Doing Nothing

The only way to understand modern life is to grasp at nothing. Because there it is, at every turn-profound, banal, substantial, inescapable. Pick up a nineteenth century novel and count the number of times people find themselves doing, or saying “nothing.” Or switch to the twentieth century and watch two bored high school students in American Graffiti having this exchange: “Where are you going?” “Nowhere” “Can I come along?” This could be a scene from a Samuel Beckett play or a riff from the 1965 Fugs’ tune (“Monday: nothing, Tuesday: nothing, Wednesday and Thursday: nothing…”), or any other existential depiction of life’s absurdity, or of life in general. For doing nothing is a quintessential part of modern experience. In previous eras, people were busy working seven days a week. Since industrialization regulated work, we now have designated time-off, weekends, vacations, leisure periods. A leisure class leads cultural aspirations and dreams. No wonder we find nothing represented so widely and with such persistence,

“Nothing happens until something moves,” said Albert Einstein. Quite the understatement given the magnitude of his equation (e=mc2) to describe how a small amount of matter could release a large amount of energy and the terrifyingly big nothing unleashed by it. The atomic bomb changed modern consciousness as radically as Sigmund Freud’s formulation of the unconscious-that part of the mind of which we know nothing. And as far as day-to-day living goes, this is probably the best place to keep the knowledge that the world can destroy itself in a blast. (Is it reassuring, or alarming, the 12,000-page United Nations document proving the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?)

The Big Bang is one of many theories about the birth of the universe, which cosmologists generally agree came from nothing. Outer space has always beckoned contemplation and imagination with limitless thoughts of nothing. Now virtual space opens up, right on the desk-top, sucking us into realms of work, play, and communication that are strangely boundless and completely ordinary. Indeed, we can inhabit the idea of nothing as easily as we switch on the television to watch a re-run episode of the popular Seinfeld, which famously pitched itself as a show about nothing. Watching the characters spin endless drama out of life’s littlest slights, hopes, disappointments, and pleasures, might make one consider the Buddhist’s letting go of all such attachments a better sort of nothing to aspire toward. Or not. Gustave Flaubert once claimed, “What I would like to write is a book about nothing, a book without exterior attachments.” Instead he wrote a greater book-greater simply because it was written-called Madame Bovary, a novel about a woman whose dreams of modern life lead to her self-destruction. This brings us back to where we started, Isn’t that just like nothing? To lie in wait at the very beginning and end of every tale?

Nothing is certainly essential to the telling of modern art’s story, a history of reductivist impulses, refutations and refusals. “Art does not exist,” declared the Dada poet Jacques Vaché, around the time of the First World War and early on in a century that chimes with anti-art movements. The sense behind such nonsense was nothing more (or less) than a harsh negation of the potential for words (or pictures) to have meaning. Gestures are what signify. No matter how half-baked, absurd, or nihilistic, only action can clear the way of authority for new things to come. “Dada is nothing,” Marcel Duchamp elaborated, “It is destructive, does not produce, and yet in just that way it is constructive.” This from an artist whose legacy looms large over any account of nothing. His allegation that he would stop producing art in order to just play chess, was a logical (endgame) move given the 1914 introduction of the idea of the Readymade. Why waste time mucking around in a studio making things, when art can be nothing more than an idea? (In defense of her own non-writing habits, Gertrude Stein observed, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”) Duchamp’s thinking spawned a whole range of Conceptual practices, many of them proposing that the very absence of an object, or the act its dematerialization, could constitute a work of art.

Ideas only got in the way of Kasimir Malevich’s purge of pictorial space. Conceived in concert with the revolutionary politics of the Russian avant-garde as a shock to the system in every sense, his Suprematist white-on-white canvases “reached a desert in which nothing can be perceived bụt feeling.” Reaching for just the opposite, minimalist painter Robert Ryman continues to work a stretch of that terrain by making art with almost exclusively white materials. “White enables other things to become visible,” he says of his interest in exposing the material qualities of paper, canvas, varieties of paint. Monochrome painting is the most absolute expression of modernism’s tendency to zero in on a specific problem to the exclusion of all others. It was according to a strict litany of negations, published in 1962, that Ad Reinhardt distilled his painting down to one-color, one-sized canvas: “No lines or imaginings, no shapes or composings or representings, no visions or sensations or impulses, no symbols or signs or impastos, no decoratings or colorings or picturings, no pleasures or pains, no accidents or ready-mades, no things, no ideas, no relations, no attributes, no qualities-nothing that is not of the essence.”

