Art The first and so far only comments card I've ever filled in Tate Liverpool was about Yves Klein. One of his blue paintings, IKB 79 1959, was once part of the permanent exhibition. One day, this must be over a decade and a half ago, I was in an especially cantankerous mood and noticed that, because the painting was behind glass and positioned in a particular place with a florescent light above it, the blueness seemed to be off colour, slightly dull, the shimmer of the pigment only really visible along the edges. After chatting to the invigilator, I headed to the foyer and filled the white space on the card and popped it in the box, not expecting a reply.
Tate replied via email and explained to me what's now patently clear. That the painting has to be behind glass for protection purposes and so it's almost impossible not for light to be reflected off the surface no matter were the painting was hung. Would you believe I argued back about this? But the exchange was perfectly cordial and in retrospect especially patient considering my ignorance. There's always a trade-off in museums between displaying and preserving an object and sometimes, because of the very nature of a painting or sculpture or an example of the decorative arts, there isn't a perfect solution.
IKB 79 1959 returns to Tate Liverpool for this retrospective and remains one of art history's greatest achievements, breathtaking in its execution and visual beauty. Displayed in a corner near the entrance, as far away from direct light as possible, it has an almost supernaturally watchful presence within the gallery, with all the foreboding of Clarke's monolith. It shimmers as your eyes find it impossible to quite focus on its aquamarine surface, unable to fix on any particular details. To stand before it, is to find your emotions being absorbed and reflected back, as it broods, smiles, addresses, surprises and it's impossible not to look, to want to look, addicted by its luminosity.
International Klein Blue or IKB, was created with the help of the chemist and paint dealer, Edouard Adam, attempting to retain the radiant blue that the dry pigment has even after it had been applied to the canvas. The result is the bluest of blues, with all the lucidity of the skies in the Giotto frescoes which were the painter's initial inspiration. Giotto mixed lapis lazuli with egg tempera and oil which hasn't aged well in some cases but Klein's "trick" was to suspend the pigment in a synthetic resin, Rhodopas, described by Klein as "The Medium." As a result the surface has much the same quality as it must have done when he originally applied the paint.
If the exhibition had simply been an empty room with this at the centre, then nothing more would need to be said, an example of an artist at the apogee of his creative powers, what would be the perfect album for a musician, the unrepeatable novel for a writer, the first feature film whose magic can't be recreated. But like any creative, Yves Klein during his slender life (he died of a heart attack at thirty-four in 1962 just after most of these paintings were produced), kept trying, kept working and if the rest of the items in the exhibition are any evidence, wasn't fucking around. As well as a painter, he was a judo master, one of the few in Europe at that time, and there's even a startling photo of him leaping off a building (albeit heavily staged).
But IKB 70 1959 doesn't exist in isolation. Klein painted over two hundred similar paintings, trying out different painting techniques from brush to roller to sponge and there are smaller examples of these blue voids elsewhere in the show. In his 1957 show, Monochrome Proposals, Klein displayed eleven identically sized blue monochromes with different prices to "focus our attention of the sensitivity of artistic expression and the role of the audience". But they are different, with varying textures leading to other ways in which the light shines from the canvas but few as successful as the larger work.
Similarly, there's a rainbow of even smaller monochromes collected together with only purple missing from the usual list and other than the IKB, none of them are actually monochrome, either because of blotchy paintwork, or dirt which has collected on the surface across the decades or fading. Around the same time, Klein experimented with utilising his pigment within sponges either attached to the surface of a canvas or as stand alone sculptures, but this has a dulling effect, making it just seem like the kind of blue water based paint we'd use in school, artificial. But it's important for us to see these choices in order to appreciate the miracle of IKB 70 1959.
Half of the main display space is filled with Klein's Anthropetries, in which the artist attempted to find a crossover between performance art and creating something with aesthetic qualities. A film is included demonstrating how these works were achieved, as the artist daubs naked women with blue paint and they then press their bodies against the canvas, the idea of a whole being becoming living paint brushes. People with long memories, or want to click here, can see a recreation of just this on Channel 4's Club X in 1989 during a live television broadcast, which even filtered through TV Hell's presentation is still fascinating.
Klein said that he considered his paintings to be "ashes" of the original work implying that the actual art work was the process of creation rather than the results. But creative people always say that their output is always a goshima shadow of the version they had in their heads, and it's possible, that the very great artists in all media are those who're able to replicate the version they have in their head to the rest of us as close as is meaningfully possible. Klein was able to do just this. IKB 70 1959 is one of a small number of paintings which has the capacity to create sense of wonder despite its apparently simplistic formal qualities and shouldn't be missed.
Yves Klein (with Edward Krasinski) is at Tate Liverpool, 21 October - 5 March 2017. £10.00 / £8/00.