practice, he notes in the script, “From time to time, Yves glances at the models and the monochrome on the wall,” as if working from a nude model while composing his impromptu paintings. Once the final canvas has been painted, the script has Klein attach his blue sponges to its surface. Satisfied with his paintings, Klein looks with frustration at his stained hands and clothes. Klein turns to his models, which precipitates a second series of actions.
The models begin to play in the pool of pigment, covering their bodies with the color. Klein returns wearing a smock, and the orchestra, under the artist’s direction, begins to play the Monotone-Silence Symphony. The models move from the pool to the large piece of paper on the floor, where they use their bodies to paint a monochrome. After completing the work on the floor, the models are also able to paint a canvas on the wall. Finally, as the script indicates, “The women also carry out the trick of the large glass,” which refers to the piece realized in Mondo Cane. During this entire series of actions, the script notes, Klein has been orchestrating the model’s movements precisely.
What this script reveals is how carefully Klein wanted to narrativize the history of his painting practice for a film audience. The sequence of events moves progressively from his early monochrome experiments with brushes, then to rollers and sponges, followed by his Anthropometry experiments first in monochrome on the floor followed by body impressions on the wall. At the culmination of this unrealized narrative stands the Mondo Cane Shroud, one of the last Anthropometries Klein completed before his death. Indeed, if this modestly typewritten script indicates anything, it inscribes the Shroud in Klein’s own retrospective narrative as the apotheosis of his practice and his pursuit of the immaterial through painting. That Jacopetti chose to focus on the execution of the work alone is symptomatic of a larger misunderstanding surrounding the Anthropometries. For Klein, they were a logical extension of his monochrome painting practice, and he sought to narrate this development in the clearest cinematic terms possible.
No other work in Klein’s oeuvre speaks to the transitive, vulnerable nature of human existence as does the Mondo Cane Shroud. The fact that the artist chose to realize this work for the cinema offers an additional layer of meaning. Here, he renders the painting as a film frame—as a moment stilled—in an attempt to register what he called “the mark of the immediate.” As Vergne explains, the painting, “opens the door to a new understanding of Klein’s interest in the possibilities offered by moving images and his ideas about making the immaterial visible by using a camera to produce a painting.”28 While these emergent ideas were cut short by an untimely death, Klein’s scenario for Mondo Cane points to more than interdisciplinary concerns and unrealized ideas. It suggests an artist of uncompromised self-awareness positioning one work above others, one work to realize his pursuit of the immaterial.