Friday, June 25, 2004

"Glossies" (1980), hand drawn by Allan McCollum in "The Big Nothing" show in Philadelphia.
Aaron Igler/ICA, Philadelphia
Artists Who Just Say No. To Everything.


HE BIG NOTHING," here at the Institute of Contemporary Art, is an overstuffed mess of a survey, too long incubated in the minds of its curators and short on catchy visuals, but I'm glad to have come across it anyway. You might generally describe its subject as the impulse to say no. As Ingrid Schaffner, one of the show's curators, riffs in her catalog essay, this has led the artists on view (there are about 60) to investigate "absence, anarchy, the absurd, nonsense, zip, zero, infinity, atmosphere, ellipsis, negation, annihilation, whiteness, blackness, formlessness, the void, abjection, the invisible" — the list goes on.

James Welling/Gorney, Bravin & Lee
A print from the series "Dégradés" by James Welling.

The exhibition begins (more or less arbitrarily, but then, anarchy rules here) with a nod to a minor historical masterstroke by the French modernist Yves Klein. On April 28, 1958, the evening of his 30th birthday, Klein opened what came to be known as "Le Vide" ("The Void"), at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris. A fancily engraved announcement card, in an envelope with Klein's signature blue stamp, had been distributed, alerting the public to "the importance of this exhibition for the history of art."

The show consisted of what looked like nothing. The gallery had been emptied, the bare walls painted white, the windows, blue. Klein, through a friend, managed to hire Republican Guards, otherwise preoccupied with protecting the president and cabinet ministers of France, to watch over the place. A mob arrived; the local police and firemen had to be called in to disperse crowds spilling onto the surrounding streets. Special blue cocktails were served: a mixture of gin, Cointreau and methylene blue prepared for Klein by La Coupole, the famous brasserie. As Klein intended, the cocktails caused the urine of drinkers to turn blue for about a week, roughly the planned run of the show.

Reactions sharply split. Some critics thought Klein went beyond the pale. Others thought he was clever. Both were right. The event was an explicit gag, but it had a point, which has become such a basic truism of Conceptual art that it may seem too banal to mention but that wasn't so obvious at the time: art need not be an object. It might be a fleeting experience, a state of mind, and moreover, an art gallery, even empty, is never a neutral space. As the American critic Brian O'Doherty once put it, it is "the locus of power struggles conducted through farce, comedy, irony, transcendence, and of course, commerce."

I said the show only looked as if it consisted of nothing because, of course, it consisted of the empty room, the guards, the invitations, the visitors, the blue windows, the firemen and the drinks, which were themselves a coy, albeit invasive, even aggressive conceit: impregnating guests with blue dye poked fun at the romantic notion of the modern artist desperate at all costs to get under people's skins.

Klein loved this blurring of the line between seriousness and prank, between what's authentic and what's fake or put on. The Republican Guards, in their pomposity, were also a double entendre: before they marched off in disgust, they parodied the gravity of precious art reverently sheltered in fancy galleries, and at the same time looked fake, even though they were real. Incredulous art students assumed they were actors and kept asking where their uniforms had been rented.

"The Big Nothing" presents an engraved invitation to Klein's "Void," which I gather is now a very expensive and rare commodity. Klein would no doubt have appreciated this twist of commercial fortune. The invitation is presented alongside various photographs and ephemera from Andy Warhol's similar exhibition at the institute in 1965, which also had nothing in it except a mob of fans jamming the opening. Ms. Schaffner calls Warhol "the Elvis of nothing," writing that his work, in "an era of compliant consumer culture," was like "a mirror facing a vacuum." Warhol appears in another photograph in the show, posing in 1985 beside a pedestal with nothing on it, a work he titled "Invisible Sculpture."

We're also reminded, via photographs and exhibition invitations, of Ray Johnson's "nothings." Johnson, who liked to send out announcements for shows at galleries with oddball names that didn't exist, did ad hoc performances and staged visually punning snapshots, all of which he called "nothings." When, just before he died, he told his dealer, who for years wanted him to do a show, that he would do nothing, it wasn't clear whether Johnson meant that he would do a nothing or would do a show that had nothing in it, or just do nothing. (It was certain only that nobody would make a dime out of the occasion.)

