Pigment of our imagination: The appeal of Yves Klein's International Klein Blue

Tuesday, May 25, 2010; C09

Yves Klein's blue art is inescapably appealing. Which raises the question: Why?

David Stork, an optics expert in Silicon Valley who also publishes on art, explains that International Klein Blue is an unusually saturated color -- it may catch our eye just because it's got such a quantity of blueness in it. Most paints consist of powdered pigments suspended in binders that produce a slight sheen: The white reflection off the binder washes out the color of the pigment behind it. Klein's patented formula lets his blue pigment sit as a matte layer on the surface of his art, with nothing to get between its color and our eyes. On top of that, by keeping his paintings a tiny bit rough, Klein creates a situation where, before hitting our eyes, a ray of light will bounce from particle to particle, from blue surface to blue surface. It's almost as though each spot of blue pigment is being lit with a blue light.

Michael Kubovy, a leading psychologist of art at the University of Virginia, hazards that Klein's extra-saturated blue may not be any old color. It may be what's called a "unique hue" -- a blue that has absolutely no other color mixed in with it, and therefore speaks directly and only to what you could think of as the "blue-sensing" parts of our brains. Then Kubovy cites the research of his Berkeley colleague Stephen Palmer, which shows that humans have a huge preference for blue over any other color. (Disclosure: Palmer is editing a book in which I have contributed a chapter.)

Think about these findings as you get close to a blue monochrome by Klein, and you realize that it fills our vision, edge to edge, with nothing but the bluest of blues, and therefore with one of the sights that we're wired to be most fond of. You could say that it's a distillation of the very notion of artistic taste.

-- B.G.

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