UNTITLED BLUE SPONGE SCULPTURE (SE 181) marries the humming intensity of Yves Klein’s majestic International Klein Blue with the uniquely textured form of an oceanic sponge. This supremely dynamic sculpture is one of only three, extremely rare iterations of the artist’s celebrated Sculptures éponges in that it is suspended from a support rendered all in blue. The majority of these sculptures in Yves Klein’s astounding oeuvre appear as celestial flowers sitting atop slim metal stems, which are often attached to small rock pedestals. Here, the all-encompassing pigment unifies the sponge with a base carefully modeled into a symbiotic organic form. Isolated as it is for our contemplation, the enhanced natural wonder that is UNTITLED BLUE SPONGE SCULPTURE (SE 181) evokes the strangely eroded rocks that have been revered by Chinese and Japanese scholars for centuries. The play of light constantly transforms the appearance of this large, complex structure, inviting the viewer to meditate on Klein’s realm of the immaterial. For Klein this was a place beyond Earth’s confines that could be entered through an engulfing concentration of blue. “Blue has no dimensions,” Klein explained, “All colors bring forth associations of concrete, material, and tangible ideas, while blue evokes all the more the sea and the sky, which are what is most abstract in tangible and visible nature” (Y. Klein, ‘Speech to the Gelsenkirchen Theater Commission,’ in Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, New York, 2007, p. 41).
Yves Klein’s pigment-soaked sponge sculptures were an essential component in the ‘blue revolution’ that defined the spectacular trajectory of his tragically brief career. He became sensible to their aesthetic and conceptual potential while using them as a tool to apply paint to his monochrome works. Before long, he began to incorporate them as relief elements on his IKB paintings, and in 1959 he displayed a multitude of Sculptures éponges at the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris. The exhibition, entitled Bas-Reliefs dans une forêt d’éponges, created an immersive environment populated by a bristling blue forest of sponges on stands. United by their identical blue color, the multifarious sponges, gathered en mass, created an immediate sense of individuality within universality.
Yves Klein had identified in the remains of these porous aquatic creatures a ready-made emblem of totemic significance. Their permeable structure, so readily absorbent of the sacred blue pigment, came to represent the spiritual communion he hoped would take place between his art and his viewers: “While working on my paintings in my studio I sometimes used sponges,” he recalled. “Evidently, they very quickly turned blue! One day I perceived the beauty of blue in the sponges; this working tool all of a sudden became a primary medium for me. The sponge has that extraordinary capacity to absorb and become impregnated with whatever fluid, which was naturally very seductive to me. Thanks to the natural and living matter of sponges, I was able to make portraits of the ‘readers’ of my monochromes, which, after having seen and traveled into the blue of my paintings, returned from them completely impregnated with sensibility, just as the sponges” (Y. Klein, ‘Notes on certain works exhibited at Galerie Colette Allendy’, ibid., New York, 2007, pp. 22-23).
Thus the humble sea sponge became both a conduit for and a reflection of the transcendental experience afforded by Yves Klein’s numinous aesthetics. He reasoned that if one were to embrace the idea of immateriality and limitless possibility proposed by his fathomless azure blue, one could not help but become sensible to the immeasurable cosmic void. This was a concept aligned with Buddhist notion of emptiness and the potentiality that lies therein. The link between UNTITLED BLUE SPONGE SCULPTURE (SE 181), Eastern philosophies, and the act of contemplation or meditation finds its roots in Klein’s passion for judo. An avid student of the martial art in France, Klein studied at the prestigious Kodokan Institute in Tokyo between 1952 and 1954. When he returned to Paris, his hopes of becoming head of the Fédération Française de Judo were dashed and he turned his attentions to a career in the arts. Yet his experience of judo, and its Taoist and Zen principles, provided him with the spiritual appreciation of space and presence that would inform all aspects of his practice. “Judo has helped me to understand that pictorial space is, above all, the product of spiritual exercises” Klein wrote. “Judo is, in fact, the discovery of the human body in a spiritual space” (Yves Klein, ‘On Judo,’ in ibid., p. 2).
UNTITLED BLUE SPONGE SCULPTURE (SE 181) was conceived in the the post-atomic space age. Indeed, this sculpture was made in the year Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into space. When the newspapers printed the Russian cosmonaut’s now legendary statement that Earth was blue, Klein crowed of this as confirmation of his own belief espoused as early as 1957. He gleefully wrote to his friend, the artist Arman, that the IKB impregnation of Earth had been achieved and that Gagarin had been the only visitor at his exhibition opening in space.
Scientific developments were rapidly changing the context of contemporary life and Yves Klein believed that as an artist the only way forward was to create a new realm for artistic exploration that reconnected people to the sublime rather than dwell in nihilistic emotion or existential angst. In this context, the ‘savage living material’ of the saturated sponge offered itself as the ideal natural symbol of mediation between the immaterial realm of the spirit and the material world of nature. Capable of holding a variety of elements—water, air, sand and grit—within itself all at the same time, the sponge when impregnated with IKB color perfectly articulated Yves Klein’s notions of a base, elemental, material being imbued with a higher dimensional essence. UNTITLED BLUE SPONGE SCULPTURE (SE 181) therefore represents a new art for a new age—an art permeated with a profound sense of the pure and formless energy from which creation and manifestation arise.