The empty gallery, whether in Johnson's case or Warhol's or Klein's, was an implicit act of subversion. ("Dada is nothing," Marcel Duchamp said about that subversive movement.) other artists have exploited the same idea to convey more explicit forms of social protest. At the recent Venice Biennale, Santiago Sierra bricked up the entrance to the Spanish Pavilion, opening the building only through its back door to visitors with Spanish passports, who saw an empty gallery, Klein's comic gambit now turned into a political statement.

A photograph of the pavilion is in "Big Nothing." It's about as visually memorable as I recall the pavilion was, meaning hardly at all, which perhaps explains why the show, which up to this point is at least coherent, shoehorns in various art that can be subsumed under Ms. Schaffner's free-associative rubric of nothing cognates.

What results is chaos. In the end, if nothingness equals nihilism equals nonsense equals nowhere equals the ineffable equals anarchy equals opposition to the powers that be, then all art eventually becomes linked by six degrees of separation. The impulse to cleanse, purge, simplify or otherwise express the opposite of what's extravagant and opulent is really nothing new. The pendulum has swung throughout art history. Nothing is a topic of "prosaic vastness," as Ms. Schaffner puts it, and, when unloosed, finally uncontainable.

So in the show we are given the video of Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson wandering through the tall thickets of the undeveloped New Jersey Meadowlands in 1971, the artists unseen, doing a kind of Blair witch hunt before the fact. (Smithson called the work "calculated aimlessness.") The two of them maneuver a jittery camera in the middle of nowhere.

There is also a painting by John Wesley, a singular artist whose work has nothing obvious to do with nothing, of a faceless man in a bare room; a photograph by James Welling of billowing fabric; and a stack of what look like overexposed Polaroids but are pictures made with ink and watercolor by Allan McCollum.

A large mirrored kiosk with peep holes by Yayoi Kusama, from 1996, invites us to see flashing colored lights inside. And a video by the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark from 1975 shows him chopping holes, circles and spirals out of the walls and roof of a pair of abandoned 17th-century town houses in Paris before the buildings are razed to make way for the Pompidou Center, which rises in the background, a beautiful, poignant document

One of Larry Bell's elegant smoked-glass cubes is on view here, too, along with James Lee Byars's "Scroll" on which he has painted an abstract black shape, perhaps to evoke a void, and not unlike Richard Artschwager's "blps" — flat black vinyl lozenges stuck like graffiti on various walls and doors of the institute.

But you get the point. What all these works have to do with one another is vague at best, never mind what they may have to do with, say, Allan Sekula's tedious slide show of protesters at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999, another inclusion. These are all works about something, but different things, certainly not the same nothing.

Still, I said I was glad to have come across the show, and it was not just because I liked a few works here and there. It was because this show suggests a cheering thought, which may seem like an odd remark to make about a muddle about nothing, except that, as Emily Dickinson put it, sometimes saying nothing "says the most."

This is a fundamental lesson of Minimalism, whose intersection with Conceptualism and other radical 1960's movements like Fluxus is the true, poorly articulated heart of this exhibition. What all those movements shared, and what keeps them current, was the idea that in art, as in life, no is often the first constructive step toward yes.

Even Klein's anarchic stunt was an upbeat idea, his void, you might say, a metaphor for the positive space of our own consciousness. From a certain perspective, all art is already implicitly a state of mind. Once you encounter it, what do you take away except a memory? This is the case with a painting as much as it is with a concert or a play. And memory is thought, a mental seed planted by an artist, which is reproduced in as many different variations as the number of people in whom the memory exists. Good art proliferates widely in the minds of people who encounter it. After the effects of the dye wore off, Klein, a mischief-maker, clearly left his mark in the imagination of visitors.

One of them yelled to him from the door of the show, "I'll be back when this void is full."

Klein called back. "When it's full you won't be able to come in."

The Big Nothing
Institute of Contemporary Art
University of Pennsylvania,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
May 1 - August 1, 2004
Co-curated by ICA Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner,
Associate Curator Bennett Simpson,
and Whitney-Lauder Fellow Tanya Leighton.

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