The Formidable Blue Stamp of Yves Klein
by John Held, Jr.
My intention is to trace the history of one of the first examples of a postage stamp created by an artist, but the fact that the stamp was created by Yves Klein, a French painter and conceptualist, makes this no easy task. He is a difficult artist to comprehend, and it is not my purpose to explain the full range of his accomplishments. Others have done that both well and in substantial fashion. Klein remains an influence on contemporary art, and as such, there is no lack of interest in his work. But previous to this essay, there has been no comprehensive investigation of his postage stamp of blue.
He was born April 28, 1928, into an artistic family. The early years of his life were a struggle between the love of his family, and his jealousy of the creative process that took much of his parent’s time. His father Fred Klein was a painter, and his mother, Marie Raymond, an important figure in the post-war avant-garde milieu of Paris, in which she was well-known for her Monday evening salons. As a result of his parent’s irregular habits, his education was spotty, and Klein was never to become an accomplished student.
He was fortunate to have met two other artists in his adolescence that were to be life-long friends and champions of his work, Arman and Claude Pascal. At a later point they would form the core of the School of Nice, and the New Realists.
Before this, however, they were just friends that had come together at a Judo Academy in Nice. Soon after their initial meeting, the three of them became interested in the occult, and especially in Rosicrucianism. They read texts sent to them from California, and after a period of intensive study, found a teacher who continued their investigations.
These explorations into Rosicrucianism had a lasting effect on Klein’s work, and he henceforth became saturated with notions associated with this spiritual quest, such as the primacy of the spirit over matter, levitation, harmony, etc. From these investigations a poetical spirit and a “beautiful megalomania” (as the artist Tinguely called it) grew.
With Claude Pascal, he went to London, England, to find himself, and it is there in 1946, that he claims to have composed his first monochome works, for which he became world renowned. From England, the two went to Ireland, emulating wandering monks, where the two worked on a horse farm. Pascal and Klein then parted ways, when Klein decided to pursue his continuing interest in Judo in Japan.
Returning from Japan, he attempted to pursue a professional career in Judo. He was disappointed in this when the French Judo Academy decided not to acknowledge the black belt he had earned in Japan. Klein did, however, both write a book on the subject, The Fundamentals of Judo, and opened a school of Judo in Paris.
He was rejected yet again when he attempted to submit a work to the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1955. Although Klein had mailed in the proper forms and had appeared in person to deliver the work, he received a telegram informing him that the work was unacceptable. The painting was of a single orange color. If only he would apply a dab of another color to the work suggesting the hand of the artist, the work could be hung. But just one color? No, that was unacceptable. As good friends of his mother, the jurors were eager to accommodate him. Yet Klein refused.
He arranged for a show shortly thereafter at the Club des Solitaires in October 1955, in which he exhibited monochromes of several colors. It went unnoticed except for a review by the young critic Pierre Restany, who was to become his champion. In Yves, Restany found “the structure of my thought and the conduct of my life, my style of life.” In return, Restany became the cultured voice Klein lacked.
Klein was a purist, and his mastery of Judo and studies in Rosicrucianism were seemingly based on a quest for inner equilibrium. This, unfortunately, seemed to have escaped him, and although a very pleasant companion to many, he seemed continually racked throughout his life by doubts, which were often masked in grandiose pronouncements and unrealistic expectations. Yet, it was the purity and intensity of this quest, which to this day marks him a figure of interest.
Other artists had created monochrome works, or drawn close to it. In fact, in 1925 Miro painted a blue monochrome, but it was an anomaly of his oeuvre. Some of these painters, like Malevich and Mondrian, were geometric abstractionists, whose all-over works were constructed upon mathematical principle. Others like Raushenberg’s white-on-white paintings (1951) and Ad Rhinhart’s black-on-black (1953), seem influenced by John Cage’s “theory of silence,” in that graduations of a seemingly sterile environment could evoke zen inspired contemplation. Frank Stella and Robert Ryman were other artists approaching the same discourse, yet it was Klein who seemed most involved with color itself, rather then geometry, art-as-art theory, or other theoretical inquires.
