Yves Klein - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 18, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "One day I noticed the beauty of the blue in the sponge; at once this working tool became raw material for me. It is that extraordinary faculty of the sponge to become impregnated with whatever may be fluid that seduced me."
    —Yves Klein

    With its grand scale and historic provenance, the present work is a masterpiece of the artist’s most sought-after series, the Relief Éponges, or sponge reliefs, created between 1958 and 1961. Relief Éponge bleu sans titre (RE 49) unifies the two most important material discoveries of the artist’s career: International Klein Blue and the incorporation of sponges onto his surfaces. Here, natural sponges and pebbles are drenched in Klein’s signature color, the topography appearing to infinitely evolve before the viewer’s eyes as light and shadow play across the velvety surface. Dedicated to Klein’s close friend and legendary photographer Charles Wilp (1932-2005), the present work was created in the pivotal year of the important exhibition Yves Klein: Monochrome und Feuer at the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, which marked the only institutional retrospective of the artist’s lifetime due to his all-too-early death the following year.


    Yves Klein at his exhibition Monochrome und Feuer, Haus Lange, Krefeld, Germany, 1961. Photographed by Charles Wilp. Image: © bpk Bildagentur / Charles Wilp / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris


    Yves Klein and Charles Wilp: A Pioneering Friendship


    Klein dedicated the present work to Wilp on a label on the reverse: “d'abord il n'y a rien, ensuite il n'y a un rien profound, puis une profondeur bleue chez Wilp!” (“first there is nothing, then there is a profound nothing, then a blue depth in Wilp!”). A student of Man Ray, Wilp was an innovative German photographer, film editor, artist, and advertising designer at the center of the post-war avant-garde milieu. Best known for his iconic advertising campaigns for Afri-Cola and Volkswagen as well as his ventures in space art, his multifaceted endeavors led him to closely befriend Klein, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Lucio Fontana, and ZERO group founders Otto Piene, Heinz Mack, and Günther Uecker—among many other celebrated figures captured in his photographic portraits. Notably, it was Wilp who documented Klein working on his monumental project of sponge relief murals for the foyer of the Gelsenkirchen Opera House from 1958-1959, as well as the artist’s iconic performance spectacle Anthropométries de l'époque bleue at the Galerie Internationale d'Art Contemporain in March 1960. 


    [left] Yves Klein by his sponge relief mural at the Neue Stadttheater, Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Lobby of the Opera House. 1959. Photographed by Charles Wilp. Image: © bpk Bildagentur / Charles Wilp / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris [right] Yves Klein's “Anthropométries de l’Époque Bleue” performance at the Galerie Internationale d'Art Contemporain, Paris, 1960. Photographed by Charles Wilp. Image: © bpk Bildagentur / Charles Wilp / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

    "It will not be with rockets, sputniks or missiles that mankind will achieve the conquest of space, for he will then always remain just a tourist in this space. Rather, it is achieved by inhabiting its sensibility."
    —Yves Klein

    A tribute to the friendship and kindred spirits of Wilp and Klein, Relief Éponge bleu sans titre (RE 49) further embodies the zeitgeist of the 1960s Space Age. In the year he created the present work, Klein called Wilp the “Prince of Space,” a moniker mirroring the artist’s own self-proclamation as the “Painter of Space.”i Wilp held lifelong interest in aerospace and linked reality to the invisible and creativity to weightlessness, which aligned with the radical visions of groundbreaking conceptual artists like Klein who aimed to capture the unseen forces of the universe beyond. As with Klein’s contemporaries associated with the ZERO group, the concept of space travel was very much on the artist’s mind in 1961, when he learned of the historic human journey into space undertaken by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who famously declared, “I saw the sky very dark and the earth blue, of a deep and intense blue.”ii Gagarin’s observation from space confirmed for Klein, not only what he had espoused as early as 1957 that “the Earth is blue,” but also his belief in the distinction between traversing and being space.iii Equating the technological achievement of space travel to tourism, Klein rather championed that “a true space program would be the penetration of infinity with our sensibility and our intellect.”iv Relief Éponge bleu sans titre (RE 49) thus reflects Klein’s conviction in the conquest of space not “through technical marvels,” as he articulated in 1961, “but through a transformation of human sensibility into a function of the cosmos.”v


