career, Yves Klein, if one is to go by what he said, was “in
search of the real value of the picture.”(1) The term “value”
suggests here not only the vivid hue--the much-talked about IKB
blue--or the artistic merit of the work, but also its commercial
value, its exchange value. From one exhibition to the next, from
speculative speeches to artistic innovations, his career was marked
by the ceaseless quest for the “just price,” the price
that could do justice to the artistic merit of the work, take
the work to market without subjecting it to the market’s
contingency and arbitrariness, and offer it for exchange without
lowering it to the level of mere merchandise.
the example of three exhibitions (Milan, 1957, London, 1957, and
Antwerp, 1959), we shall retrace the development of Klein’s
reflections on the problem of pricing and the stages that led
him, in 1959, to propose the “Sketch”(2) for a new
“economic system” that would be more apt to fulfill
its evaluative role.
Klein at the Apollinaire Gallery: Intrinsic Value and
January 2, 1957, at the Apollinaire Gallery in Milan, Klein inaugurated
an exhibition of eleven of his works. They were all completely
identical: monochromes of the same size, painted with a roller
using the same ultramarine blue. Now, according to the fable concocted
by Klein, these canvases were to be displayed and sold, each at
a different price. This anecdote is fictional: several articles
at the time mention a single price of 25,000 lire per picture.(3)
What lessons may nevertheless to be drawn from this “didactic
first lesson is stated by Klein himself: “the pictorial
quality of each picture was perceptible through something other
than the material physical appearance.”(5) Is this to say
that its value would be independent of the picture itself? No;
recognition of the insufficiency of appearance as a way of justifying
differences in quality does not lead Klein to some sort of relativism,
to an affirmation of the subjective nature of value or its dependence
on an institutional context. While value is invisible, it is no
less lodged at the very heart of the object, in its concrete materiality.
thus aims at reintroducing the medieval notion of the “just
price”: there would exist a divine order of values, to which
price, a human instrument of exchange, has to conform.(6) Value
is therefore intrinsic, and price derivative: according to the
economist Alfred de Tarde, the idea of the “just price”
implies that “price and value are the same thing”;
“they are incorporated into the object; they cannot rise
or fall without the object changing physically.”(7) Contrary
to the contingent market price, the just price is therefore objective
When he claimed to impose different prices on apparently identical
canvases, Klein was choosing, despite the rules of the market,
to assign a price that reflected the real value of works, which
he alone was worthy of judging. This is a power that, for want
of having it really in his possession, he could at least grant
himself in his fable.
Klein at Gallery One: Value and Market Price
few months after the Milan exhibition, in the Summer of 1957,
Klein showed his work in London at Gallery One. The critical reception
for this show marks a new stage in Klein’s reflection on
pricing. Indeed, with very few exceptions, all articles about
the show concentrate their criticisms on this issue. What was
found to be shocking was not so much that these works of art might
exist but that they might really be sold, and therefore bought
by someone. The mention of prices is almost systematic and is
often found in an article’s title or subtitle, highlighted
by the typography.(8) The prices mentioned in the articles are,
moreover, almost always fanciful.(9) What really mattered was
not so much the exact amount of the price as how huge it was in
relation to the supposed value of the works, or even the existence
of any price at all.
it seems that the artist himself would have been, to a certain
extent, the cause of this reaction. Indeed, a document offered
to Gallery One visitors provides some details about the artist’s
previously concluded sales, as well as the prices for such sales.
“Concrete evidence that Klein's painting is regarded seriously,”
the text explains, “is that he is able to make a living
at it.”(10) The strategy is almost naive in its obviousness:
sales guarantee his seriousness, his good faith, his quality.
Klein in Antwerp: Elaboration of a New “Economic
For Klein, price is therefore not simply of secondary importance,
the resultant of intrinsic value. Qua crystallization of the act
of exchange, it is of capital importance for the work to happen
at all, for it to be recognized qua work. Between the Milan exhibition
and the London one, the development of immaterial art deepened
this reflection: sales became the sole manifestation of the work.
problem is thus posed: If price reflects value, the price of an
inestimable work ought to be out of reach for purchasing. But
the act of selling is key to the work’s validation qua work,
to its very existence. This contradiction came to the fore during
a 1959 group show in Antwerp. For the first time, Klein refused
to sell an immaterial work for money, asking for “a kilo
of pure gold” in exchange. Stéphane Mallarmé
had already written in 1889 that “wanting to assign its
real price, in monetary terms, to a work of art is to insult it,”
which is something Klein very well understood during his London
show. (11) The sole possible solution then was to renounce monetary
exchange, which devalues the work by giving it a banal money price,
in favor of a form of bartering that allows the exchange to take
place while still preserving the work’s purity.
