Yves Klein was born on April 28, 1928 in the south of France and grew up near Nice, a city beloved by Chagall, Picasso and Renoir and also home to Henri Matisse for much of his adult life. The son of Fred Klein and Marie Raymond, both painters, Yves Klein was a self-taught artist.
As a young boy, Yves worked in his aunt's bookstore, where he befriended the artist Arman (Armand Fernandez) and the composer Claude Pascal. Together they visited the long pebble beach of Nice and, with a certain eloquence, divided the whole world: Arman chose the earth, Claude chose the words, while Klein, lying on his back facing the wide blue ceiling, chose the sky.
It seems that the purity and vastness of the sky appealed to him deeply. Klein himself would later write: "As a teenager I wrote my name on the back of the sky in a fantastic imaginary journey... Since then I hate birds for trying to pierce my greatest and most beautiful work! Away with the birds!".
Klein began his artistic career in the mid-1940s, at the age of 18 or so. Perhaps because his parents were painters, he was immediately determined to go beyond the conventions of mural art. In 1948, he would begin to work on one of his most remarkable and surprising works: a musical composition on a single note followed by a long silence, which he called Monotone-Silence Symphony.
Pursuing to satisfy his adventurous instinct, between 1948 and 1953 he dedicated himself to travel. First he would visit Italy and then England, where he worked in a framing workshop learning to gild with gold leaf. Later he would go to Ireland, Spain and finally to Japan. He would fill notebooks with photos, sketches and notes from his travels.
During these years he would also devote a lot of time to judo. Yves Klein was a holder of the prestigious 4th Dan degree, practiced it regularly and documented it with films and writings. The collaboration between his body and the martial art led him to "discover the human body as a spiritual space", as he later described it.
His Monochromes, initially in different colors, were first exhibited at the "Club des Solitaires" in Paris in 1955, and then at galleries in Milan, Paris, Düsseldorf and London. By this time, Yves Klein was already enjoying international renown. During 1957, together with Edouard Adam, he completed the creation of the color that he would call IKB (International Klein Blue), typical of the works of his "Epoque bleue" and which would remain his signature until the end.
With his blue works, Klein was looking for a purer way of painting and trying to go beyond a consensus definition of art. His desire to capture emptiness had certain avant-garde elements that were undoubtedly intended to give the occasion an absurd touch. However, these aspects concealed a deeply serious reasoning. Yves Klein spent most of his career searching for an aesthetic expression of "the void". He delves into the concept of the "totality of things", which by being so vast becomes empty, a quality similar to that of the sky or the ocean.
In 1958, at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, Klein caused a scandal by inviting 3,000 people to a private exhibition in which he showed nothing but an empty cabinet in an otherwise empty all-white room. As part of the show, attendees were offered a blue balloon to take with them and a blue cocktail to drink. He called the exhibition "The specialization of raw sensibility into a stabilized pictorial sensibility (called "Void")".
Some twelve years after its creation, on March 9, 1960, his strange conceptual symphony was performed in front of an audience of about a hundred spectators. A small orchestra and a choir would perform the Monotone Symphony: a high-pitched, continuous sound that suddenly gave way to total silence. The audio-performance was accompanied by three nude models, who climbed on stage and covered their bodies with blue paint before lying down on a large sheet of tracing paper placed on the floor. Klein himself wandered around the edge of the room, part director, part master of ceremonies. This method, in which the artist modified his relationship with the models, who became "living brushes," is what Klein would use in his Anthropometries series.
After expressing the "conceptual void" through his blue paintings and the "literal void" during his Iris Clert Gallery exhibition, in 1960 Klein jumped from the ledge of a building in a quiet Paris suburb. He titled this act "Leap into the Void". Captured by the photography duo Harry Shunk and János Kender, this image remains striking despite our current familiarity with photo-editing. (In reality, Yves was caught in mid-fall by an outstretched blanket grabbed by friends around every corner.)
In March 1961, Yves Klein visited New York and, with his future wife Rotraut Uecker, took up residence at the Chelsea Hotel, where he met many of the key figures in contemporary art of the moment, including Duchamp, Johns, Kline, de Kooning, Newman and Rothko. During his stay at the Chelsea Hotel he wrote the Chelsea Hotel Manifesto in which he explained the significance of his latest working method, which consisted of using gas flamethrowers to paint directly on the canvas:
"[...] I have succeeded in painting with fire, using very powerful and scorching gas flames, about three to four meters high, to lick the surface of a painting in order to record the spontaneous imprint of the fire.
[...] In short, my aim is twofold: firstly, to record the trace of human sentimentality in today's civilization; secondly, to record the trace of the fire that this same civilization has engendered. And this because emptiness has always been my constant preoccupation; and I maintain that in the heart of emptiness, as well as in the heart of man, fires burn".
These later works testify to a new direction in Klein's career, although he would never fully delve into it. The end of Klein's career came suddenly and tragically. In 1962, while attending the Cannes Film Festival, he suffered a heart attack during the broadcast of the controversial documentary Mondo Cane, in which Klein appeared and his work was ridiculed. In June of that same year, three weeks later, he suffered another heart attack that this time caused his death, at the age of 34.