Whereas intuitive definitions of avant garde would tend to emphasize its experimentality as well as its break from traditional conceptions of art, a more precise definition from an aesthetic perspective is perhaps best summarized by Greenberg, who categorizes avant garde art in terms of its “formal self-awareness.” In other words, the artist creating the work is above all concerned with the form of art, as opposed to its content, and thus attempts to experiment and develop precisely this formal dimension. In this respect, Klein’s “Blue Monochrome” (1961) represents something to the effect of an archetypical example of avant garde art, in so far as the artist’s concern appears to be not only a self-consciousness of form, but, with the entire canvas taken up by blue color, this indicates that Klein radicalizes this principle of formal self-awareness to such an extent that only form itself exists.
Klein’s art, viewed from the perspective of almost fifty years distance, in one sense satisfies the criteria of what everyday discourse would criticize as the absurdity of avant garde art. The blue, which is essentially the art object itself, a color that in one sense devours the piece of art, eating alive the canvas upon which is painted, could easily be connected to the worse excesses of the avant garde. If this painting does represent such excesses, one way of phrasing this would be to say that in “Blue Monochrome” there is nothing much to say about the work of art itself. But from a reverse perspective, following Greenberg’s definition, this would suffice: if avant garde is about form, then it excludes content, and producing content about Klein’s object, would only contradict its entire essence.
In one sense, from this historical distance, there is nothing shocking about what Klein does: such pure formal self-awareness taken to the extreme, so that there is only form, can be criticized as a lowpoint in art, when the obsession of form is taken to its worst conclusions. Even from the perspective when the work of art itself would be released, perhaps it could be said that the piece is not entirely radical, considering, for example, predecessors such as Malevich’s “White Square on Black.” Where then does the radicality of Klein’s piece lie, if it does in fact possess such a radical notion and represents something essential in avant garde art other than a lack of imagination or excess? Haiml gives us some potential insight into this question when he writes that “a central aspect of Klein’s blue monochrome paintings is his pursuit of the ‘indefinable.’” This is consistent with the preference of form over content, even to the extent of sacrificing all possible content for form: precisely this is a type of “indefinable” quality. With this in mind, however, details also emerge as to the form itself, as Haiml tells us that for Klein “more important than producing paintings was to produce ‘atmospheres’, pure energy.” The viewer of the painting is in a way dragged immediately into this blue skylike vacuum. Form becomes environmental, a habitat. And the art object’s complexity emerges from this very goal, as “the choice of material, the technique of its application, and the pristine condition of the paintings proved to be crucial for his ability to convey his vision.” Futhermore, it is crucial to note that the blue used in the painting are of Klein’s own creation, having received a patent on this same color. There is thus an underlying narrative of difficult formal decisions and intensely creative moments which undergrid the first glance simplicity of the blue canvas.
In this sense, Klein could be said not to challenge the conventions of art, since such abstraction is part of the very milieu he painted in, the dominant narrative in art. But it can, in contrast, be argued that Klein took these basic formal principles to their most extreme conclusion. Klein does not break genres, but works within the genre of avant garde art, and tries to take its commitment to form to its most perfect manifestation, so that formal self-awareness becomes form itself.
- Charlet, Nicolas. Yves Klein. New York: Vilo, 2000.
- Haiml, Christa. Restoring the Immaterial: Study and Treatment of Yves Klein’s Blue Monochrome. Los Angeles: Getty, 2007.
- Rabate, Jean-Michel. A Handbook of Modernism Studies. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.