From 1942 to 1946, Klein studied at the École Nationale de la Marine Marchande and the École Nationale des Langues Orientales and began practicing judo. At this time, he became friends with Arman Fernandez and Claude Pascal and started to paint. At the age of nineteen, Klein and his friends lay on a beach in the south of France, and divided the world between themselves; Arman chose the earth, Claude, words, whilst Yves chose the ethereal space surrounding the planet, which he then preceded to sign:
'With this famous symbolic gesture of signing the sky, Klein had foreseen, as in a reverie, the thrust of his art from that time onwards- a quest to reach the far side of the infinite.'Klein composed his first Symphonie monotone in 1947. During the years 1948 to 1952, he traveled to Italy, Great Britain, Spain, and Japan. In Japan, he became a master (4th dan) at judo. In 1954, Klein settled permanently in Paris and began in earnest to establish himself in the art world.
Although Klein had painted monochromes as early as 1949, and held the first private exhibition of this work in 1950, his first public showing was the publication of the Artist's book Yves: Peintures in November 1954. Parodying a traditional catalogue, the book featured a series of intense monochromes linked to various cities he had lived in during the previous years. Yves: Peintures anticipated his first two shows of oil paintings, at the Club des Solitaires, Paris, October 1955 and Yves: Proposition monochromes at Gallery Colette Allendy, February 1956. These shows, displaying orange, yellow, red, pink and blue monochromes, deeply disappointed Klein, as people went from painting to painting, linking them together as a sort of mosaic.
"From the reactions of the audience, [Klein] realized that...viewers thought his various, uniformly colored canvases amounted to a new kind of bright, abstract interior decoration. Shocked at this misunderstanding, Klein knew a further and decisive step in the direction of monochrome art would have to be taken...From that time onwards he would concentrate on one single, primary color alone: blue." Hannah WeitemeierThe next exhibition, 'Proposte Monochrome, Epoca Blu' (Proposition Monochrome; Blue Epoch) at the Gallery Apollinaire, Milan, (January 1957), featured 11 identical blue canvases, using ultramarine pigment suspended in a synthetic resin 'Rhodopas'. Discovered with the help of Edouard Adam, a Parisian paint dealer, the effect was to retain the brilliance of the pigment which tended to become dull when suspended in linseed oil. Klein later patented this recipe to maintain the "authenticity of the pure idea. This colour, reminiscent of the lapis lazuli used to paint the Madonna's robes in medieval paintings, was to become famous as 'International Klein Blue' (IKB). The paintings were attached to poles placed 20 cm away from the walls to increase their spatial ambiguities.
The show was a critical and commercial success, traveling to Paris, Düsseldorf and London. The Parisian exhibition, at the Iris Clert Gallery, May 1957, became a seminal happening; As well as 1001 blue balloons being released to mark the opening, blue postcards were sent out using IKB stamps that Klein had bribed the postal service to accept as legitimate. An exhibition of tubs of blue pigment and fire paintings was held concurrently at Gallery Collette Allendy.
For his next exhibition at Iris Clert's Gallery, (April 1958), Klein chose to show nothing whatsoever; called La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée, Le Vide (The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void), he removed everything in the gallery space except a large cabinet, painted every surface white, and then staged an elaborate entrance procedure for the opening night; The gallery's window was painted blue, and a blue curtain was hung in the entrance lobby, accompanied by republican guards and blue cocktails. Thanks to an enormous publicity drive, 3000 people were forced to queue up, waiting to be let in to an empty room.
"Recently my work with color has led me, in spite of myself, to search little by little, with some assistance (from the observer, from the translator), for the realization of matter, and I have decided to end the battle. My paintings are now invisible and I would like to show them in a clear and positive manner, in my next Parisian exhibition at Iris Clert's.Later in the year, he was invited to decorate the Gelsenkirchen Opera House, Germany, with a series of vast blue murals, the largest of which were 20 metres by 7 metres. The Opera House was inaugurated in December 1959. Klein celebrated the commission by travelling to Cascia, Italy, to place an ex-voto offering at the Saint Rita Monastery. The offering took the form of a small see-through plastic box containing three compartments; one filled with IKB pigment, one with pink pigment, and one with gold leaf in. The container was only rediscovered in 1980.
