Yves Klein (French pronunciation: [iv klɛ̃]; 28 April 1928 – 6 June 1962) was a French artist and an important figure in post-war European art. He was a leading member of the French artistic movement of Nouveau réalisme founded in 1960 by art critic Pierre Restany. Klein was a pioneer in the development of performance art, and is seen as an inspiration to and as a forerunner of minimal art, as well as pop art.
From 1942 to 1946, Klein studied at the École Nationale de la Marine Marchande and the École Nationale des Langues Orientales. At this time, he became friends with Arman (Armand Fernandez) and Claude Pascal and started to paint. At the age of nineteen, Klein and his friends lay on a beach in the south of France, and divided the world between themselves; Arman chose the earth, Pascal, words, while Klein chose the ethereal space surrounding the planet, which he then proceeded to sign:
With this famous symbolic gesture of signing the sky, Klein had foreseen, as in a reverie, the thrust of his art from that time onwards—a quest to reach the far side of the infinite.
Between 1947 and 1948, Klein conceived his Monotone Symphony (1949, formally Monotone Silence Symphony) that consisted of a single 20-minute sustained chord followed by a 20-minute silence—a precedent to both La Monte Young’s drone music and John Cage’s 4′33″.
In early 1948, Klein was exposed to Max Heindel’s 1909 text The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception and pursued a membership with an American society dedicated to Rosicrucianism. 
Yves Klein, IKB 191, 1962
From the reactions of the audience, [Klein] realized that…viewers thought his various, uniformly colored canvases amounted to a new kind of bright, abstract interior decoration. Shocked at this misunderstanding, Klein knew a further and decisive step in the direction of monochrome art would have to be taken…From that time onwards he would concentrate on one single, primary color alone: blue.
The next exhibition, ‘Proposte Monocrome, Epoca Blu’ (Proposition Monochrome; Blue Epoch) at the Gallery Apollinaire, Milan, (January 1957), featured 11 identical blue canvases, using ultramarine pigment suspended in a synthetic resin ‘Rhodopas’, described by Klein as “The Medium”. Discovered with the help of Edouard Adam, a Parisian paint dealer, the optical effect retained the brilliance of the pigment which, when suspended in linseed oil, tended to become dull. Klein later deposited a Soleau envelope for this recipe to maintain the “authenticity of the pure idea.” This colour, reminiscent of the lapis lazuli used to paint the Madonna’s robes in medieval paintings, was to become known as International Klein Blue (IKB). The paintings were attached to poles placed 20 cm away from the walls to increase their spatial ambiguities.
The show was a critical and commercial success, traveling to Paris, Düsseldorf and London. The Parisian exhibition, at the Iris Clert Gallery in May 1957, became a seminal happening. To mark the opening, 1001 blue balloons were released and blue postcards were sent out using IKB stamps that Klein had bribed the postal service to accept as legitimate. Concurrently, an exhibition of tubs of blue pigment and fire paintings was held at Galerie Collette Allendy.
Le Vide (The Void) displayed at the Iris Clert Gallery
The art historian Olivier Berggruen situates Klein “as one who strove for total liberation,” forming connections between perverse ritual and a disdain of convention. Klein had studied judo in Japan between 1952 and 1954, and also displayed an interest in Zen Buddhism. According to Berggruen, he used ritual as a means not to attain belief, but rather as a forum through which to reach abstraction—transcending worldly vestiges temporarily, and returning to earth as a new being.
Recently my work with color has led me, in spite of myself, to search little by little, with some assistance (from the observer, from the translator), for the realization of matter, and I have decided to end the battle. My paintings are now invisible and I would like to show them in a clear and positive manner, in my next Parisian exhibition at Iris Clert’s.
Sponge Relief (1959), Musiktheater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen
Klein’s last two exhibitions at Iris Clert’s were Vitesse Pure et Stabilité Monochrome (Sheer Speed and Monochrome Stability), November 1958, a collaboration with Jean Tinguely, of kinetic sculptures, and Bas-Reliefs dans une Forêt d’Éponges (Bas-Reliefs in a Sponge Forest), June 1959, a collection of sponges that Klein had used to paint IKB canvases, mounted on steel rods and set in rocks that he’d found in his parents’ garden.
Klein and Arman were continually involved with each other creatively, both as Nouveaux Réalistes and as friends. Both from Nice, the two worked together for many years and Arman even named his son, Yves Arman after Yves Klein who was his god-father.