It is interesting that on his only trip to New York in 1961, Klein met several of the Abstract Expressionists including Mark Rothko, to whom he felt a great kinship. Yet Rothko turned his back on Klein, scorning him, as much of the New York artworld did, because of his shameless self-promotion and purported fascist leanings.
Klein’s quest for a monochrome art lead him to a particularly satisfying pigment, a personally mixed ultramarine that he was later to patent as International Klein Blue. These were first shown from January 2-12, 1957 at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan, Itlay. Eleven paintings were shown, all of the same size, painted in the same blue. Only the prices differed, and this became a source of much confusion. “Monochrome Proposition, Blue Period” opened to a great deal of critical controversy. Klein, however, was ably defended by Pierre Restany, who wrote to newspapers in support of his besieged friend.
This would not be the last time Klein would spark controversy or count on Restany to defend him from claims of frivolity. Restany always translated Klein’s seemingly incongruous actions in serious tones deflecting criticism and convincing others that Klein was at the edge of all that was new in contemporary art.
It was Restany’s contention that Klein and the others in what became known as the School of Nice and the New Realists, including Klein’s childhood friend Arman, were in opposition to the prevailing School of Paris and “l’art informel,” which reigned supreme in the rarified Parisian intellectual climate of the era. That while these artists were using informal materials to manifest the beauty of the commonplace, Klein had completely different aspirations, a spiritual art capable of effecting direct physical change. The prevailing attitude of the time, indeed as far away as New York, was for an expressive art. Klein’s art was cold, calculated, controlled. Restany described the blue paintings as “authentic silence” and “pure contemplation.”
Klein’s influence was already spreading. Manzoni came to his Milan opening and became a great enthusiast of Klein’s, shifting from his previous figurative style, and more closely emulating Klein’s work. The painter Lucio Fontana bought a work from the show and moved his own canvases closer to monochromy. Count Panza, who went on to form one of the great art collections of the time, also bought from the show.
Following the introduction of “Blue Epoque” in Milan, Pierre Restany was given the task of writing the invitation for Klein’s next show at the Iris Clert Gallery.
Iris Clert, a Greek national active in the French Resistance during WWII, had opened, “the smallest art gallery in Paris” at 3, rue des Beaux-Arts. It was only one small room, but it had the advantage of a large picture window, was just down the street from the Ecole de Beaux Arts, and directly across the street from the Minotaure, a surrealist bookstore, and the offices of the Pataphysics Society, whose membership included the cult figure Alfred Jarry.
She first met Klein when he came into the gallery hoping to interest her in his art. Although she was attracted by his charm, she was less taken by his art. On his assistance, she he took one of his orange monochromes, and was surprised that over a period of days, the work, which she had casually rested on the floor in a corner of the gallery, began to exert a pull on her.
She placed the work on a small easel in the shop window, and was surprised when it began to attract the interest of students passing by on the way to the Ecole de Beaux Arts. Much of it was derisive, but nevertheless, it brought much needed attention to the gallery.
In April 1957, Klein participated in a group show at the gallery with 120 other artists including both his parents, Duchamp, Picasso, Arp, Ernst, Lam, Fontana, many unknowns, and friends of Clert, in “Mico-Salon d’Avril.” The show was aptly suited to the small space, as the works were all of postcard size. Clert hung the show with Klein’s assistance.
In addition to his participation in the group show, Clert arranged for Klein to have a one-man exhibition from May 10-25, 1957. Klein’s childhood friend Arman relates that Iris Clert was a dealer unlike others of the time and that, “She introduced modern techniques for the presentation of art into a business that was more like antique dealing. She was a pioneer in this.”
She was not above shocking the bourgeoisie, and like Klein, was enamored of publicity and spectacle. It is not surprising then that the opening of the exhibition featured a march from the gallery to the popular Left Bank café Deaux Magots, where they released 1,001 blue balloons before an indifferent public, but an attentive film crew, who recorded the event for posterity.
