September 13, 2007

Transaction Voided


“Having rejected nothingness, I discovered the void. The meaning of the immaterial pictorial zones, extracted from the depth of the void which by that time was of a very material order. Finding it unacceptable to sell these immaterial zones for money, I insisted in exchange for the highest quality of the immaterial, the highest quality of material payment — a bar of pure gold. Incredible as it may seem, I have actually sold a number of these pictorial immaterial states . . . Painting no longer appeared to me to be functionally related to the gaze, since during the blue monochrome period of 1957 I became aware of what I called the pictorial sensibility. This pictorial sensibility exists beyond our being and yet belongs in our sphere. We hold no right of possession over life itself. It is only by the intermediary of our taking possession of sensibility that we are able to purchase life. Sensibility enables us to pursue life to the level of its base material manifestations, in the exchange and barter that are the universe of space, the immense totality of nature.”(1)

When Yves Klein wrote these words in his “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto” in 1961, he was possibly still despondent over the theatrical release of Gualtiero Jacopetti’s “shockumentary” Mondo Cane, an inane and exploitative pseudo-documentary that was supposed to feature one of Klein’s infamous Anthropométrie de l'Époque bleue performance works. Yves apparently had been misled into believing that his “actions” featuring nude models swathed in his signature “International Klein Blue (IKB)” would have a respectable position within the film. The Walker Art Center’s Philippe Vergne has noted that it was Klein’s “mistaken belief that the filmmaker would do for him what Hans Namuth did for Jackson Pollock, what Henri-Georges Clouzot did for Picasso.” The resultant film barely touches on Klein and his visionary performance is sandwiched somewhere between savage hog slaughter and New Zealand mating habits.

Klein died of a heart attack a year after writing his manifesto. Yet his prophetic art paved the way for the conceptual art to come and continues to provide unique theoretical ground to explore. One of his most significant contributions to conceptualism is the idea of these “immaterial pictorial sensibility zones” which he “exhibited” and “actually sold.” Klein describes the “sensible pictorial state” in 1959:

“With this endeavor I desire to create, establish and present to the public a sensible pictorial state within the limits of an exhibition gallery for ordinary paintings. In other words, to create an ambiance, a pictorial climate which is invisible, but present in the spirit of what Delacroix in his journal calls ‘the indefinable,’ which he considers as the very essence of painting. The invisible pictorial state of the space in the gallery should in every respect be what has so far been offered as the best definition of painting in general, that is, invisible and intangible radiance.”(2)

The year before, Klein had spent forty-eight hours alone within Galerie Iris Clert painting the walls white. When this exhibition opened, there was nothing to see but Le Vide, or The Void, and chaos ensued as gallery visitors searched in vain for the “art.” Klein believed his physical act of painting the walls white had not only removed all visual emphasis on art as an “object” but that the gallery had been imbued with “immateriality.”

Klein further extends this “conceptual logic” in his “Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zones” that virtually outline how a transfer of the “ownership” of said “zone” would be “relinquished against a certain weight of fine gold.”(3) It was this transaction of gold from new “owner” to Klein that seemingly authenticated the immateriality of the “work” as art, although “there was no proof that they had ever owned the invisible work. The making, purchase and ownership of the work of art had become a mystery, or ritual.”(4)

“Every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensitivity zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has payed takes away all authentic immaterial value from the work, although it is in his possession.”(5)

Because the putative “ownership” of the “immaterial” work of art is both authenticated and negated by a transaction or exchange of gold, Klein offers us two insights concerning art; art is not necessarily wedded to materiality, and the transaction focuses attention on art’s exchange value. Thus, Klein further complicates and elaborates upon earlier Twentieth Century ideas concerning art’s definition begun by Duchamp.

Klein’s introduction of “immateriality” and “ownership” into the discourse of art has been relatively overlooked as his blue monochromes and anthropometries have taken center stage. It would become quite clear in later conceptual art of the 1960’s that art can be as intangible as an idea. Lucy Lippard believed that conceptual art enacted nothing less than a de-materialization of the art object. There is also recent conjecture that the immateriality of Klein’s work is identical to the aura of Klein himself: “In 'Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility,' it is the aura of Klein which is being sold and exhibited, rather than a painting, drawing or sculpture.”(6)

This may perhaps misinterpret Walter Benjamin’s clarification of the aura of a work of art when he wrote: “It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.”(7)

We ought not confuse Klein’s conceptualization of the immateriality of “art” with the “spell of the personality.” Klein’s genius was to position the “work” of art as both a commodity and conceptual “object” by conferring an exchange value on an intangible “idea” through a ritual transaction. This presumably would reinvest the art object with its intrinsic yet frequently “lost” use value.


Image: Yves Klein and Dino Buzzati transact a "Ritual" on January 26, 1962. © Copyright by Yves Klein Archives.



1. Klein, Yves. “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto”, 1961.

2. Klein, Yves. “Conference de la Sorbonne, June 3, 1959,” reprinted by Editions Galerie Montaigne, 1992.

3. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 81.

4. Godfrey, Tony. Conceptual Art, London, 2004, 81.

5. Op. cit.

6. Grant, Jennifer. “Yves Klein's Zones of Immaterial Space: The Questioning of Ownership, Exhibition and Aura”.

7. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935, 5.

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