I left off last time with the idea that Klein’s works seek to create a void, to instantiate a nothingness. Why, exactly, is this such a horrifying idea?
Short answer: anyone can play God; Klein’s trying to become Anti-God.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
Now, the idea of creation ex nihilo is something that drives philosophers batty; to make a very long story short, it’s something only God can get away with. Of course, creation has a flip side in annihilation; anything that now is, can just as easily not be.
This is the key message of Yves Klein. To return to the original primal void requires more than simple destruction, but rather an act of God, a true annihilation of being. Klein, time and again, attempts to create this utter nothing, to sell “zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility” to those willing to embrace annihilation and negation:
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
With these two words – Fear and Terror – I find myself before you in the year 1946, ready to dive into the void.
Long Live the Immaterial !
—The Chelsea Hotel Manifesto
Klein’s famous blue represents the void spaces of the world, like empty skies or bottomless seas. His other two colors—rose pink and gold leaf—have strong associations with destruction (fire, the transience of “the flower that blooms for a day”), immateriality (gold leaf that has been hammered to almost infinitesimal fineness), and potency (gold, as a medium of exchange, can become many things, and as a material for the smith can assume a multitude of forms). Though there are, of course, many other symbolic meanings for these colors, especially in medieval and early Renaissance iconography, the overall connotation of the void and the return to it is unmistakable. When coupled with Klein’s subject matter, however, the combination of form and color begets true terror.
A modest proposal to the nations of the world to paint their A-and H-bombs blue. Covering the globe in blue paint. Silhouettes of models traced by flames, reminiscent of the unearthly shadows in Hiroshima. Traces of human forms in blue, left by his “living brushes,” as human beings are reduced to mere instrumental matter, fit only for use. The artist himself, leaping out into the void.
This is where the terror starts in. Klein is seeking, through his acts of creation, to annihilate creation itself. To look into his paintings is to see the abyss, the vast infinity of the void that swallows up a man, the act of willing nothing.
There is a realization of how very transient and unstable life is in the postmodern world. All it takes is one person pushing one button, and everything ends. A single individual can willfully choose a course of action that will terminate in annihilation. Klein forces his viewer to confront this fact directly and unflinchingly, recognizing the seduction of the void. Though it will end in negation, it has a frightful and hellish beauty.