The evening also presented the first public performance of Klein’s Symphonie Monoton, a one-note sound composition played in the gallery to accompany the monochrome paintings. Outside, the sidewalk was painted blue. These types of preparations in creating an environment around the works on display, seemed an important part of Klein’s art.
Upon Klein’s return from Milan, he had agreed that he would hold a large survey of artifacts from his Blue Period at Colette Allendy’s gallery on the rue de l’Assomption. Although he was drawing closer to Iris Clert, there was no possibility of going back on his word. He decided to hold two exhibitions. At Iris Clert’s he would show the monochrome propositions from Milan. At Collette Allendy’s he would show a larger sampling of various objects saturated with his signature blue. The dates of the openings were arranged from May 10 at Iris Clert’s and May 14 at Colette Allendy’s.
A single exhibition invitation was prepared for the duel openings just four days apart. The card was used, as were the released balloons, and one-note musical composition, as a promotional devise and a component of a larger sustained environment surrounding the event. The front of the card was composed entirely in the rich ultramarine blue of the paintings and objects on display. On the reverse was a handwritten note by Pierre Restany reading, “The monochrome propositions of Yves KLEIN secure the sculptural destiny of pure pigment today. This grand history of the blue period will be retraced simultaneously on the walls of Colette Allendy and Iris Clert. RESTANY.”
Most shocking was the appearance of a regulation size blue postage stamp in place of the regular government sanctioned issue. This singular act, which is the center of our attention, has been written about in the following manner.
In her 1994 book, Yves Klein, Sidra Stich, writes that, “The stamp clearly pushed the limits of artistic liberty as well as the legal use of the postal communication system. By adeptly negotiating with the proper personnel at the post office (and encouraging them with extra payment), Klein had arranged for his facsimiles (‘facsimile’ postage perhaps, but ‘real’ art) to function as valid stamps in the regular mail. He also made sure that the cancellation markings were placed directly over the stamps so that their ‘authenticity’ would be indisputable.”
“In many ways, the stamps conformed with the usual ones: they were small, regulation-sized rectangles with perforated edges. Unlike official stamps, however, they were totally blue, imageless, and devoid of any signifying information. They were thus a telling reversal of the commemorative stamp that features a depiction of someone or something, as well as a contrast to the pragmatic prerequisites of philatelic design practiced by modern governments. Quite like the old-fashioned, personalized wax seals that were used to fasten envelopes, Klein’s blue stamps were ‘stamps’ in the traditional sense – emblems, insignia. But in the most modern sense, they were also logos, instantaneous signs, advertisements, components of a spectacle.”
Nan Rosenthal, in her essay, “Assisted Levitation: The Art of Yves Klein,” which is included in the 1982 Rice University catalog, Yves Klein, writes, “The postcards which announced the double exhibitions suggest another attempt by Klein to attract an audience beyond the art world. The postage on these cards consisted of Klein’s own blue stamps: ultramarine stamp-size paper rectangles with perforated edges. Klein continued to use these ‘stamps’ to mail announcements within France at least as long as he exhibited with Iris Clert (through 1959), and he was sufficiently concerned to establish whether announcements bearing fake stamps such as these actually went through the mail that he repeatedly addressed invitations to himself and saved envelopes returned to the sender because the addressee had moved. According to Iris Clert, these mailings were arranged by paying the normal required postage at the post office while simultaneously tipping the postal clerk to cancel the postcards or envelopes over or near Klein’s stamps. It was an effort by Klein to widen the dragnet for his art – in this instance to include and co-opt the government. Each postmark was an official validation, a stamp of approval on top of Klein’s stamp of blue, and each postman who carried one of these postcards had briefly to become the deliverer of Klein’s blue, as the addresses had to become on some level receivers of it.”
“Klein’s stamps were also a spurious self-decoration: like stamps issued by the French government in reproduction of well-known paintings or in commemoration of nationally significant cultural figures, Klein’s stamps proposed that his ultramarine paintings were important. However, like the pasted papers in Klein’s 1954 booklet, the stamps are best understood as original monochromes which belong to an extremely large series. Each stamp measures 2 1/2 by 2 centimeters, like the proportions of so many of Klein’s serial panels, a proportion of height to width of 5 to 4.”
