To a journalist who asked him what would be the happiest day of his life, Yves Klein replied: "If there is one concrete event that has made me truly happy, I would choose this success in capturing this Blue that I wanted to be unique in the world".
Yves Klein's work revealed a new way of conceptualizing the role of the artist, conceiving his entire life as a work of art. "Art is wherever the artist goes," he once declared. According to him, beauty existed everywhere, but in a state of invisibility. His task was to capture beauty wherever it was to be found, both in matter and in the air. The artist used blue as a vehicle for his quest for immateriality and infinity. His famous "bluer than blue" shade, to which he gave the name IKB (International Klein Blue), is such an intense and particular color that it not only attracts the viewer's gaze, but is engraved in his memory.
At the time of its creation, some artists and critics considered IKB an outrage; after all, how could an artist be so arrogant as to personally lay claim to a color? Others, however, considered Klein a genius, a predecessor of the age in which we now live, an age in which even the most insignificant and irrelevant intellectual property is jealously guarded. Even today there is much debate on this issue, although that debate is largely fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of what IKB really is and what Klein did to vindicate it.
To believe that IKB was a new color is wrong. It was not. IKB is merely a formula for conveying a color that already existed. The other misunderstanding is that Klein patented IKB, thus claiming ownership and the right to use and market it in the eyes of the law. This is not true. Yves Klein only registered IKB by means of a Soleau envelope. The Soleau envelope (French: Enveloppe Soleau), named after its French inventor, Eugène Soleau, is a sealed envelope used exclusively to precisely date an invention, idea or creation of a work. The sender of a Soleau envelope makes two copies of the description of an idea. One copy is sent to the office that registers the intellectual property and the other is kept by the applicant. The Soleau envelope that Klein sent to the French government to register IKB was accidentally destroyed, so we can only confirm that IKB was ever registered because of the copy Klein kept. In any case, a Soleau envelope does not imply ownership. Unlike a patent, the depositor has no exclusive right to the claimed idea or invention. Although a Soleau envelope can be used to archive a creation and accurately date its contents, it does not constitute an industrial property right. It does not grant any direct protection and the Soleau envelope is not a substitute for a patent. And the invention of the IKB was just that, an invention, an idea.
Every painting basically starts as a solid. A plant, rock or insect is turned into a powder and then mixed with a binder, to create something liquid that can be applied to a surface. The color of the solid largely determines the color of the paint. In Renaissance times, the most prized, rare and expensive paint color was ultramarine: a spectacular blue pigment. It was created by grinding lapis lazuli, a type of metamorphic rock, i.e., one that changes under pressure like coal, which metamorphoses into diamond. Although today it is found on at least four continents, at the time lapis lazuli was only mined in what is now Afghanistan. Its rarity and the cost of importing it to Europe is what made it so expensive. In turn, its value, along with its particularly intense color, led painters to believe that it was the perfect pigment to represent royalty and sanctity, so it was a common color in religious paintings and portraits of kings and queens. Yves Klein also loved the vibrant qualities of ultramarine, but was bothered by the fact that when the pigment was mixed with fixatives to cover the surface of a painting, the fixative changed the color.
Klein's reasons for seeking the most intense and pure blue possible were rooted in an early failure he suffered as an artist. Believing that he could use pure color to express the perfect spiritual essence of human feeling, he mounted two consecutive exhibitions in 1955 and 1956 of monochrome canvases, each of a single solid, pure color. The paintings were totally misunderstood. The public saw them as decoration rather than as abstract expressions of pure emotion. After some reflection, Klein decided that perhaps this misunderstanding was due to the fact that the monochromes were of multiple different colors, which confused viewers. So he decided to focus on a single color for his next exhibition.
In 1956, Klein enlisted the help of Edouard Adam, a paint and pigment dealer whose Parisian store was a haven for artists in the second half of the 20th century. The beginnings were complicated. The blue pigment inevitably lost its velvety appearance and intensity as it dried. This was because the binder needed to fix the color changed its texture and therefore its essence. Klein and Adam tried different formulas - linseed oil, hide glue, casein - but without much success.
"I was looking for a fixing medium capable of fixing each pigment grain to each other, and then to the support, without any of them being altered or deprived of their autonomous possibilities of irradiation, while binding them to each other and to the support, thus creating the colored mass, the pictorial surface."
Adam and Klein turned to the chemical manufacturer Rhône Poulenc. The research led to the development of a polyvinyl acetate binder (a synthetic, petroleum-derived resin) that they registered under the name Rhodopas M or M60A. This resin, which also acts as a fixative, has a high capacity to shrink upon drying, allowing the pigment to remain matte and spongy, unlike other binders. Rhodopas, together with 95% ethyl alcohol and ethyl acetate make up the solvent in which the dried synthetic ultramarine blue pigment is suspended, achieving the stunning paint Klein was looking for: a paint that retained the "extraordinary self-contained life" of the ultramarine blue pigment. The resin, which is still manufactured today under the brand name le Medium Adam25, can be purchased at the same store where Klein stocked up in Montparnasse.
However, the discovery of a research work by art conservator and restorer Christa Haiml, who was trying to repair the damaged work of Klein Blue Monochrome (IKB 42) (1960), proved invaluable. IKB consists of a specific binder and a specific pigment. Interviewing Edouard Adam, Haiml discovered that: There is no true IKB pigment. The "pure ultramarine blue, reference 1311", which sounds so precise in Klein's recorded formula, refers to a blue that Adam bought from his pigment supplier at the time, but his suppliers changed over the years and the provenance of 1311 can no longer be traced exactly.
IKB was not only the perfect blend of pigment and resin, but also an idealized material manifestation that perfectly represented an idea. Surprisingly, he only created about 200 works with IKB before he died. However, in that short space of time he managed to elevate IKB painting to the status of something truly unique and, in the opinion of many, sacred.