Sometimes the creation of these paintings was turned into a kind of performance art—an event in 1960, for example, had an audience dressed in formal evening wear watching the models go about their task while an instrumental ensemble played Klein’s 1949 The Monotone Symphony (a single 20-minute sustained chord followed by a 20-minute silence).
In the performance piece, Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility) 1959–62, he offered empty spaces in the city in exchange for gold. He wanted his buyers to experience The Void by selling them empty space. In his view this experience could only be paid for in the purest material: gold. In exchange, he gave a certificate of ownership to the buyer. As the second part of the piece, performed on the Seine with an Art critic in attendance, if the buyer agreed to set fire to the certificate, Klein would throw half the gold into the river, in order to restore the “natural order” that he had unbalanced by selling the empty space (that was now not “empty” anymore). He used the other half of the gold to create a series of gold-leafed works, which, along with a series of pink monochromes, began to augment his blue monochromes toward the end of his life.
Le Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void); Photomontage by Shunk–Kender of a performance by Klein at Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-aux-Roses, October 1960
Klein’s work revolved around a Zen-influenced concept he came to describe as “le Vide” (the Void). Klein’s Void is a nirvana-like state that is void of worldly influences; a neutral zone where one is inspired to pay attention to one’s own sensibilities, and to “reality” as opposed to “representation”. Klein presented his work in forms that were recognized as art—paintings, a book, a musical composition—but then would take away the expected content of that form (paintings without pictures, a book without words, a musical composition without in fact composition) leaving only a shell, as it were. In this way he tried to create for the audience his “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility”. Instead of representing objects in a subjective, artistic way, Klein wanted his subjects to be represented by their imprint: the image of their absence. Klein’s work strongly refers to a theoretical/arthistorical context as well as to philosophy/metaphysics and with his work he aimed to combine these. He tried to make his audience experience a state where an idea could simultaneously be “felt” as well as “understood”.
In Blue Obelisk, a project that he had failed to realise in 1958, but that finally happened in 1983, he appropriated the Place de la Concorde by shining blue spotlights onto the central obelisk.
A large retrospective was held at Krefeld, Germany, January 1961, followed by an unsuccessful opening at Leo Castelli’s Gallery, New York, in which Klein failed to sell a single painting. He stayed with Rotraut at the Chelsea Hotel for the duration of the exhibition; and, while there, he wrote the “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto”, a proclamation of the “multiplicity of new possibilities.” In part, the manifesto declared:
At present, I am particularly excited by “bad taste.” I have the deep feeling that there exists in the very essence of bad taste a power capable of creating those things situated far beyond what is traditionally termed “The Work of Art.” I wish to play with human feeling, with its “morbidity” in a cold and ferocious manner. Only very recently I have become a sort of gravedigger of art (oddly enough, I am using the very terms of my enemies). Some of my latest works have been coffins and tombs. During the same time I succeeded in painting with fire, using particularly powerful and searing gas flames, some of them measuring three to four meters high. I use these to bathe the surface of the painting in such a way that it registered the spontaneous trace of fire.
He moved on to exhibit at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, and traveled extensively in the Western U.S., visiting Death Valley in the Mojave Desert. On 21 January 1962, in an elaborate ceremony in which Klein dressed as a Knight of the Order of St Sebastian, he married Rotraut Uecker, sister of German artist Günther Uecker, at Saint-Nicholas-des-Champs, Paris. His last works included painting geophysical reliefs of France and casting his friends’ torsos, painting them blue, and attaching them to gold-leafed supports.
He suffered a heart attack while watching the film Mondo cane (in which he is featured) at the Cannes Film Festival on 11 May 1962. Two more heart attacks followed, the second of which killed him on 6 June 1962. His son, Yves Amu Klein [fr], was born on 6 August in Nice. Yves Amu studied architecture, design, cybernetics theory of systems, and Fine Arts sculpture. He went on to create robotized sculptures. Rotraut Klein married the photographer and designer Daniel Moquay, and has homes in Paris; Phoenix, Arizona; and Sydney, Australia.
A sort of parody of Klein’s Anthropometry performance is featured in the film Wise Guys (original title: Les Godelureaux) directed by Claude Chabrol released in 1961.
The Yves Klein archive is housed in Phoenix, Arizona, where his widow Rotraut Klein-Moquay has a home.
In 2013, Klein’s Sculpture Éponge Bleue Sans Titre, SE 168, a 1959 sculpture made with natural sea sponges drenched in blue pigment fetched $22 million, the highest price paid for a sculpture by the artist.
The estate of Yves Klein has been represented by Galerie Gmurzynska for the past three decades.