One of the essences of Abstract Expressionism is the nothing that presumably comes between the viewer and the experience of art itself. Simultaneously elemental and metaphysical, this experience springs from a seeming contradiction. On the one hand, there’s the notion of a totally flat picture plane, devoid of illusion or depth. On the other, there was Jackson Pollock’s actual art, a physical and pictorial negation of painting as he (or anyone else) knew. He violently dripped and ecstatically poured paint onto canvas on the floor. The surfaces of these works appear to open out onto voids or project themselves as encompassing webs. Mark Rothko jammed together things that should cancel each other out-horizontal and vertical forms, warm and cool colors, the abstract and physical properties of painting–to convey a sense of existential conflict. Life’s ineffables, the sublime, the spiritual, are irrefutably resolved in death, which Rothko asserted was the subject of the monumentally sealed-off “Black and Gray” paintings that he started the year before his suicide. Coming in the wake of Abstract Expression, Eva Hesse was part of a generation to favor less monolithic, more tentative abstractions. Nevertheless, a profound sense of conflict was also at the core of her art. “Order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small,” she said. When it all came together, as it did in her 1969 sculpture Right After, a saggy stretch of resinous cord, the results were, according to Hesse, a “really big nothing”: “It was very, very simple and very extreme because it looked like a really big nothing which was one of the things that I so much wanted to be able to achieve.”

Andy Warhol achieved this degree of nothing in both his art and person. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” he said, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” His silkscreen painting used reproduction and repetition to level subjects as violent as race riots and as banal as Howdy Doody to being nothing more (or less) than pictures. At the same time, these paintings imbue those pictures with the empty beauty of glamour, thus showing art’s power to transform in a light that looked uncomfortably like the media’s. Every picture becomes the next picture, every shock a boredom. To preempt the disaster of boring one’s audience, Warhol’s films were constructed as a form of boredom itself. The five-hour long Sleep has the Oscar Wilde-sounding distinction of being a movie that is often talked about but almost never seen. Warhol was frequently asked to comment on his art. In response to the question, “what does it all mean?” he invariably replied, “uhhh….” or let one of his entourage speak for him. And it’s for this gesture that Warhol is crowned the king, or more aptly, the Elvis of nothing. Andy Warhol made it possible for artists to have no position in relation to their art. What could be more appropriate to an era of compliant consumer culture than a mirror facing a vacuum? For this is the nothing that comes of nothing, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Lear. For the generation after Warhol, it seemed there was nothing left to say. In a postmodernism where originality was no longer possible, appropriation and repetition became the preferred modes of cultural production. Using both the splendid shine of consumer goods and the punning home appliance, Jeff Koons literally put the vacuity (or vacuum) of pop culture on display.

Having now arrived at approximately the present postmodern moment, it’s time to introduce this exhibition. A consideration of themes of nothing and nothingness in recent art, “The Big Nothing* follows on the account just set forth. But it originates from a completely opposite tide. Curatorially speaking, “The Big Nothing” is the flipside, or other, to “Deep Storage.” This 1998 exhibition, which I co-curated with colleagues from Siemens Kulturprogramm and the Haus der Kunst in Munich, looked at images and processes of storage, archiving, and collecting in contemporary art. In addition to presenting work by over 6o international artists, there was a small group of early modern precedents, all of whom could equally figure in “The Big Nothing.” Marcel Duchamp’s Boîtes-en-valise is a museum-in-a-suitcase, containing miniature versions of his own work including Readymades, such as the empty glass ampule, which he called 50cc of Paris Air, realized at mouse-scale. To construct his collage boxes, Joseph Cornell archived and researched the throw-away world of ephemera (culture’s little nothings). Cornell considered its transformation a metaphysical process-he spoke of the “métaphysique d’éphémères” after the poet Gerard de Nerval. For visions of emptiness, Cornell’s white boxes of the 1950s, inspired by the American transcendentalist poet Emily Dickenson, are full of sublime yearning. The art historian Aby Warburg’s picture archive inspired a project to categorize all the world’s images in a single Atlas that was destined to go uncompleted due to its own absurd impossibility. Eugène Atget’s photographic archive of Paris at the turn of the century is characterized by the surreal emptiness of streets and parks devoid of human presences. (Thinking now of early photography recalls a colleague’s story of his pilgrimage from Vienna to Austin to see what is considered history’s first photograph. “Why, it’s just a big nothing,” he said, peering at the murk that is Nicéphore Niépce’s 1827 heliograph.)

