Yves Klein may be best known for the 1960 staged photograph that made it appear he was flying out of a window, possibly to his death. "Leap Into the Void" was a demonstration of the French artist's profound interest in the spiritual, even mystical, potential of art.
On another occasion, he emptied his Paris gallery of pictures, painted it white and told his dealer to sell the space as a piece of art.
The irreverent and perspicacious Klein died in 1962. He was only 34, and at the outset of an astonishing career. He observed, "Man is no longer the center of the universe; it is the universe that is the center of man."
Klein's interest in the dematerialization of art is considered today to be an early example of concerns that came to the fore in the movements of Conceptual and Minimal art.
But his interest in architecture remained largely unknown until architect Francois Perrin came across a 1959 Sorbonne lecture by Klein as well as two dozen drawings devoted to the subject. This material is included in a new exhibition, "Yves Klein: Air Architecture," at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture through Aug. 29.
Perrin was an architecture student in Paris 10 years ago when he found the text of Klein's lecture, much of which seemed relevant to his own concerns with the integration of architecture and the environment. "I wanted to write about Klein's air architecture in a book," Perrin says. "I was developing projects dealing with the margins between architecture and landscape. Klein's main idea was to adapt to the natural conditions of a location, to modify the weather in order to allow people to live outside, coming back to the idea of the garden of Eden."
Perrin, 35, moved to Southern California three years ago and started his own architectural practice in Venice. He brought his ideas about Klein to Peter Noever and others at the MAK Center in West Hollywood, which specializes in exhibitions integrating art and architecture concepts. With the blessing of Klein's widow, Rotraut Klein-Moquay, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., Perrin borrowed Klein's drawings and texts to compile a substantial catalog for the show. In addition, a program of Klein's films will be shown at the American Cinematheque on July 1.
Klein's architectural ideas involved more theory than practice. He developed his most complete ideas about "air architecture," a new form of building made only from immaterial elements, after he was commissioned to decorate Germany's Gelsenkirchen Opera House under the direction of architect Werner Ruhnau in 1958. Conversations with the architect led him to conceive of buildings with roofs of air and walls of fire or water.
He also worked with architect Claude Parent and designer Roger Tallon, who would help realize working drawings and help apply for patents for Klein's outre concepts.
Perrin used Klein's concepts to build a rudimentary climate control system for the MAK Center, which is located in an R.M. Schindler-designed house, where temperatures vary wildly because much of it is open to the environment. Using low-tech, inexpensive materials, such as a silver canopy to deflect sun and vinyl curtains to cool rooms, Perrin has stabilized the interior temperatures so the delicate drawings will not be damaged. Perrin did not attempt to interpret Klein literally. "That would be a mistake," he says. "It is beautiful when ideas are kept as ideas, sometimes."
A native of Nice, France, Klein was a devout Christian who sought to integrate his spiritual yearnings with a new form of art practice. He took up judo in 1947, became a member of the Rosicrucian Society sect of Catholicism and traveled throughout Europe before honing his unique path as an abstract artist. He adopted these practices before launching his more notable work: creating a series of monochrome paintings done in a brilliant shade of ultramarine that he labeled "International Klein Blue."
Inspired by the writings of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, Klein produced a series of almost identical monochrome paintings, saying, "Each blue world of each painting, though of the same blue and treated in the same manner, proved to be a quite distinct essence and atmosphere, none resembled the other...."
Art critic Pierre Restany became an important supporter, and soon Klein's paintings were being shown and sold in Paris galleries. His art can still be seen in museums around the world.
In 1961, his work was shown in Los Angeles at the Virginia Dwan Gallery. John Baldessari remembers seeing the show and thinking he would have to completely reassess the notion of painting. A few years later, Baldessari burned all his canvases to become one of the first Conceptual artists.
Klein's architecture may have been too radical to be built, but his ideas have endured and, unlike actual structures, they seem to have resisted erosion or demolition.
In his lecture "The Evolution of Art Towards the Immaterial," translated into English for the first time for this exhibition catalog, Klein stated, "With these three classical elements, fire, air, and water, the city of tomorrow will be constructed: It will at last be flexible, spiritual, and immaterial. For men, the idea of using pure energy to construct in space no longer seems absurd from that point of view. In such a conception of architecture, it seems easy to understand that the disappearance of the picturesque and painted reverie is inevitable and fortunately so, because it is the picturesque that has killed all the real powers of Man."
'Yves Klein: Air Architecture'
Where: MAK Center for Art and Architecture, 835 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood
When: Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Ends: Aug. 29
Contact: (323) 651-1510