    Yves Klein in 1961 with his Blue Globe, with the artist’s inscription: “In 1957, Yves Klein stated that the Earth was entirely blue [...] Four years later...cosmonaut Gagarin stated in April 1961 that the Earth is of a deep intense blue!!!”. Photographed by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender. Image: © Harry Shunk and Janos Kender, J. Paul Getty Trust, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Artwork: © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris


    The Nature of Immateriality

    "We may regard the solar systems as separate sponges, swimming in a World of Divine Spirit...In order to travel from one solar system to another it would be necessary to be able to function consciously in the highest vehicle of man, the Divine Spirit."
    —Max Heindel

    Conjuring the mysterious depths of the ocean floor or the graveled lands of extraterrestrial worlds, the accumulation of sponges and pebbles in the present work reflect Klein’s advancement of his two-dimensional IKB monochromes into the next dimension with the Relief Éponges. Paradoxically, it was Klein’s incorporation of earthly materials and the third dimension that brought him ever closer to drawing the viewer into an intangible universe. By projecting these organic elements from the surface, Klein positioned them as the mediating portal between the natural world inhabited by the viewer and the dematerialized world of blue. Here, the beautifully balanced arrangement of sponges recalls the placement of the stones at the Zen gardens he visited in Kyoto while living in Japan from 1952-1953 for his beloved Judo training.


    Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, 1953. Artwork: © Fondation Lucio Fontana / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Klein’s practice was deeply influenced the Zen Buddhist philosophy of an infinite expanse of nothingness, as well as the gnostic principles presented in Max Heindel’s Rosicrucian Cosmo-conception which the artist had first read in 1949. Alongside the sponges, the granular-sized pebbles here recall sand that function in remarkable parallel to Heindel’s words: “Let the sand represent the Etheric region...[which] permeates the dense earth and extends beyond its atmosphere.”vi Bringing Klein’s paramount achievements to the surface, Relief Éponge bleu sans titre (RE 49) captures the heart of the artist’s conceptual sensibility with breathtaking physicality. 


    "Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colors are not...All colors arouse specific associative ideas, psychologically material or tangible, while blue suggests at most the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract."
    —Yves Klein

    Klein’s aim to communicate color as an immaterial reality in his art would serve as the basis of his brief but revolutionary eight-year career. After displaying various colored monochromes at his first two solo shows in 1955 and 1956, Klein realized that viewers misinterpreted his work as decorative and thereafter set on his quest to devote himself to a single color that would allow viewers to “bathe in a cosmic sensibility”—blue.vii For Klein, blue embodied the “void,” the ethereal space of the universe, where the viewer could “impregnate himself with color and color impregnates itself into him,” thereby uniting humanity into an infinite spiritual realm.viii To this end, Klein sought to capture the most pure tone of blue that would radiate with the visual intensity and mystic energy he wished to convey and, as Relief Éponge bleu sans titre (RE 49) demonstrates, he would achieve the most powerful chromatic expression by eventually expanding his painterly investigations from the second to third dimensions.


    Relief Éponges in Museum Collections

  • A Vehicle to the Universe


    Through the mid-to-late 1950s Klein collaborated with Édouard Adam, a chemical retailer in Montparnasse, to achieve the perfect formula for a blue that could retain the color’s pure brilliance both materially and optically, which led to his famed International Klein Blue—the artist’s patented medium that bonds the ultramarine pigment to synthetic resin. In 1956, the artist began using sponges from Adam’s shop as a tool to apply paint to his blue monochromes and two years later, they would become a permanent presence on his surfaces, an inspiration that came in part by his sponge relief murals for the Gelsenkirchen project. By the year of the present work, Klein’s blue Relief Éponges represented the apotheosis of his practice as evinced by their notable presence at his 1961 retrospective at Museum Haus Lange. Marking the apex of his career, this show was the largest lifetime celebration of the artist’s oeuvre and self-curated by Klein, who placed his sponge reliefs in the “Blue Zone,” the central space that also included his IKB Monochromes and Anthropometries.


