In the exhibition “NOTHINGTOSEENESS – Void/White/Silence”, the Akademie der Künste shows works by 75 international artists whose work centres around monochromy, material minimalism and reduction. The title refers to a word play by John Cage, who coined the term “nothingtoseeness” as the equivalent of silence in the visual arts. The exhibition, which opens on 15 September 2021 as part of Berlin Art Week, will present paintings, photographic works, film and sound pieces, sculptures and site-specific installations.

The point of departure is white monochromy and the associated new meaning of the material surface, which caused a stir in the American and European art scenes of the 1950s and 1960s. Featured paintings from this period include works by Lucio Fontana, Raimund Girke, Jan J. Schoonhoven, Günther Uecker and Ellsworth Kelly, as well as one of Yves Klein’s rare copies of Untitled White Monochrome (M 33) from 1958, and the filmic documentation of his legendary 1958 exhibition “Le Vide”, in which rather than artworks only the white walls of the Paris gallery of Iris Clert were to be seen. These early radical artistic statements are juxtaposed with contemporary works. In the entrance area, Karin Sander reacts to the white monochrome with her Wandstück, which she created specifically for the exhibition. In Isaac Julien’s audio-visual installation The True North (2007), the topic of white reaches into the lonely artic landscape. Other site-specific installations by Yoko Ono (Invisible Flags), Thomas Rentmeister, Ulrike Draesner and Sara Masüger are on display, and Reiner Maria Matysik exhibits his Wolkenmaschine in the Akademie’s outside area. In the installation We Buy White Albums, Rutherford Chang shows well over 2,000 copies of the Beatles’ White Album, designed by Richard Hamilton as a white projection surface, which here is contrasted with the black square of Prince’s Black Album.

One focus of the exhibition is the link to music and silence. “NOTHINGTOSEENESS” invites the viewer to partake in a more exact, precise and intensive mode of perception. After the pandemic-related shift of art reception to the virtual realm, the original artworks can once again be experienced live. 

The exhibition is curated by Anke Hervol and Wulf Herzogenrath.

John Cage, 1992: “What is equivalent to silence in the visual arts?”
Julie Lazar: “nothing to see.” 
John Cage wrote it out: nothing-to-see, nothingtoseeness. And said “That’s it! With no dashes. That’s what you have to write about.”

John Cage described “nothingtoseenness” as the equivalent of silence in the visual arts, and circumscribed the nothing through seeing and feeling, though not through “seeing nothing” or “not seeing”. White takes on a central role in this process, both as a colour and a material, reflecting the immateriality, the zero point and the void. White, however, is also “calm and movement, activeness and passiveness [...] limitless dimensional space [...] pure energy,” according to Raimund Girke.

The exhibition project “NOTHINGTOSEENESS – Void/White/Silence”, featuring around 75 international artists, focuses on the broad spectrum of meaning of the colour white, the void and the silence, and the difference between materiality and immateriality that is associated with it. Artistic and aesthetic practices influenced by monochromy emerged in the United States and Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, forming the basis of an internationally accepted critical and process-based artistic approach that is still prevalent today. Following the pandemic-related shift of artistic encounters to the virtual space flooded by reproduced images, numerous examples of these positions can now be experienced in an analogue space. The central issue is “the question of seeing [...], the visual non-slipping” (John Cage, 1961), which the viewer can only experience standing in front of the original. In addition to colour and materiality in the visual arts – painting without paintbrush and colour like Piero Manzoni – the focus is on the relationship of material quality to surface and context, sound to silence, complexity to simplicity and meaning to meaninglessness. 

