As solid fixture in modern art due to his unyielding attention to one vivid hue of blue, Yves Klein’s love for focus and discipline have a rather unexpected origin. With his parents both artists, it seems quite natural that Klein would eventually become one himself, but as a young man, the master of monochrome had more wily aspirations as a judo master. Klein moved from kick mats to canvasses in 1954 , and perhaps as a sign of his genius, he excelled famously at both.
A Carlos Ray Norris (Chuck Norris if you will) prelude, Klein garnered great esteem when he became one of the first Europeans to earn a 4th degree black belt or yodan. He was just 25. He trained all over Europe and went in deep in Japan in 1953 before he hung up his belt and focused on painting and conceptual art. In 1954, just before he covered himself (and nude ladies) in paint, he wrote Les Fondements du Judo (The Foundations of Judo) and opened the Judo Académie de Paris.
The colour and conceptual art elements of his work don’t seem so grandiose and untethered once one understands his background in martial arts. Making his work no less influential or brilliant, the relationship between the judo belts and concepts of understanding, realisation, or enlightenment blend harmoniously with his rose, gold, and blue periods and creative foray into the abstract conceptual. Within Yves Klein’s blue period, we can most notably go back to those aforementioned nude ladies or “living paintbrushes”; the body is represented as the point of creation, the source of power, and a “pure idea”.
Philosophically, both judo and Klein held an interest in derivations of “the void”- an emptiness that holds the weight of that which is imbued upon it, and thus becomes immeasurably powerful. Judo believes in using softness to combat hardness (jū yoku gō o seisu), the lack or void of traditional or expected techniques to vanquish an opponent. Despite his Duchampian love for spectacle, Klein more directly produced projects focused on a void: The two most famous pieces, almost painfully dull in their titles, are “The Void” exhibition held in Iris Clert Gallery in 1958, consisting of an empty gallery, and his photograph, “Leap Into the Void”. The former bringing in a crowd so large it had to be broken up by police (people love to get riled up over nothing) and the latter presenting an idea of ascension to the greater unknown.
Paradoxically, Judo loves the takedown. And so did Klein. His unprecedented style brought the idea of “art” at the time to its knees, breaking down the established notions of what made art. Through monotones, he divulged the complexity of existence and, “viewing himself as a genius, he believed” that through “bad taste” he could acquire that which was ‘far beyond what is traditionally termed “The Work of Art.”’ Now, ironically, it is in good taste to be into (his) bad taste.
By Alice Bauer
Top Image: Yves Klein. The Monochrome. IKB45. 1957.
Action Jeans campaign. 1989.
Yves Klein. Photographs.