Early modernism set a precedent for “Deep Storage” that was full of pockets of nothing. Many of the contemporary artists from that exhibition could slip into this current show with the selection of a different work, or by looking at the same work differently. For instance, Robert Rauschenberg’s famous Combines (part painting, part sculptural assemblages of objects evoking personal and collective memories) came after several years of anti-art gestures. His White Paintings were comprised of house paint just rolled onto canvas, and his 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing was exactly that. “I was trying both…to purge myself of my teaching and…exercise the possibilities s0 I was doing monochrome no-image,” he later mused. In 1972 Lynn Hershman started an 8-year performance work, living her life under the assumed identity of Roberta Breitmore. Exhibited in the form of relics and documents-Roberta’s shoes, wigs, driver’s license, therapist’s notes, etc.-the piece was also a mask behind which Hershman’s own identity was eclipsed. Most relevant to “The Big Nothing” from “Deep Storage” was Peter Koglar’s 1994 untitled new media installation. A hole appeared to rove over the walls, a projection of the black hole that is infinite storage, the cosmic trash compactor, into which everything, someday, might virtually vanish. (Only three artists are actually represented in both shows: Richard Artschwager, Louise Lawler and Andy Warhol.)

The slippage between everything and nothing is more than a coincidence, or curatorial sleight of mind. Whether it’s an individual or cultural impulse, collecting is an attempt to fill the void. We stock-pile things to pass time, to construct identity and create history, and to mark the world with signs to perpetuate our existence last long after we are dead and gone. Collect too much stuff, however, and you might as well have nothing at all. Take for example, the Collyer Brothers, those pack-rats of Harlem, New York. In 1947 they were found entombed, Homer starved, Langley buried alive, in the house they had filled with 136 tons of junk. There were 14 grand pianos that couldn’t be played, mountains of books that couldn’t be read, one union jack that couldn’t be flown, among a crushing mass of other things, all made inaccessible and useless by these two men, whose lives seem to have hardly been led. (Seen only at night, Homer was known as the “ghost man.”) A syndrome was named in their honor; those susceptible are generally describedbnbn8mbb as smart people who have trouble judging what to keep and what to chuck. One could imagine Collyerism becoming the malady of our times. The computer’s ever-present, ever-expanding capacity to store information seems to make it only that much harder to know what to delete. An economy of over-production, without systems of dismantling and recycling, creates more things than we need, cluttering the landscape (from closets to dumps) with things we no longer use.

Collyerism calls for extreme remedies. But burning a path of destruction leaves only that. A more sustainable relationship between filling and voiding space is embodied by Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The last project Mies completed before his death in 1969, it is essentially two buildings in one. Above ground is a seemingly empty glass pavilion, designed as an open plan for temporary installations of contemporary art. Below rests the museum, an architecture of walls and galleries for the exhibition of historic works of modern art. Relegated to the realm of storage, the museum’s collection is virtually invisible from view according to Mies’s iconic architecture, which he described as beinahe Nichts, “almost nothing.” This nothing was the subject of a talk, given in advance of “The Big Nothing,” by the Chair of Architecture, here at the University of Pennsylvania, Detlef Mertins. Speaking of the pavilion’s flat metal roof (“quite something”) floating on sheer glass (“bearing on almost nothing”), Mertins conjured an experience of the sublime. This massive plane that stands between us and nothing, also causes us to experience some of nothing’s crushing terror. Furthermore, the upstairs/downstairs drama of the building as a whole manages to resolve a major conflict. Half-disappearing, the building offers a place to collect art, and a space to get rid of it, too.

