To sign the aether, as the French artist, Yves Klein, did at the age of nineteen, is to claim it as one’s chosen province for waking and dreaming. Aether is the element of origin, the field where matter and energy have their genesis from a nebulous state. It is the unknowable nature of life and the sleep to which each of us shall one day return. Everything is held within the embrace of aether, which is itself infinitude. For Klein, his art was to become a personal odyssey into the aethereal realm as he attempted to extinguish the phantoms of conscious haunting and escape into the blue space that predates, succeeds and surrounds our own sphere of living.
But how are we to reach the unreachable?
In his first public exhibition, Klein distributed his work in the form of a book, Yves Peintures, which featured monochrome reproductions of paintings without an original. The original is thus the unknowable aspect of the artwork, not subtracted from the reproduction in the booklet, or exterior to it, but always already absent. Each of us, as humans limited by our senses, must content ourselves with imagined reproductions of what we believe the cosmos might look like from the other side of infinity. Klein saw it as a monochrome void, not of celestial or empyrean blue, but an unmitigated blue that obscures all grades of difference. A blue that is emptiness, infinite contingency and infinite interrelation. A blue that is unity. A blue that represents nothing but itself. A blue that assumes the audience into its own transparency, infiltrating their psyches and becoming them. In Yves Peintures, Klein is yet to settle on blue as a primary mode of artistic expression, as he instead devotes himself to exploring the possibilities of monochrome plates of various different colours. Similarly inscrutable to these plates is the preface to the book, which is without proper text or reference and completely redacted. The monochrome ‘paintings’ symbolize nothing outside their printed dimensions. No context is given. Nothing is said about art or artist. The meaning, if one chooses to look for any, is anonymous. For the audience, there is only their temporal interaction with the colour and its shaping. Only the primal indentation it makes upon the psyche. We are thus returned to the original phase of recapitulation at the same time as we reach the final phase of all being.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Klein’s ‘Blue Epoch’ is that, for him, the void isn’t black, white, grey or colourless. The void is blue. Or more accurately, the void is Klein’s chosen shade of blue. The indivisible singularity of his creative expression, International Klein Blue (IKB), the signature hue in which monad and cipher become indistinguishable from one another. When the only unit left is one, it becomes impossible to say whether the one represents divine unity or absolute nothingness. Indeed there is no longer any definite border between them. The infinite and the void have become not only identical, but of a superimposed sameness. The monochrome colour plates become a zone of endless interpretation. Lines and shapes have been abandoned as the tools of our incarceration; liberation from form is to be found through the aperture of undifferentiation.
When confronted with unadulterated colour, the audience is forced to engage, not only with the innate psychical qualities of it, and with the bemusing nature of encountering a structureless space, but also with themselves and how they react to it. In abstracting itself, the art goes beyond the abstract and finds its way to primordial essence. After lamenting the public’s efforts to draw relations between various monochrome paintings at one of his first physical exhibitions, Klein decided to focus primarily on the colour blue, to avoid any erroneous attempts at interpreting a connection or narrative between his separate works. The chosen medium of IKB was the blue of absolute aether, in which the audience could find anything they held inside their souls. It was all within and outside of their reach simultaneously. The discourse between audience and art was the enigma of experience itself, the ineffable extraction of feeling from the inanimate monad. The blue creates immediate distance and immediate proximity to the work. There is no escape from it, nor is there any possibility of coming into contact with it. Raw pigment and raw experience. Emancipation of the spirit. The momentary transcendence of self and materiality into the sacred medium of IKB or aether. The blue of both water and sky. The blue of the first instant after creation, which grants one a spiritual immersion in quintessence.
In his work, Klein rejects the possibility of artistic influences. There is only the individual and their unique perception of the concepts of nothingness and totality. Perhaps this is one direction in which experimental art has found a final route: infinitude and nothingness, and the varied expressions of their unity, the varied interactions between the audience and these twinned concepts. Our only tools are once again our senses. The picture has been vanquished. There is only the paint, the canvas and ourselves to encounter, desperate humans attempting to interpret the uninterpretable. Art reduced to its bare essence. The futile struggle towards knowing the mind of a god we no longer believe in. The labour of giving birth to a cosmos of form in a formless cosmos. The art that transcends parameters, but never those it most wants to transcend.
In contrast with da Vinci’s Deluge Drawings, wherein the shapeless flux of celestial waters are portrayed as the original state of being, the monochrome IKB canvases depict what may be conceived as a deluge is the true state of all being, atemporal and aspacial in nature; its true image is a single shade without fluctuation. But that isn’t to say these paintings are ideograms. The point being there is no idea except what the audience inflicts upon the painting, which is itself emptiness. To keep ourselves from imprinting our identities upon the painting, we would have to unwork consciousness. It’s like standing in front of a mirror, in the gloom, and letting your mind make grotesque masks of the face you’ve grown accustomed to as it tries to invent a coherent image for what it cannot fully perceive. We are forced to confront ourselves in the depthless blue and there is no escape from it. No wisps of potential elucidation. Nothing for us to grasp onto, and so the art is in the mind and its endless attempts at grasping something, at inventing an object or an idea for itself to hold onto and bear it out of the path of the Flood, which is also blue, and which erases everything that has come before; a monochrome shade both destroys and delivers.
Art is mirrored in the cosmic cycle. What emerges from nothing or the singularity, depending on personal preference, returns to its original state. Klein leaves it up to each individual to decide which they want to believe in: the void as nothingness or the void as a godhead without parts or qualities. His monochrome plates force us to position ourselves both within and against these metaphysical concepts, in a confrontation of such unforgiving power we may never have as profound an experience again in our lives. The void is both the vanishing point of infinity and the point of all origin. In Klein’s monochrome IKB paintings, the audience comes to realize that not only are the ‘locations’ of the first and last instant the same, but so are their processes. By stripping away everything extraneous, in true minimalistic fashion, Klein, as perhaps no other painter had done before him (even Rothko had yet to arrive at such experiments), approaches, through his art, the utter simplicity of truth. At no stage is this truth knowable or expressible to another human. The zone of truth is where the individual, alone, becomes lost for a period of time, before retreating, as we must always do, back into the zone of half-truth, as occurs when the audience inevitably turns away from the painting. The void, as Klein envisioned it, remains just outside our reach, as is evident from his monochrome IKB paintings. The sought-after experience evades us. The void is blue and it’s up to his audience to decide whether or not its truth, or absence of truth, is attainable.