is what Klein theorizes in his text “Sketch and Broad Outlines
of the Economic System of the Blue Revolution,” a veritable
manifesto for a utopian economic system in which exchange would
rediscover its true value.(12) At a historical moment when the
very notion of a monetary standard was disappearing from the world
economy, allowing currencies instead to float, Klein “challenge[d]
reserves and currencies,” proposing a new standard for exchange:
the work of art, which would come to replace gold in the vaults
of the Central Bank. In this system, works would have no price,
since they would be the measure of all prices; they would be at
the heart of each exchange without ever being handed over to the
vagaries of the market. The monogold entitled Valeur
or (Gold value) remains like a trace of this utopia, which consists
in shielding art from economic contingencies in order to make
it into the standard, the measure, the absolute for all value
and all exchange.
monochrome” (1959), Yves Klein, Le dépassement
de la problématique de l’art et autres écrits
(Paris: École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts,
2003), p. 235, translated in Yves Klein, 1928-1962: Selected
Writings, trans. Barbara Wright ([London]: Tate Gallery,
1974), p. 105.
2. “Esquisse et grandes lignes du système
économique de la révolution bleue” (1959),
ibid., p. 99-101, translated as “Sketch and Broad Outlines
of the Economic System of the Blue Revolution,” Yves
Klein, 1928-1962: Selected Writings, p. 100.
3. That there was but a single price is confirmed
by several articles we have been allowed to consult in the artist’s
press books: Dino Buzzati, “Blu, Blu, Blu!,” Corriere
d’informazione, January 9, 1957; “Che coraggio
blu!,” Corriere Lombard ; “Nur für Kenner:
Die Vollendung des Abstrakten!” Neue Illustriert,
January 26, 1957; L’Espoir de Nice et du Sud-Ouest,
January 26, 1957 (Yves Klein Archives, Press Books 1 and H).
4. Denys Riout, “Imprégnations:
scénarios et scénographies,” Yves Klein,
Corps, couleur, immatériel (exhibition catalogue)
(Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2003), p. 45; Denys Riout, Yves Klein,
L’aventure monochrome (Paris: Découverte Gallimard,
2006), p. 50.
5. “Conférence à la Sorbonne”
(1959), Le dépassement . . . , p. 134, translated
in Yves Klein, 1928-1962: Selected Writings, p. 105.
6. We are presenting here the economic views
of the canonists. The landscape of the economic thought of the
Middle Ages is in reality more complex. See Jean Ibanès,
La doctrine de l’Église et les réalités
économiques au XIIIe siècle (Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, 1967), p. 35ff, and Giacomo Todeschini,
Richesse franciscaine, de la pauvreté volontaire à
la société de marché (2004; Paris: Verdier,
2008), chap. 3, pp. 143-210.
7. Alfred de Tarde, L’idée du
Juste Prix (1907; New York: Burt Franklin, 1971), p. 36.
8. See the articles contained in the Yves
Klein Archives, Press Book 2.
9. Price list of works exhibited at Gallery One,
Yves Klein Archives, Press Book 2.
10. Typed document, Yves Klein Archives,
Press Book 2.
11. July 8, 1889 Letter to Octave Mirbeau, in
Octave Mirbeau, Combats Esthétiques (Paris: Séguier,
1993), p. 390.
12. See note 2, above..
Philippe. L’économie médiévale.
Paris: Armand Colin, 1993.
Duve, Thierry de. Cousus de fil d’or:
Beuys. Warhol, Klein, Duchamp. Villeurbanne: Art Edition,
Ibanès, Jean. La doctrine de l’Église
et les réalités économiques au XIIIe siècle.
Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967.
Klein, Yves. Le dépassement de la
problématique de l’art et autres écrits. Paris:
École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, 2003.
_____. Yves Klein, 1928-1962: Selected Writings. Trans.
Barbara Wright. [London]: Tate Gallery, 1974.
Riout, Denys, Yves Klein, Manifester l’immatériel.
Paris: Gallimard, 2004.
Tarde, Alfred de. L’idée du
Juste Prix. 1st edition, 1907. New York: Burt Franklin, 1971.
Todeschini, Giacomo. Richesse franciscaine,
de la pauvreté volontaire à la société
de marché. 1st ed. 2004. Paris: Verdier, 2008.
Yves Klein. Exhibition Catalogue. Paris: Centre Georges
Pompidou/Musée National d’art moderne, 1983.
Yves Klein. Corps, couleur, immatériel. Exhibition
catalogue. Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2003.