Klein's last two exhibitions at Iris Clert's were Vitesse Pure et Stabilité Monochrome (Sheer Speed and Monochrome Stability), November 1958, a collaboration with Jean Tinguely, of kinetic sculptures, and Bas-Reliefs dans une Forêt d’Éponges (Bas-Reliefs in a Sponge Forest), June 1959, a collection of sponges that Klein had used to paint IKB canvases, mounted on steel rods and set in rocks that he'd found in his parents' garden.
Despite the IKB paintings being uniformly coloured, Klein experimented with various methods of applying the paint; firstly different rollers and then later sponges, created a series of varied surfaces. This experimentalism would lead to a number of works Klein made using naked female models covered in blue paint dragged across or laid upon canvases to make the image, using the models as "living brushes". This type of work he called Anthropometry. Other paintings in this method of production include "recordings" of rain that Klein made by driving around in the rain at 70 miles per hour with a canvas tied to the roof of his car, and canvases with patterns of soot created by scorching the canvas with gas burners.
Klein and Arman were continually involved with each other creatively, both as Nouveaux Réalistes and as friends. Both from Nice, the two worked together for many years and Arman even named his son, Yves Arman after Yves Klein who was his god-father.
Sometimes the creation of these paintings was turned into a kind of performance art—an event in 1960, for example, had an audience dressed in formal evening wear watching the models go about their task while an instrumental ensemble played Klein's 1949 The Monotone Symphony, which consisted of a single sustained chord.
In the performance piece, Zones de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility) 1959-62, he offered empty spaces in the city in exchange for gold. He wanted his buyers to experience The Void by selling them empty space. In his view this experience could only be paid for in the purest material: gold. In exchange, he gave a certificate of ownership to the buyer. As the second part of the piece, performed on the Seine with an Art critic in attendance, if the buyer agreed to set fire to the certificate, Klein would throw half the gold into the river, in order to restore the "natural order" that he had unbalanced by selling the empty space (that was now not "empty" anymore). He used the other half of the gold to create a series of gold-leafed works, which, along with a series of pink monochromes, began to augment his blue monochromes toward the end of his life.
Klein is also well known for a photograph, Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void) , originally published in the artist's book Dimanche, which apparently shows him jumping off a wall, arms outstretched, towards the pavement. Klein used the photograph as evidence of his ability to undertake unaided lunar travel. In fact, "Saut dans le vide" was published as part of a broadside on the part of Klein (the "artist of space") denouncing NASA's own lunar expeditions as hubris and folly.
Klein's work revolved around a Zen-influenced concept he came to describe as "le Vide" or in English: the Void. Klein's Void is a nirvana-like state that is void of worldly influences; a neutral zone where one is inspired to pay attention to ones own sensibilities, and to "reality" as opposed to "representation". Klein presented his work in forms that were recognized as art - paintings, a book, a musical composition - but then would take away the expected content of that form (paintings without pictures, a book without words, a musical composition without in fact composition) leaving only a shell, as it were. In this way he tried to create for the audience his "Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility". Instead of representing objects in a subjective, artistic way, Klein wanted his subjects to be represented by their imprint: the image of their absence. Klein's work strongly refers to a theoretical/arthistorical context as well as to philosophy/metaphysics and with his work he aimed to combine these. He tried to make his audience experience a state where an idea could simultaneously be "felt" as well as "understood".
In Blue Obelisk, a project that he'd failed to realise in 1958, but that finally happened in 1983, he appropriated the Place de la Concorde by shining blue spotlights onto the central obelisk.
A large retrospective was held at Krefeld, Germany, January 1961, followed by an unsuccessful opening at Leo Castelli's Gallery, New York, in which Klein failed to sell a single painting. He stayed with Rotraut at the Chelsea Hotel for the duration of the exhibition, and whilst there wrote the Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, a defence against the 'mutual incomprehension' provoked by the exhibition. He moved on to exhibit at the Dwan Gallery, LA, and also travelled extensively around the Mid-West of America, visiting Death Valley and the Mohave Desert. On 21st January, 1962, in an elaborate ceremony in which Klein dressed as a Knight of the Order of St Sebastian, he married Rotraut Uecker at Saint-Nicholas-des-Champs, Paris. His last works included painting geophysical reliefs of France and casting his friends' torsos, painting them blue, and attaching them to gold-leafed supports.
He suffered a first heart attack whilst watching the film Mondo Cane at the Cannes film festival, 11th May 1962; two more followed, the second of which killed him on 6th June 1962. His son, Yves, was born a few months later in Nice.