“Scatter Shots” last May, I took issue with Pepe Karmel’s Art in America review of the Yves Klein retrospective exhibit held at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden here in Washington, D.C. I subsequently emailed an expanded version of my critique to AiA and in September they published my letter and Mr. Karmel’s reply. Without transcribing Pepe’s response verbatim, suffice to say he didn’t buy my theory that Klein foresaw “immateriality” as a conceptual move and felt that I needed “to show what critical position in particular [Karmel’s emphasis] his work exemplifies.” As it happens, one of my theory students at Corcoran College of Art + Design has done that and more. Jackie Hoysted has written an essay that eloquently substantiates how Klein “negated” the commodity status of the work of art with his “Immaterial Zones” and, furthermore, that Klein “removes the possibility that the receipt becomes valuable. He [Klein] overturns the normal concept of a receipt as proof of ownership and stipulates, ‘every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensibility zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has paid takes away all his possessions.’” In the interest of a sustained discourse on Klein's contribution to conceptual art, I happily share Jackie’s complete essay for the readers of this blog. As always, I encourage readers to alert Mr. Karmel to this new “reply” so that he might re-join the discussion.
Yves Klein: Metaphysicist, Trickster or Marketer Extraordinaire
Conceptually Yves Klein’s “Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility Zones” is a hard act to follow. It is a wonderful play on the antonymous meanings of the expression “to have and to have not” as can be related to conventional notions of art. At its core, the art concept describes a transaction that requires the exchange of gold by the buyer, in return for a receipt from the artist, as proof of purchase of an “immaterial zone” or rather a portion of the void. Although, the receipt is proof of purchase and is transferable, Klein stipulates that it is not proof of, and does not bestow, ownership of the immaterial zone. For ownership to occur, the buyer must burn the receipt. For the owner to become integrated with the work, he/she must partake in a ritual with Klein and art professionals as witnesses, where half the gold exchanged be thrown away, never to be recovered.
At face value, what Klein proposes is a spiritual event – he is offering the purchaser of his immaterial pictorial sensibility zones the possibility to experience transcendence from the realm of the material to the immaterial. Klein adopted the terms human or cosmic “sensibility” or “pure energy” to refer to the soul and believed that the works of an artist (or at least Klein’s own works) are imbued with his soul or presence.(i) Later, he clarified, that the “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.”(ii) Thus, when he suggests that the buyer destroy the receipt so that “the fundamental immaterial value of the zone belongs to him and becomes part of him” he is creating a pathway through which the buyer can liberate himself/herself and imbue the art with life (pure energy) and to fully experience an authentic work of art.
Additionally, the exchange of pure gold, a symbol of purity and great value, removes any taint of an ordinary commercial transaction. As Klein puts it “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.”(iii) The act of throwing half the gold into a river can be seen as a symbolic offering perhaps mimicking the mythological figure El Dorado who threw gold into the lake as an offering to the Gods. The required presence of three witnesses recognizes that this transference of a work of art has occurred and perhaps mimics the biblical story of the birth of Christ and the three wise men that bore witness to the event.
Klein’s proposition is so loaded with humor and irony that it is difficult to gauge the depth of his sincerity or to dispel the notion that the concept is the work of a charlatan. Although Klein had very much the reputation of a showman, nothing in Klein’s own writings suggest anything but his total sincerity in his beliefs and, accounts of the event, although scathing, do not claim to have detected anything dishonest or humorous in Klein’s outward behavior. Michael Blankfort, the first purchaser of the immaterial zones lauded the event and described the experience as a metaphysical one: “I must add that I've had no other experience in art equal to the depth of feeling of this one. It evoked in me a shock of self-recognition and an explosion of awareness of time and space."(iv) Furthermore, Klein was a devout Christian and was inspired by Zen and Rosicrucian philosophies so this ritual could legitimately be considered an honest and natural outgrowth of his beliefs and practices. His prayer to St. Rita where he asks her to intercede with God on his behalf to grant him “the grace of living in … [his] works and that they always become more beautiful”(v) suggests a certain humility and piety in his intentions.
However, it is easier to view Klein as a charlatan. What trickery and audacity – he is challenging the art world to believe that he can inject his soul into “immaterial pictorial sensibility zones” and offers art collectors the opportunity to purchase weighted portions of them in exchange for pure gold. Here Klein goes way beyond Duchamp and the audacity of his presentation of a ready-made urinal as an ‘object d’art’, to an artwork that has no material existence and cannot be proven to exist on any plane. Klein’s artwork or “zones” exist purely in a mental capacity, i.e., they are purely conceptual and the art “appreciator” can choose to accept the concept or not. Indeed, the proposal could be viewed as a modern day enactment of the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and one could go further and suggest that the art “appreciator” may not be capable of “understanding” or “seeing” the idea or concept. In any event, two traditional concepts in art are now negated or thrown into a state of flux – firstly, the need for the artist to produce a physical art object and secondly, the need to validate or appreciate an artwork just by virtue of being able to “see” it. In the context of discussing Klein’s artwork, the words “art viewer” and “art object” are totally redundant. All possibility of discussing the form or the beauty of the object is removed from the art context.
