During the final three years of his life, French conceptual artist Yves Klein (1928-1962) created nine “empty zones” (invisible and intangible areas of empty space existing only in conceptual terms) which could only be purchased with pure gold. The buyer was then presented with a receipt, which could either be set on fire in a ritual between artist and owner, or preserve it, meaning that the immaterial purchase would be transferrable. One of these receipts is now coming up for sale at Sotheby’s, and its similarities to the modern-day NFT are so notable that Sotheby’s are going so far as to accept not pure gold, but cryptocurrency for it.
Yves Klein’s invisible works were certainly ahead of their time. Known officially as ‘Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle’ (Zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility), they can be classified as both an artist’s book and a performance. The work of art involved the sale of the ownership of an empty space, for which a receipt was provided (which is the artist’s book element of the work). The performative aspect then followed: the buyer could, if they wished, keep the receipt and transfer it in future, or the receipt could be burned in a ceremony which would involve Klein throwing half the exchanged gold into the River Seine. For those who kept the receipt, Klein kept a ledger which recorded all the sales and resales of these empty zones, an old-fashioned version of blockchain technology.
Sotheby’s cataloguing of the item reveals more about this parallel. “Some have likened the transfer of a zone of sensitivity and the invention of receipts as an ancestor of the NFT, which itself allows the exchange of immaterial works. If we add that Klein kept a register of the successive owners of the “zones”, it is easy to find here another revolutionary concept – the “blockchain”.” Guillaume Mallecot, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s in Paris, spoke of the ground-breaking project of selling what he termed “voided space” and its huge significance for twentieth-century art, adding that “the void was a subject that has always haunted him [Yves Klein]”.
The Art Newspaper commented that “long before Beeple and Pak there was Yves Klein, who mastered the art of convincing people to pay money for not really anything at all”. The receipt coming up for sale is the most exhibited and well-known of these receipts to have survived, having been exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in London, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It carries an estimate of €300,000-500,000, so it would seem that the desire for this unconventional type of “invisible” work is as in demand as the modern-day equivalent.