No, it isn’t just a blue rectangle, and no, I haven’t made a mistake. Some readers might find this pretentious in the extreme. Some people will immediately respond, “anyone could do that.” But I really like IKB 79, so I thought I’d mention it.
I saw IKB 79 a few years ago during my first visit to Tate Modern (it isn’t there at the moment, but you can apparently see it at Tate Liverpool). I didn’t really know much about modern art, but I was keen to find out, and slightly wowed to be in the same building as work created by people like Matisse, Dali and Picasso, who I’d actually heard of. Then I found this painting by Klein, and I sort of loved it.
It’s a canvas painted entirely in one colour, using a paint invented and patented by Klein; he called it International Klein Blue. He painted over 200 works using just IKB, none of them given titles (the title IKB 79 was attached by Klein’s widow after his death when she numbered the individual works. 79 is the one held by Tate).
Klein was trying to slice away everything about producing art that distracted from the pure idea of colour without lines or interactions. He wanted to escape the influence of representation or expression that normally existed in painting – he was, quite self-consciously, trying to paint nothing. In fact, he was trying to go beyond this – he felt that the blue colour he managed to produce was the closest he could get to painting “pure space.” He had invented the colour and patented it, which kept it free from assocations with anything else. It isn’t the colour of anything, and although it’s like other blues, it isn’t quite. It was simply blue for the sake of being blue. So Klein felt this was as close as he could get to painting which was liberated from the restraint of having to be something. Klein took this idea to its extreme conclusion in 1958 at an exhibition called The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, the Void. He managed to get 3,000 people to queue up to see a case containing nothing at all.
Scroll back up to IKB 79 and look at it again. Do you find it unsettling? We immediately try to see something in the picture, but we can’t. It doesn’t look like anything, it doesn’t communicate anything, it doesn’t connect with anything in your brain. If you find that unsettling, then good – I think that’s where Yves Klein wanted to take you. Cut off from what you expect or want to see in a painting, so all you’re left with is International Klein Blue.
Some people will question whether IKB 79 is actually art at all. Lots of us are taught to think that the value of a work of art is found simply in the ability of an artist to faithfully recreate a visual image. And for hundred of year that was probably true. But as the world changed and became “Enlightened”, notions of what it meant to communicate the truth changed. And people invented better ways to capture visual images. It probably isn’t overstating it to say that the foundations of how people thought about reality were shaken, and artists were freed up to explore what that meant.
In a way, Klein was trying to dig away at reality, to get rid of the clutter and to explore what was behind it all. In a world where the concept of truth and meaning were being questioned and pulled apart, work like Klein’s was the exploration of what reality is all about, what it means to experience it and to express it. And it was Klein who helped me to start to see that this is what modern and contemporary art is about – in one way or another, exploring what reality and existence is all about., and what it means to be a part of it. Usually there are more questions than answers, or it’s about exploring the bit in between. Some people will find that unsettling, but I find it really exciting – hence the slight bias of the art featured so far on this blog. As a Christian, I love talking about these big questions (and I have a lot to say about them). And I don’t have to fear these big questions – I can look under the surface of work like Klein’s, and join in the conversation!