International Klein Blue: The Story of Ultramarine And The Man Who Patented It

journalism, Visual art

French contemporary artist Yves Klein was so obsessed with the dry ultramarine pigment that the binding agent he invented for it is now synonymous with his work.

Yves Klein’s fixation with dry ultramarine pigment can be traced back to 1948, when Klein and two of his friends lay on a Nice beach in the South of France. Gazing up at the sky, the 20-year-old wrote his signature in its space—thus declaring the sky his first artwork.

Infinite space then became a preoccupation, with Klein exploring ways of emulating its ambiguity. This included producing a limited–edition catalogue, Yves: Peintures, which claimed that he produced a series of monochrome paintings while travelling to Europe and Japan in 1948–54. This was his first public gesture as an artist.

In 1955, Klein discovered ultramarine, a blue so deep and vibrant it hummed. However, mixing it with water diluted the dry pigment’s intensity. Determined, he worked with the chemical manufacturer Eduard Adam to invent a synthetic resin fixative that could suspend the powder without changing its colour—thus retaining its velvety luminosity in paint form.

So effective was the result that Klein patented it as International Klein Blue (IKB), and used it extensively as part of his oeuvre. He impregnated canvas, classical plaster casts and sponges with IKB, applying it thickly so to boost what he called its ‘cosmic energy.’

To celebrate the launch of his 1957 Monochrome Propositions exhibition at the Iris Clert gallery in rue des Saint–Honores, Paris— which contained 11 numbered IKB canvas suspended 20 feet away from the walls— 1,001 IKB balloons were released outside.

At the International Gallery of Contemporary Art—also in Paris—nude women drenched themselves in IKB before making body imprints on white papers laid out on the wall in front of an invited black-tie audience. Meanwhile an orchestra solemnly played the Monotone Symphony, a musical composition made up of a single 20-minute chord, followed by 20 minutes of utter silence.

Particularly notorious was The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void, a show hosted by the Iris Clert gallery in 1958.

On its opening night, guests received invitations written in ultramarine ink with a specially–made IKB stamp, and were served blue cocktails upon entering the gallery via a hallway also covered in IKB. Two uniformed Republican guards stood outside, cranking up the sense of occasion, while the street heaved with crowds jostling to take a look.

Once inside, however, the visitors were confronted by a bare, white space, utterly devoid of furniture save a glass display cabinet. The exhibition was about nothing. Rumours abound of fights breaking out and outraged guests storming out, allegedly unaware that the cocktails they had just drunk would turn their urine blue the next day—to the artist’s delight.

As one of four artists commissioned to decorate the new Gelsenkirchen opera house in Germany, Klein created six giant murals: four IKB sponge reliefs 10 metres high—two for the long wall of the main hall, two for the cloakroom on the lower level— and another two textured blue monochromes measuring 20 metres long for the shorter walls of the main hall.

Due to their scale, the sponge reliefs needed a stronger agent to preserve their colour, and Klein is said to have complained of the noxious fumes making him ill while he worked.

IKB’s contribution to Yves Klein’s premature death from a heart attack at the age of 33 in 1962 is yet to be substantiated, but it can be said that the blue that made his name is also a powerful bequest to contemporary art.

This article originally appeared on in April 2009.


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