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Yves Klein’s other monotone: International Klein Blue

Last Wednesday, the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church was filled with an unlikely congregation of strangers: from art insiders to the media-savvy lucky enough to snag a ticket to Yves Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony. The artist who once sold immaterial space for the price of solid gold — a payment he ceremonious tossed into the Seine, while requesting his customers burn their receipts — might not approve of his piece being performed for free, but in a city where scarcity alone is a commodity, the tickets were snatched up as soon as the event was announced.

Klein’s symphony was performed only once in his lifetime, in Paris on March 9, 1960. Extravagant in tails and white gloves, he acted as conductor of a small orchestra, and also of nude models who, dripping with his signature International Klein Blue paint, were directed to press, drag, and splay their bodies as “living brushes” against canvas. For the musicians, the content was less exposing but no more conventional: a single note lasting twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of silence.

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

An art world legend, the piece survives only in the models’ haunting impressions and Klein’s histrionic claims that it “exists outside of the phenomenology of time” and “grants … the possibility of true happiness.”

After a short introduction by Dominique Lévy, who had organized the performance in conjunction with the exhibition Audible Presence: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Cy Twombly at her new gallery at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 73rd Street, the seventy musicians and singers filed onto the altar, eschewing Klein’s formality in favor of simple black.

When it came, the sound that rose from the dais was completely surprising — something close to a D-major chord. Uplifting and spacious, it expanded sweetly, edged with the wrinkled softness of acoustic resonance.

Often described as the precursor to minimalist music, which revolutionized sound in 1960s New York, I had expected something oppressive or dissonant. But the only difficulty was fighting the urge to record it. Lévy had pleaded that the audience shut off all phones, but I saw more than a few attendees shift theirs from hand to pocket to hand, and felt my own greed clash with reverence. The glow of one arrogant iPad reflected our collective angst, shamelessly recording the entire forty minutes.

I struggled, and then surrendered. Freed from the constraints of blinking record light, timer, or melody, I found that the performance became strikingly visual, as if through sensory compensation.

Klein wrote of “one unique continuous ‘sound,’ drawn out and deprived of its beginning and of its end.” In practice, to maintain a tone without variation, the orchestra had to choreograph an unsynchronized, staggered movement. Together, but not in unison, the part of each individual musician was visible but aurally imperceptible. Mouths paused for breath, the note was trapped between the bows’ dead ends, but the overall sound had no corners. Only the conductor, with his arms lifted in continuous embrace, palms open upwards, embodied steadiness.

And then, wrists spinning, his arms dropped. The note ricocheted and left us.

In the silence I mourned the sound still coating my memory. I looked at the resting musicians as I would sculptures. The conductor remained facing them, a relic forbidding sound. But behind him were hundreds of new performers, and as time passed, I realized we were finishing the piece together, bound to the score by mutual respect. Now my hearing sharpened. The building, as if finally getting a sympathetic ear, groaned and creaked. Outside, the city mumbled indiscriminate, familiar phrases.

Despite its tragic brevity, Klein’s career had cosmic dimensions. His mediums were elements and forces. In his life, he demanded that his audience see the immaterial as art. In his death, the objects he left behind bear the burden of a message they contradict. For today’s viewers, they can make his work all the more difficult to understand.

In his Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, written a year after the symphony performance, Klein looked back on his career and wrote: “What is the purpose of this retrospective journey in time?” This event brings up similar questions. Without the artist present, how can we be sure that this iteration is a legitimate one? He wrote that his piece “was destined to create an ‘after-silence’ after all sounds had ended in each of us who were present at that manifestation.” Is that silence repeatable? Why is it acceptable for someone else to take his place as conductor of the symphony, but not of the “living brushes,” so integral to the original? Much has changed in fifty years: today this work would fit comfortably under the genre of performance art; minimalist music finds large audiences; those receipts Klein expected to be destroyed instead collect dust in Lévy’s chic gallery. In Bloomberg’s New York, there’s no such thing as immaterial space.

After the banality of bows and applause, our parish dispersed, smiling. Though I couldn’t recall the note, our echoing footsteps on abandoned Madison Avenue clung to my ears. Behind bars, materialism slept, its products rimmed with a sharp white edge, reflecting the light of a full moon blazing in a monochrome black sky.

Yves Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony played at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (921 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on September 18.

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Sarah Cowan

Sarah Cowan is a video editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she works on projects based on the collection and exhibitions, and edits two web series featuring Met staff, Connections and...