Blue is Beautiful, Blue is Best

Yves Klein (Tate Liverpool, 21 October 2016-5 March 2017)

In the photos of Yves Klein I sort began to do a double-take for Buster Keaton. He has a sort of deadpan look, aided by the wearing of a smart suit or a waistcoat and shirt, which is at odds with the performance of his art — he’s somewhere between a clown and a ringmaster.

There are many artists who courted controversy with the single colour painting — think of Malevich’s various black squares or the minimalism of the Abstract Impressionists. Piet Modrian reduced his pictures to a series of coloured squares and grids on white (as did Marlow Moss) and Ben Nicholson painted white on white. Klein does it with blue.

When he was nineteen, he lay on his back with friends and signed the sky, claiming it as his first work of art; his friends  Arman and Claude Pascal were assigned the earth and words. It was with words he proceeded — whilst attempting a number of canvases with single pigments, it was blue he settled on. Central to the Tate Liverpool exhibition are various entirely blue canvases, apparently identical save for size — and not always different in terms of size. This “Single-Colour Proposals”, as they became labelled, are supposedly content free, just patches of colour and in one exhibition in 1957 eleven “Monochrome Proposals” were displayed, identical in size, but distinct in price. These make a commentary on the arbitrary values of art.

So we have just the personal perspective of blue — and I have to hand the words of Marina Warner:

blue is the colour of the shadow side, the tint of the marvellous and the inexplicable, of desire, of knowledge, of the blueprint, the blue movie, of blue talk, of raw and rare steak (un steak bleu in French), of melancholy, the rare and the unexpected (singing the blues, once in a blue moon, out of the blue, blue blood).

Blue was a late, miraculous, film by Derek Jarman. Is it the same shade? Blue was the colour my television defaulted to, tuned to a dead channel.

KleinBut you focus — there are the bobbles of the pigment/resin mix, the way it catches the canvas, the way it varies on nettles in one case. Whilst I feel the paintings of Mark Rothko (like Bridget Riley) to be vertiginous, on these I was playing with the surface. And, inevitably, given even low glare glass, their reflections. In other paintings, Blue Sponge Relief (A Little Night Music) (1960) and Sol RE 46 (1960), sponges soaked in blue resin break the plainess of the plane. And a vitrine features sponges in a variety of colours, not just blue.

Blue was also the colour he used for his Antropometry paintings: he would coat women in blue paint (or they would coat themselves) and then they would leans against paper or canvas, sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal, and the result is a series of ghost images — breasts, arms, thighs, feet, pelvises. Sometimes these were performed in public – happenings avant la lettre? — so that the gaze was very much in evidence.

Why use women and not men?

Is this a rather uncomfortable moment of the male gaze, reducing women to objects — brushes with lust? Or is it a comment on their objectification?

It seems unsurprising that, along with Rosicrucianism, Klein studied Zen and judo — studying the void, and the delicacy of centres of balance. The paintings seem to record flight and diving, a fixed ballet in blue… and I wonder what it would be like if judo wrestlers, depicted here in photographic and filmed form, were so painted?

Could we live with blue balls?

But Klein was not a one trick pony — there are also the fire paintings, made by bringing (blue hot) gas almost into contact with cardboard. There is a glorious abstraction in their colour scheme of brown, black, red and ochre.

And then, alongside what looks like throwing paper into the Seine, there was Klein throwing himself into space. He seems to have thrown himself into the air from Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-aux-Roses, in October 1960, caught in a photo (or photmontage) by Shunk–Kender (Harry Shunk and János Kender, whose photos are throughout the exhibition). [There was a radio documentary, In Search of Yves Klein, by Liliane Lijn, where she went in search of the house where it happened.] The photo, Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void), became part of the newspaper and manifesto, Dimanche, which was sold on the streets of Paris on one day, 27 November 1960:

“I am the painter of Space. I am not an abstract painter but, on the contrary, a figurative and realist painter. Let’s be honest, in order to paint space, I must put myself on the spot, in space itself.”

Oddly, this newspaper is only glimpsed in documentary film — I’m sure I’ve seen a copy of the actual newspaper and I think it was at Tate Liverpool.

What you also don’t see is Klein’s Monotone Silence Symphony (1949), twenty minutes of a single chord followed by twenty minutes of silence. (Yes, I spent more than twenty minutes there, so it wasn’t merely bad timing. On the other hand, perhaps I should be thankful for small mercies. Maybe it’s on spotify.)

Klein died after a series of heart attacks, on  6 June 1962 — so much for mastery of his body. Alas. He was 34.

I can’t see him beginning to fascinate me, like Rothko, Nicholson and Mondrian, but it’s thought-provoking work, confronting the void and finding more than just surface.

And there is something about blue

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