A perceptual argument – an analysis of the aesthetic experience of three works by Yves Klein. Monochrome bleu (1960), Sculpture (1961) and Venus bleue (1961/2).

The Monochrome bleu is absolutely abstract and completely blue – a hallucinatory field merely to be seen.

Monochrome Blue 1961
Monochrome Blue 1960

Our eye catches blue in the peripheral areas of the retina, the central fovea by contrast catches and fixes objects. Blue’s perception goes hand in hand with the non-identification of an object, the colour blue ‘being’ before or beyond fixed form. [1]

In evolution, the human eye first developed colour perception, only later its capacity for object identification. Perception of mere blue, e.g. lying on our back and watching the blue sky above, produces the vaguely confusing condition of contemplative gazing. In Stolnitz’ words: a ‘blank, cow-like stare’ as contrasted with aesthetic alertness. [2]

Klein’s monochrome blue may be considered the end of the development of abstract art , its last stand, the final experiment with our perceptual apparatus, an experiment with only that small aspect which goes back to the first evolutionary stages.

Klein’s Monochrome bleu runs the very risk of falling outside aesthetic experience, which demands of the observer consciousness of the very moment of his own looking at a painting. An object, which he must have first categorised as a painting – according to Goodman’s adagium-question When is art?, instead of ‘What is art? [3]

However after this, Klein’s picture itself provokes our non-aesthetic ‘cow-like’ gazing, thus turning would-be aesthetic perception into meditative staring. Awaking from it, we still find ourselves in the museum or in the gallery, certifying the whole experience – including its meditative phase – to be one aesthetic whole. The de-stabilising, de-objectifying effect might be experienced as a joyful experiment with our senses. The joy of Klein.

Sculpture 1961
Sculpture 1961

We turn to the hallucinatory blue Sculpture. This has the same sense-enveloping effect as Monochrome bleu. However, its three-dimensional form, in contrast with the monochrome painting, invites us to ask what it is, even though ,the hallucinatory blue manages to distract us from such an act of identification.

As the form itself is again very abstract, the sculpture plays two games at the same time. First: The oppressive bluish effect defies our capacity and desire to identify and Then: Once we have come this far, the abstract form defies our linguistic capacity to find a name for it. It turns out to be…, let me call it ‘a piece driftwood’ – painted blue by Klein.

This opposition between non-identifiable blue and vaguely identifiable driftwood remains active. Thus the sculpture succeeds in attracting our attention for quite some time, instead of merely having us gaze at it, as was the case with Monochrome Bleu. In Klein’s sculpture there is no blocking of our active reactions to the unconscious right hemisphere ‘full existential life’ impulses. We are drifting on the pure surface of colours and our general experience of, and need for ‘objectivity’ or names. What is blocked, at least for a while, is our desire to identify.

Finally we come to the Venus bleue.

Venus Bleue 1961/2
Venus Bleue 1961/2

Here, the tension between blue and form already present in the case of the ‘driftwood’ sculpture, is heightened , its perceptual dialectic now however tilting towards recognisable form. Whereas in the monochrome painting there is no dialectic between form and colour whatsoever; whereas in the sculpture, blue first dominates our perceptual field and blocks or retards a desire for identification, in Klein’s Venus we readily recognise the torso of a woman, up from the knees, headless and armless. Just imagine misogynist Schopenhauer’s classification of this Venus – just body, no head – thus no mind, no human superiority…

We do, however, feel the distraction of the blue battling with our need for identification, thus making us feel the (an)aesthetic impact of the sculpture. The same game as with the drift wood sculpture – in this case however colour impact distracting from our desire to identify and to name, where with the driftwood sculpture it was that desire which distracted us from blue’s meditative seductiveness.

In all three cases, involving either pure abstraction or a mixture of abstraction and realism – there was no need to take recourse to Stephan’s version of a ‘transformational theory of aesthetics’ to explain the various experiences clearly. [Michael Stephan, A transformational theory of aesthetics (Routledge London/New York 1990.)] However, transforming his principle of blocked reaction being essential to aesthetic experience, one may understand Klein’s three works. What is blocked is not our behavioral reaction towards representational images – as Stephan would have it – but an ever present need to recognize, to identify, to name what we see – that is real things or representations.


To end on a personal note. I am more of a Caravaggio-man, or a Holbein-man – not a Klein-man. However, to deny Klein’s works the status of art would violate Goodman’s fine question ‘When is art?’, not: ‘What is art?’ Klein’s work has become ‘art’.

What has been said about the three examples is – my claim – all there is to be said, aesthetically that is, thus intrinsic to his art. The enormous list of comments on his work wallow in remarks extrinsic – on mystical, art historical or biographical aspects.

Klein’s work is intensely dull. What is more, where a companion might point out many missed aspects in a Caravaggio- that is: missed by you – there is nothing in Klein’s art that is not to be seen or ‘experienced’ by you immediately. It does not function in aesthetic conversation, it merely exists for the loner’s perception.

[1] For sources on colour perception : Kristeva, De Vreugde van Giotto (SUN Nijmegen 1984, the Dutch translation of La joie de Giotto in: Polyloque 1977, 383 ff.

[2] Stolnitz quoted in Carlson, in: S. Kemal and I.Gaskell, Landscape, natural beauty and the arts (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and the Arts. Cambridge University Press Cambridge 1993) o.c. 201.

[3] N. Goodman, Languages of Art: an Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Hackett Publishing Company Indianapolis 1976 revised edition) 57.

Sierksma La Roche/Haarlem


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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