Books

How Zen Catalyzed Conceptual Art

by Daniel Larkin on January 24, 2013

Ellen Pearlman's "Nothing and Everything" (Image via North Atlantic Books)

Ellen Pearlman’s “Nothing and Everything” (Image via North Atlantic Books)

So, let’s just go for it. What the hell happened in art history after the 1950s when the real, discrete art movements started to break down? That’s right — we’re taking the bull by the horns here, tackling the big questions.

The Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and the majority of scholarly modern art courses chart an elegant procession through Realism, Impressionism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and then… ummm… (awkward pause). Conceptual art? Well, not exactly. The timeline gets messy here (cough). Solution: Put a Post logo on everything like there’s a secret sponsorship deal by the cereal company and remark that everyone is unique, like we coddle first graders.

So what exactly happened to art? Why this big change with concepts that we struggle to describe?

A new book by artist and critic Ellen Pearlman (who contributes to this publication), Nothing and Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde (Evolver Editions, 2012), offers a good answer for the origins of this turn towards the conceptual. Because something really did change, and it’s better than the vague, fragmented trends and everyone-is-special story you see in most museums and syllabi. The short, oversimplified (but you secretly want me to be pithy anyway) answer is Zen.

The longer answer is that there is a profound intersection between the rise of what we reluctantly label conceptual and process art, the origins of Fluxus, and the growing popularity of Zen Buddhist riddles and the philosophical reflection they stimulated in New York’s intellectual and bohemian circles.

Okay, that sentence was gargantuan. But that’s the story that unfolds in Pearlman’s new book. Encountering Zen catalyzed many of the artists leading the charge to redefine what art does in the ’50s and ’60s, to dematerialize the object and foreground the concept.

D.T. Suzuki and John Cage (Image via joelasqo.com)

D.T. Suzuki and John Cage (Image via joelasqo.com)

For example, John Cage attended the first seminars in the ’50s Columbia ever offered on Zen by D.T. Suzuki. At this point, very few creative types knew anything about Zen or Buddhism. And it wasn’t a major thing people talked about as an alternative like today. Cage played a major role in turning the tide, exploring Zen for the rest of his life in process-oriented art and music and introduced numerous people to Zen.

John Cage wasn’t the only one getting into Buddhism. Kerouac and Ginsberg drank tea in 1957 in D.T Suzuki’s apartment and both plunged into Zen. Painter Ad Reinhardt gave a talk in 1950 about the “Spiritual plane [and] Zen” at an artist club in the village whose list of club members was a who’s-who of the New York school. In 1931, Isamu Noguchi traveled to Zen temples and gardens throughout Japan and explored the source of this philosophy. When he went back to America later that year, he brought back a lifelong engagement with Zen in his work that he shared with others.

Isamu Noguchi, Garden Element (1962) (Image via edwardlifson.blogspot.com)

Isamu Noguchi, Garden Element (1962) (Image via edwardlifson.blogspot.com)

Each chapter in Pearlman’s book focuses on a particular artist, writer or group, examining how they got to know Zen early on before most Americans knew anything about it. She looks at how the philosophy shaped their art and then finally explores their roles in getting other people interested in Zen. It’s like John Cage, several Fluxus artists, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Noguchi were all the first big rocks that got thrown into the pond. They created these ripple effects of exposing more and more individuals in the arts to Zen. What emerges after reading the entire book is the organic process by which Zen and Buddishm first took root in the American Avant-Garde and drove a profound rethink of the role of concepts in the arts.

And Pearlman, knowing that this is a new argument about Zen’s role for many readers, lards her book with so many primary sources, got to so many people right before they died un-interviewed, and captured so much content that hasn’t been documented before that I got the sense that it might be the one new book I read this year that graduate students will still be reading and footnoting in 78 years. The focus on primary sources also made it hard to deny that Zen has played a bigger role that most historians have given it credit.

So what did these artists find in Zen, exactly? It’s not a monolith, and different artists had different takeaways, which Pearlman explores in turn. But one common denominator was the effect of exploring Zen riddles that seemed to problematize the idea of an easy answer.

For example, there is that famous riddle “what is the sound of one hand clapping.” As Lisa Simpson explains to Bart when he hits his fingers against the palm, the point it to clear your mind and give up over-thinking unresolvable conundrums. Or is Bart telling Lisa to stop over-thinking with his gesture? The clip’s genius is how both characters reach the same conclusion in a different way that reflects their process and personality.

For artists and writers, solving these open-ended riddles is a way to reveal your process to yourself. It shows whether you are more of a Bart or a Lisa or neither. It gives some insight into how your brain works. It casts a light on the first concepts and values that bubble up in your mind when trying to grasp the riddle. And that insight captivates artists seeking to understand themselves better and use that understanding to make better work. And the takeaway message to not over-think speaks to anyone who has spent to much time fiddling on a project. This is the tip of the iceberg, but one example seemed better than a vague line about how everyone takes zen in different directions.

After reading this book, it’s hard not to see Zen’s influence everywhere. This idea of a work of art as a riddle to solve began in earnest during conceptual art, drawing heavily from Zen precedents. And the idea of a work of art’s symbolism not giving an easy answer and telling you more about yourself with the takeaway you find in it remains relevant today. Although Cage, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Noguchi all integrated zen and Buddhist ideas differently, this book elegantly demonstrates how Buddhism, and its Zen expression in particular, entered the discourse about contemporary art in the ’50s and radically transformed it.

Ellen Pearlman’s Nothing and Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde (2012) is available from Evolver Editions for $21.95 or $15.95 ebook.

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  • http://twitter.com/unaleyla lc

    zen, the influence of women artists, and looking outside boundaries established by “white male western authors” were among those fundamental aspects for transforming the discourse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/phagesio Bogdan Draganescu

    is just that zen(chan, dhyana, meditation) is, basically, nonconceptual.

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