A man hangs suspended in mid-air. His arms are outstretched. He could be a swimmer about to plunge into ocean depths. Except that he is fully clothed, and metres below him is the hard pavement. That he will fall, and fall heavily, on this unforgiving surface seems inevitable, certain, but in this instant this has yet to happen. It is still in the future. Perhaps it may not even happen?
The image is Yves Klein’s “Le Saut dans la Vide”; the man is Klein himself, frozen for an instant above a pavement in the southern suburbs of Paris. We do not know what happens next. A thirty-foot replica of this photograph hangs today from the outside wall of the Centre Pompidou, Beaubourg, in central Paris. It advertises their retrospective of Klein’s work, which will be shown until February of next year. I’ve been there myself to see the show, quite a few times now. I have a “Laissez Passer” for Beaubourg and I’ve been spending a lot of my weekends there. I’ll have to write about the other shows I’ve seen there, at some point.
I didn’t know so much about Klein before I went to see the exhibition, I certainly didn’t know that he died of a sudden heart attack at 34; all pictures of him are pictures of a young man. Before his intersection with the unyielding earth.
Klein invented a colour, “IKB” or” “International Klein Blue”. In exhibition space in Beaubourg there are entire rooms filled with paintings consisting of only this colour. Square canvasses of IKB. But it is a very strange colour. Wikipedia will tell you that it is location in colour space is #002FA7, a simple number, a simple shade of blue on a computer screen. But it is not. It has a luminous, fluorescent quality to it. It avoids one’s direct gaze. The edges of a IKB painting are obscure, it’s contours are difficult to fathom. A component of this colour concentrates the light around entering it, reflects it back as a deep and living blue.
I’d seen the IKB’s before, but never in such quantity. And the rest of the exhibition provided some interesting insights into the rest of Klein’s works, his philosophy based so strongly on the ephemeral and insubstantial. His designs for a city consisting where the buildings have no walls and ceilings. Everything is separated by a thin layer of air blown across the buildings. His endless experiments with flame and fire, the attempt to make a fountain for the Trocadero in Paris consisting of jets of fire and water which intersect and annihilate. Sculptures made from gaslight. His experiments with painting by flame and fire. In one (very funny I have to admit) film one follows the path of gas pipes and tubes — till the end, at once, there is Klein himself holding a canvas before a naked flame. A fireman with a hose stands at the ready, water to cancel fire. Klein even traces the form of women’s bodies against the flames of fire, flesh interposed between canvas and fire.
Just how serious was this man, I wanted to know. I thought of Rothko’s pantings, the colour field artists in America. What relation did they have to Klein’s eternal blue? Was this what Douglas Adams meant when he talked about a ‘superintelligent shade of the colour blue’ (probably not)? Enough to have tried. Enough to have tried. Meanwhile, Klein’s body still hangs suspended above the street, detached from the steel and glass surface of Beaubourg, and the future has yet to happen.