Review: Yves Klein, Tate Liverpool

Yves Klein, Tate Liverpool 2016

REVIEW, Yves Klein
Tate Liverpool, 21 October 2016 – 5 March 2017

Word and photographs, Moira Leonard

Words I associate with Yves Klein (1928 – 1962): Blue, Void, Fire, Bodies, Silence, Space, Visionary – at nineteen he reputedly signed the sky using his finger, declaring it his first artwork. So, it was with some trepidation that I approached Tate Liverpool on Thursday. I had no idea what awaited me on the top floor of the gallery.

Klein, probably best known for his bold canvases in the vibrant aquamarine colour, International Klein Blue, was an experimental visual and performance artist, widely recognised as a leader in the ‘Nouveau Realism’ French pop movement. I continued to ponder; would I be stepping into an empty room; would it be filled with monochrome canvases; would there be naked women walking around covered in blue paint?

Well, it was all and none of these things…

Klein reportedly worked with a chemist to perfect his signature blue colour and used it in many of his works. He covered plain canvases with it, experimenting with application techniques. He dyed natural sponges with it and attached them to canvases to create textured reliefs, perhaps giving the viewer a flavour of what it could be like at the bottom of the sea or on the surface of some distant planet.

With the use of this monochrome approach to painting, the viewer’s imagination is left to run riot which, it could be argued, lessens the involvement of the artist. But does that matter? I stood in wonder staring for a long time at each painting. The intense matt colour gave me such pleasure; I wanted to touch it; I can still picture it  now.

Whilst the aquamarine blue was his main colour of choice he also used a deep, muted, red and vibrant gold which he apparently regarded as representing the ‘theological mastery of the Trinity’. A wonderful glass cabinet filled with delicate sponges, displaying all three colours stands proud in the middle of the main gallery, complementing the larger paintings perfectly. Simple? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely.

Staying with his use of gold and his perceived vision of it being somehow linked to divinity, I was particularly taken by the photographs of the quirky deal he did by the river Seine as a performance called ‘Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility 1959-1962’. A series of black and white (of course, what else would you expect of Klein?) photographs depict him dressed in a very dapper suit and bow tie releasing a box of gold leaf into the water; A symbolic repayment of selling empty ‘space’ or ‘void’ for pure gold. The deal was, if the buyer agreed to burn the contract Klein would release the same value in gold leaf into the river and thus restore the natural order.

I was also fascinated by his lesser known experimental work with fire and burned canvas. In the early 1960s Klein used gas powered flames to create some incredible images, in a technique reminiscent of the modern method of over exposing light to create photographs. Some of these images are included in this exhibition. The end result is highly original and had me looking closer to try to work out how he had created these sumptuous shapes. I have since researched the detail and was amazed by his technique. Such bold steps to create languid, delicate images.

The gentle power of Klein’s work is illustrated beautifully by the paintings from his 1960 performance ‘Anthropometries of the Blue Epoch’ staged at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris.

Here, in front of an invited audience, naked women covered themselves with blue paint and imprinted themselves on canvas, under Klein’s guidance. Sometimes the models were dragged across the canvas surface, whilst throughout an orchestra play the artist’s composition ‘Monotone Silence Symphony’ (20 minutes of one cord followed by 20 minutes of silence). It could so easily have been a tacky experience, but it wasn’t. The images produced are wonderful, especially when all displayed together.

This exhibition, curated by the talented Darren Pih, is quite simply spectacular. Definitely one of the best exhibitions I have seen at Tate Liverpool in a long time.

Yves Klein exhibition runs from 21 October 2016 – 5 March 2017

Entry £10/£8