    [left] Édouard Adam’s store in Montparnasse, Paris, 1960. [right] Yves Klein surrounded by his works at the exhibition Yves Klein Monochrome und Feuer at the Museum Haus Lange, 1961. Photo: Pierre Boulat. Image: © Pierre Boulat, Artwork: © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 

    "Thanks to the sponges—raw living matter—I was going to be able to make portraits of the observers of my monochromes, who, after having seen, after having voyaged in the blue of my pictures, return totally impregnated in sensibility, as are the sponges."
    —Yves Klein

    For Klein, sponges were the perfect vehicle to encapsulate his lifelong inquiries on materializing the immaterial. With their porous and absorbent qualities, sponges could completely saturate themselves with his blue pigment, physically and conceptually embodying his endeavor of subsuming the viewer into his non-dimensional realm of blue. Here, the pregnable material soaks up the IKB palette that envelops its entire body and seeps deeply into its pores. Indeed the artist himself very much resembled a sponge in his disposition, engulfing texts written by his artistic predecessors and literary theorists in articulating his own practice to the public, leading Klaus Ottmann to observe that even “Klein absorbed ideas like his sponges absorbed color.”ix The artist’s inscribed dedication to Wilp in Relief Éponge bleu sans titre (RE 49) epitomizes this sponge-like sensibility, deriving from Gaston Bachelard’s Air and Dreams which Klein read in his early years and famously quoted at his 1959 lecture at the Sorbonne: “First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a blue depth.”ix


    Yves Klein at Charles Wilp’s studio in Düsseldorf during the film shooting of Peter Morley’s “The Heartbeat of France,” February 1961. Photographed by Charles Wilp. Image: © bpk Bildagentur / Charles Wilp / Art Resource, NY

    Yves Klein, Dimanche: Le journal d'un seul jour, November 27, 1960, p. 1.
    ii Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, Paris, 1982, p. 227.
    iii Yves Klein, quoted in Guido Le Noci, “Nota della galleria,” in Yves Klein le Monochrome, exh. cat., Galleria Apollinaire, Milan, 1961, n.p.
    iv K.G. Pontus Hulten’s notes from Yves Klein’s 1959 Sorbonne lecture, Jean Tinguely: “Méta," trans. Maiy Whittall, Boston, 1975, p. 71.
    v Yves Klein and Wemer Ruhnau, “Projekt einer Luft-Architektur,” in Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, eds. Zero, Cambridge, 1973, p. 112.
    vi Max Heindel, The Rosicrucian Cosmo-conception Or, Mystic Christianity; an Elementary Treatise Upon Man's Past Evolution, Present Constitution and Future Development, London, 1925, p. 53.
    vii Yves Klein, quoted in Klaus Ottmann, Yves Klein by Himself: His Life and Thought, Paris, 2010, p. 53.
    viii Yves Klein, quoted in Sidra Stich, Yves Klein, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1994, p. 66.
    ix Gaston Bachelard, quoted in Klaus Ottmann, Yves Klein by Himself: His Life and Thought, Paris, 2010, p. 287.

    • Provenance

      Charles Wilp, Cologne
      Gallerihuset, Copenhagen
      Collection Wenk
      Neumann & Partners GbR, Dusseldorf
      Achenbach Kunstberatung, Dusseldorf
      HypoVereinsbank, Munich (acquired from the above in 1996)
      Sotheby's, London, June 28, 2010, lot 5
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle (no. 42, p. 228, illustrated, p. 96; erroneously dated as 1960); Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (no. 42, p. 228, illustrated, p. 96; erroneously dated as 1960), Yves Klein, September 17, 2004–May 2, 2005
      Turin, Unicredit Private Banking SpA, 2005–2006 (on loan)
      Vienna, BA-CA Kunstforum, Monet-Kandinsky-Rothko und die Folgen: Wege der Abstrakten Malerei, February 28–June 29, 2008, no. 22, pp. 125, 190 (illustrated, pp. 124, 133)

    • Literature

      Colin Gleadell, "The Window Closes," Art Monthly, no. 339, September 2010, p. 40
      Charlotte Appleyard and James Salzmann, Corporate Art Collections: A Handbook to Corporate Buying, Farnham, 2012, p. 56
      Laurianne Simonin, "The Colors of Controversy," Barnebys Magazine, February 7, 2022, online (detail illustrated; installation view illustrated)

Property from a Distinguished New York Collection


Relief Éponge bleu sans titre (RE 49)

signed with the artist's initials, inscribed and dedicated "D'abord il n'y a rien, ensuite il y a un rien profond, Puis une profondeur bleue chez Wilp! YK" on a label affixed to the reverse
dry blue pigment and synthetic resin, natural sponges and pebbles on panel
48 1/4 x 39 3/8 x 3 1/2 in. (122.6 x 100 x 8.9 cm)
Executed in 1961, this work is registered in the Yves Klein Archives under number RE 49.

Full Cataloguing

$14,000,000 - 18,000,000 

Sold for $19,999,500

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2022