Not only has the art conversation changed from art object and viewer to art concept and appreciator but the language used to describe the artist has changed also. In this context, typical terminology used to describe an artist has become too restrictive. It is inappropriate to call Klein a painter or sculptor or indeed a maker of physical things at all. We see him as an alchemist or metaphysicist, one, who like Joseph Beuys later on, imbues meanings into his work. In Klein’s case, he imbues his soul into all his works, even the immaterial. He is a performer, mimicking religious rituals. He is one who has special knowledge.
The removal of the art object also disrupts the traditional notion of art as commodity. Klein proffers a written receipt, as proof that the bearer purchased one of his immaterial zones. There is no exchange of goods because there are no material goods or physical objects produced. From the standpoint of an art collector, the possession of the exchanged receipt is the only proof that a transaction for the purchase of an immaterial zone took place at all. In the commercial market, in the absence of having a physical work of art or in the case of an exchange of services, the monetary value of the artwork would rest on the existence of the receipt, i.e., the receipt would most likely appreciate in value over time. The artwork has no value here, only the receipt. The receipt is valuable only because it has interest as an artifact, as a mere document.
But Klein, wickedly, is not satisfied that he has negated the meaning of art as commodity or art for investment. He goes much further and removes the possibility that the receipt becomes valuable. He overturns the normal concept of a receipt as proof of ownership and stipulates, “every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensibility zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has paid takes away all his possessions.” He is saying that ownership is not vested in the receipt. There is no entitlement to the immaterial zone by virtue of ownership of the receipt. In fact, holding onto the receipt negates the possibility of gaining possession of the “goods.” In this way, Klein negates the accepted norms of how we understand and communicate that a commercial exchange of goods and services has taken place.
Klein no longer has art collectors but has followers and he leaves no room for “Doubting Thomases” amongst his apostles. You do not ask the priests for insurance against God not existing. You don’t go to church and ask for a receipt as proof that God exists. You have faith or do not have faith. Likewise, Klein insists on total faith and total commitment and explains that in order for “the fundamental immaterial value of the zones belong to him and becomes part of him” the buyer must burn the receipt and partake in a ritual where Klein, in the presence of witnesses, throws half the gold exchanged in the river. Only in this way the zone “belongs to the buyer absolutely and intrinsically.” Once relinquished in this way, the zones are no longer transferable by the owner. Ownership of a work of art is now redefined as the investment of oneself, of ones being, in the work of art. It no longer refers to the acquisition or physical possession of a material object. To truly own a work of art one must be part of a work of art. By participation in the ritual, the buyer invests himself in the process and Klein acts as intermediary to facilitate it. This concept of ritual, performance and art as transformation can be seen as a forerunner to Joseph Beuys’ performance “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” in an exhibition at the Schmela Gallery in Düsseldorf in 1965 and his later statement that “everyone is an artist.”(vi) In his performance Beuys, with his face covered in gold and honey, acts as a shaman and explains the meaning of art to the dead hare. Animals he believed “comprehend more than many human beings with their stubborn rationalism."(vii) His purpose was to highlight the futility of trying to explain art to the uninitiated. Klein too allows that anyone can become an artist but only by becoming his initiate during one of his rituals.
Duchamp claimed that – “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.”(viii) Klein, with his relinquishment ceremony extends Duchamp’s thought and insists that the work is not complete or does not even completely exist without the spectator. The relinquishment ceremony requires participation from the art appreciator. Art spectators have no possibility to appreciate Klein’s work. It is has to be experienced. Conversely, Klein does pay heed to what Duchamp has said and is aware that he alone could not guarantee the legitimacy of his work. As insurance, he stipulated that three witnesses be present at the ritual with one – either “an art critic or distinguished dealer, an art museum director” – coming from the gatekeepers of the art world. Klein ensured that posterity would know about his work and have opportunity to offer a verdict on it.
One final twist worth pondering – prior to burning the receipt, the transaction was to be recorded in the stub of the Bankers checkbook that Klein had written all the receipts. It remains the only physical object that truly records the relinquishment rituals and hence of real monetary value. It certainly still exists and was on exhibit at the Klein’s recent retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Presumably, it remained in Yves Klein’s hands. Could he be suggesting that the art value and appreciation value is the sole right of its creator and not the collector? Does the Klein estate still own it or perhaps, a collector acquired it? If so, was it exchanged for money?
Image: Cheques for Immaterial Sensibility; © Copyright by Estate of Yves Klein.
i "The Monochrome Adventure," Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, Spring Publications, 2007.
ii "Chelsea Hotel Manifesto," Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, Spring Publications, 2007.
iii "Chelsea Hotel Manifesto," 1961.
iv Michael Blankfort, in Yves Klein USA, Paris, 2009, 181.
v Klein, Yves, "Prayer to St. Rita," 1961.
vi Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, Thames & Hudson, 7.
vii Joseph Beuys, quoted in Ursula Meyer, "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare," Artnews 68, No. 9, January, 1970.
viii Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19, 1961; published in "Art and Artists," No. 1, July 1966.