The impulse to store, on the one hand, and to erase, on the other, is the binary pulse of one and zero. This constitutes the entire language of the computer, a language in which “naught” conveys exactly half of everything written. Zero has always been a powerful idea-it eluded comprehension by both the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Even after the cipher was first put down in clay by the Mesopotamians 5,000 years ago, it still took another 3,000 for the idea of zero to be considered worthy of contemplation. This in India, where Hindu religion revered the void. It took the West much longer to countenance zero. Not until the Renaissance, with perspectival drawing, Newtonian physics and calculus, did the idea of an infinity without substance take hold. These outtakes come from two recent books: Robert Kaplan’s The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, and Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. The fact that both were published around the turn-of-the-millennium-a boon to marketing, no doubt-does not explain their success. These books have been popular because they demystify the ghost in today’s machine, the computer, and make concrete the abstraction advancing science and technology. They explain nothing.

A spate of survey exhibitions, including this one, are relevant for approximately the same reason: they show nothing. In 2001, “Big Nothing-Die jenseitigen Ebenbilder des Menschen” was held at the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Baden Baden. A show of work since the 1960s, with a focus on painting, it viewed “nothing” as a form of likeness-that face of humanity we cannot see. Imagine looking in the mirror to find a fantastically slashed green Lucio Fontana “Spatial Abstraction” scaring back at you. (The exhibition title is no coincidence; organized by Matthias Vinzen, we co-conceived our shows after working on “Deep Storage” together.) Just a few months later, “Nothing” opened at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Sunderland, England. Organized by curator Ele Carpenter and artist Graham Gussin, this show featured very recent art and was accompanied by a multi-faceted publication. “Zero” historian Kaplan’s essay had a hole die-cut through one page, for instance. Another contemporary “nothing” show that deserves mention in this context (for both its title and content) is “The Big Nothing, Or Le Presque Rien,” held at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and at the French Cultural Services, New York, in 1992. Taking as one of its premises Brian O’Doherty’s brilliant “White Cube” essays, this show of barely visible, ephemeral works “asked viewers to look into emptiness… [or] the presumed emptiness of the white, ideal museum space,” curator Kerri Scharlin wrote in the catalog. A footnote to “nothing” at ICA is Group Zero,” an exhibition, organized by Otto Peine, of work by an international affiliation of artists interested in art, technology, and new materials. (Eva Hesse’s eccentric abstraction has been linked to her early contact with Group Zero in Düsseldorf.) The 1964 exhibition included work by Lucio Fontana, Hans Haacke, Yves Klein, Yayoi Kusama, and Piero Manzoni among others.

So what is “The Big Nothing” at ICA? Occupying both of the museum’s main galleries on two floors, with a large “black box” devoted to screening a video program, this exhibition presents work by over 60 artists, from the 1970s (or so) to now. It was organized over the past two years by Associate Curator Bennett Simpson, myself, and Tanya Leighton, who has been intrinsic to it during her yearlong Whitney Lauder Fellowship. Our point of departure was the art history set forth in this essay, a point that soon vanished as we moved forward with our selection of contemporary art. We were guided by a sense of the prosaic vastness of our topic as a whole. Within the installation, even the most extraordinary-scaled works are completely matter-of-a-fact. The word “if” is writ large on the wall; infinity is inside that metal box full of colored lights and mirrors; that painting shows fireworks as commonplace spectacles; those canvases look empty; there’s a man crying; there’s the moon. Viewed collectively, these works say: nothing is not something we don’t all know. Interest lies is those particulars, which elude synthesis into one big picture. In absence, anarchy, the absurd, nonsense, zip, zero, infinity, atmosphere, ellipsis, negation, annihilation, whiteness, blackness, formlessness, the void, abjection, the invisible, the ineffable, noise, shutting down, shutting out, dead space, death, getting wasted, getting lost, cutting out, blanking out, vacancy, holes. This is what the individual works bring to the show. Each opens onto its own expanse of ideas, themes, and images of nothing as the annotated checklist at the end of this catalog gives some indication.

