Henri Matisse once said, "A square centimeter of blue is less blue than a square meter of the same blue." Yves Klein, an artist featured in the Modern's current exhibition Declaring Space, would certainly have agreed. Known for his intense blue monochromes, Klein's artistic investigations in the late 1950s and early 1960s broadened the definition of art and paved the way for the later movements Conceptual Art, Performance Art, and Body Art.
Two friends who were instrumental in shaping his early life were Armand Fernandez, later known simply as Arman, and Claude Pascal. The three decided to divide up the universe between themselves. Pascal claimed words and went on to become a poet. Arman, who claimed "le plein" (the material world), invented the art of accumulation, sculpture created through the amassing of objects. Klein claimed "le vide" (the void) and focused his artistic practice around the concept of space empty of all matter.
In his investigation into le vide, Klein sought to unify humans with the energetic life-force pervading what we usually view as empty space. His first step toward this goal of unification involved removing from his canvases any figures or forms and reducing each composition to a single color. These monochromes were then even further reduced to only the color blue, which, to the artist, seemed the next logical step in embracing the void. Klein stated, "Blue has no dimensions. It 'is' beyond the dimensions of which other colors partake." With associations of the sky and the sea, blue connotes infinite, tangible space in both the heavens and on earth. Klein said, "The blue is the invisible becoming visible." But, rather than just imparting a sense of infinite space, he believed viewers could, via these paintings, become impregnated with the life-force of the universe -- could become sensitized to greater truths.
In 1958, Klein opened a gallery show in Paris titled "The Specialization of Sensitivity in the State of Prime Matter as Stabilized Pictorial Sensitivity." Now (thank goodness) we just refer to this show as Le Vide (The Void) because that's exactly what visitors found upon entering the exhibition -- the whitewashed walls of an empty gallery completely devoid of any art objects. Rather, Klein asserted that the room was filled with the sacred aura that he had released from the monochrome over the years. For him, the void is not empty space or vacuum, rather, it is an invisible force field that represents a state of openness and liberty.
This fascination with le vide ultimately led Klein to photograph himself jubilantly leaping head-first into space. Publishing a newspaper of his own invention (that happened to look just like the regular Sunday newspaper), he included this image on the front page with the title "Leap into the Void, Man in Space! The Painter of Space Throws Himself into the Void!" and sold it at newsstands across Paris. For an artist who truly believed that in the future "we will literally levitate in total physical and spiritual freedom," this photograph serves as his own testament to what he hopes will come to be.
Klein's interest in the mysteries of the universe was tied to an interest in the four elements (fire, earth, water, air). Yet, rather than creating images of these elements, he appropriated them for his own purposes. He utilized them as art-making tools and allowed them to leave their own marks on the canvas. Peinture feu couleur sans titre (Untitled Fire Colored Painting), 1961, is the ultimate culmination of this endeavor. After wetting the paper to prevent total combustion, he approached it with a torch, creating deep gold and brown imprints. In addition, he directed nude models to press their IKB-covered bodies against the work to leave positive imprints, then used a spray gun to outline their bodies for negative imprints. In addition to the water and fire, the air of the spray gun and the grit of the paint pigment round out the four universal elements. However, Klein's work is primarily about bringing enlightenment to his viewers, so the incorporation of the human body as an art-making tool is a key demonstration of the unity between man and the universe.