“…If we were to line up the proportionally similar blue monochromes, from the postage stamp to the ‘2m x 1,50’ size (an order which is not one of chronological appearance), it could be suggested that Klein, as he made works which deeply respected specific environments, was at the same time making works which advanced the idea that their literal size could be expanded to any situation which called for it. By drawing attention to the way his objects might be scaled down or scaled up, Klein suggested the possibility that their size might be reduced to nothing or expanded infinitely.”
As noted by Nan Rosenthal, Klein continued to use the blue stamps as long as we exhibited at the Gallerie Iris Clert. As such, it adorned the envelope accompanying the invitation to arguably his most audacious exhibition bearing the technical title, “The Specialization of Sensitivity in the State of Prime matter as Stabilized Pictorial Sensitivity.” It became more simply known as “Le Vide (The Void).”
Klein writes of the preparations for the show. “…we compose with Iris Clert the invitation card to the opening. The text is by Pierre Restany. This brilliantly laconic text is very clear and we decide, in view of the importance of this exhibition for the history of art, to have it engraved on informals in London script, for the sake of solemn ceremony and especially so that the blind can read it. (They are all that – blind! Nothing pejorative or aggressive intended.) The ink used will be blue, obviously, printed on white cards.”
“The method, which seems to smack of Symbolism, is really not that, since in fact everything happens in space. It provides a fitting foretaste of what the exhibition will be: in actuality a space of Blue sensibility in the frame of the whitened walls of the gallery. (This sensitive body contains Blue blood.) A decision is also made to send out the invitations in envelopes bearing the formidable blue stamp of the blue period of the previous year.
“…Thirty-five hundred invitations are sent, 3,000 of them in Paris alone…”
Again, Pierre Restany wrote the text of the invitation. “Iris Clert invites you to honor, with all your affective presence, the lucid and actual event of a certain reign of the sensitive. This demonstration of perceptive synthesis sanctions, in the works of Yves Klein, the pictorial quest for an ecstatic and immediately communicable emotion (Opening, 3, rue des Beaux-Arts, Monday, April 28, 9-12 P.M.) Pierre Restany.”
For the exhibition, the gallery is painted white. Klein worked for 48 hours straight, applying specially formulated white enamel paint with a roller. The interior was stripped of it’s furniture. A blue canopy was draped at the entrance. For the opening, two Republican Guards in full dress stood watch outside the door. This was arranged by Iris Clert, who used her political connections. The Guard was only allowed to participate in anticipation of the appearance of the French President, one of his ministers, or a secretary of state. They never arrived, and afterwards there was some controversy over their participation.
Perhaps most shocking of all was the serving of a blue cocktail, a mixture of gin, Cointreau, and methylene blue, prepared by the bar at La Coupole, a famous Left Bank watering spot. To Klein’s surprise and delight, the next day, all who drank the cocktail found their urine stained blue.
There are many other stories like this surrounding Yves Klein, and I encourage all who have read these introductory remarks to seek out more information on him. He was not long in this world but left an indelible mark. He died on June 6, 1962, of heart failure. He was 34. His career as an artist lasted but nine years, but during that time he prefigured much of the art of the sixties and seventies: minimalism, earth art, performance, installation, film and video, audio, pop art…the list continues.
With the mailing of his blue stamp, Klein not only created one of the first artist postage stamps, but also involved it in a postal action, prefiguring not only the widespread genre of artistamps in the following decades, but the conceptual philatelic actions of the Fluxus group in the sixties (such as the postage dispensing machines of Robert Watts and the Fluxpost Kits).
The use of the blue stamp arose perfectly from Klein’s art. It should not be construed as a promotional devise, rather as a commemoration of the blue void of his work. His art had worth, and having it franked by the French government was the ultimate approval.
John Held, Jr.