Although this exhibition was conceived as a contemporary survey, it does contain a cursory history of the closed or empty gallery. (Just given everything nothing meant to the artists of the Arte Povera and Fluxus movements, never mind the broad strokes of minimalism and conceptualism, it would have taken an entire show to deal with the 1960s alone.) As documented by announcement cards, photographs and related ephemera, this history starts on April 28, 1958, with Yves Klein’s Le Vide at Iris Clert gallery in Paris, and comes up to the summer of 2003 with Santiago Sierra’s Spanish Pavilion for the 50th Venice Biennale. These and other works in this section show a gesture-so quintessential of “nothing” in art-that is not only surprisingly recurrent over the past 50 years, but also barely empty.

Klein’s event was rigorously conceived and executed with specially engraved announcement cards (“in view”, he stated, “of the importance of this exhibition for the history of art… [and] especially so the blind can read it”) bearing an invitation by the critic Pierre Restany to witness confirmation of the artist’s “quest for an ecstatic and immediately communicable emotion.” In pursuit of this emotion the window glass was painted blue, the walls stark white. Special blue cocktails were served the night of the opening. A mob ensued. People yelled, cried, sat silently for hours. At least one communal moment occurred the following day; allegedly, everyone at the party urinated blue. Sierra’s three-part closure of the Spanish pavilion was no less considered. By bricking the entrance, covering the name of the pavilion, and creating an action that no one could see in a space that, after the event, only bearers of Spanish passports could enter, he drew attention to lines of obstruction drawn across the art world and the world in general. From situation to situation, the significance of the gesture changes. Nevertheless, no matter where, when, how the gallery was emptied or closed, no matter how negative or simple it seems, the act of stopping business as usual, continues to be a powerful mode of framing the gallery’s function as cultural, political, and social space.

Space suggests size, which, as we all know, matters. It’s definitely what makes “The Big Nothing” big. Early on in the project, it was the topic’s sheer vastness-along with the combination of excitement and dread that it inspired-which prompted the idea of taking the theme of “nothing” to the community. Philadelphia is chockfull of collections, curators, and cultural programmers. We began with a small group of our colleagues in contemporary art to test their interest in taking on the theme of nothing and organizing an exhibition or event that would take place roughly simultaneously with the ICA survey. These first meetings were memorable in that we just talked about nothing. The extreme emptiness of the city’s Edgar Allen Poe house, a work by Patrick Raynal, the 1970s fad of sensory deprivation chambers, mildew, James Joyce’s Ulysses (a tome-long account of nothing-special of a day), the impossibility of really doing nothing. After about three such meetings, the group reached a consensus to engage the larger community. In May 2003, a “big nothing congress” convened to introduce the initiative, which ultimately attracted the collaboration of 35 other venues. The result is a constellation of exhibitions, films, lectures, music, and other events, all independently organized and loosely held together by nothing. It seems important to note that this wasn’t conceived as a festival, but developed almost organically. ICA’s role was to plant the idea and to organize a map-designed with artwork by members of the local artists’ collective Space 1026-locating all the participants. In her catalog essay, Paula Marincola treats all of the component parts of the pan-Philadelphia “Big Nothing” as objects in a fantastic group exhibition, rolling across the summer months, those cultural Dog Days that leave lots of time with nothing to do.

Despite all this bigness, there still remains anxiety over things left out. This is always case with group shows, but when the subject is nothing, it gives new meaning to the phrase: fear of the void. Right now in New York, the Whitney Biennial includes recent work by Mel Bochner, who has been creating work on themes of nothing since the 1970s. Ditto Vito Acconci. His mind-boggling installation at Barbara Gladstone Gallery is a personal timeline treatise on nothing, from the abject groaning sounds emanating throughout the room, to the photo-documentation for Visions of a Disappearance (1973). A chance meeting with Dorothea Rockburne led to a discussion of drawings that made themselves, based on systems of folding. Oh well. This is “The Big Nothing,” after all. Every absence counts, as long as you have the presence to bring it to mind.