Between 1951 and 1953, after his involvement with Nouveau Réalisme in Paris in 1948, Robert Rauschenberg created some of the most radical works of the 20th century. He aimed to engage in a new exploration of the boundaries and definition of art. His monochrome works, such as the White Paintings, first exhibited in 1951 at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, contributed to an expansion of the notion of artists: the artist as a creator of ideas. Ever since Marcel Duchamp declared the end of painting in 1912/13, the idea of the new beginning has been a familiar theme in art. In 1953, Rauschenberg wanted to create a work of art solely through its elimination – an act that concentrated on the destruction of an artwork instead of its creation through material and colour. After the tedious act of erasing Willem de Kooning’s drawing, which had been created specifically for that purpose, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns developed a method of labelling, matting and framing the blank sheet titled Erased De Kooning (/artwork/98.298) from 1953. The historical starting point for “NOTHINGTOSEENESS” is a selection of these radical concepts, including John Cage’s silent piece of music 4’33 (1952), Yves Klein’s intervention Le Vide (1961) at Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld and his white monochrome paintings, Mark Tobey’s White Writings and Yoko Ono’s Touch Poems, many of which have influenced numerous artists in the USA and Europe to this day.

The exhibition is curated by Anke Hervol and Wulf Herzogenrath.

NOTHING is a word that is hard to define, for how can something that is there be nothing? How can an artwork, if it is to be one, turn out to be a NON-artwork? If the artwork is exempt from meaning and value, how is it possible for it to escape from these constraints while existing within them?

John Cage, however, in his coining of the term NOTHINGTOSEENESS, indicated something else, because after all, recognising nothing – and at the same time hearing nothing – is not possible: there is always something to be seen, even in the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, which were created in the early 1950s. It was during this same period that Cage created his epoch-defining conceptual composition 4ʹ33ʺ, in which, despite the lack of sound produced by the instrumental soloist, it was still possible to hear something in the concert hall that is generally not perceived by a concert audience or if it is, is blocked out as disturbance. And John Cage was shocked to find that, even in the soundproof experimental room, two noises could be heard: namely, the circulation of his blood and his heartbeat. In effect, this notion of hearing nothing and seeing nothing does not exist. Even when we look at monochrome canvases, we are actually seeing something; artists play with this contrasting experience of rapid recognition of visual forms, and viewers tend to think they can demand it from an artist. 

In the era of the Internet, of the immediate availability of all images, colours and pixels, it is perhaps especially understandable that a large number of artists choose to withdraw, to reduce and minimise their formal language in order to encourage the viewer to see and perceive in a more exact, precise and intensive way, as opposed to thinking that with one quick glance they have seen what the artist intends. One of the messages of our exhibition is that this is not limited to painting and white pictures but rather is something that is expressed by artists working in a diverse range of – perhaps to a certain extent unimaginable – visual media. Here, drawings, sculptures, installations and projections using film and video are placed on an equal footing, always reminding the visitor to look more closely, to scrutinise more carefully. This is one of the reasons why we decided not to print a catalogue but rather to make the information accessible as text and image on the Internet, and to lure the art lover into the exhibition itself; for only the original artworks allow something to be discerned that extends beyond the sparse nothingness of a reproduction of a monochrome painting. The LIVE experience of an artwork is not only a theme in today’s performances – all the works in our selection demand and necessitate the viewer’s presence, standing before the original in the exhibition.

Ornette Coleman, Peter Brötzmann and the Radicalism of Experimental Jazz

On 21 December 1960, African American saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman gathered together eight musicians at New York City’s A & R Studios to record the album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet.1 The ensemble Coleman had assembled consisted of two quartets with two woodwind instruments and a rhythm section comprised of double bass and drums: it included some of the foremost Black experimentalists, such as trumpeter Don Cherry and multi-reedist Eric Dolphy. At 37:03 minutes long, Free Jazz is a series of collective improvisations interspersed with composed fanfares and themes, with each wind instrument taking the lead while others improvise continuing responses, dispensing with harmony-based structure and deploying motivic association. When the album was released in September 1961, its inside cover featured Jackson Pollock’s 1954 painting White Light. In the liner notes for his album Change of the Century (1960), Coleman had asserted his mobility of concept and practice by drawing connections between his musical aesthetics and Pollock’s abstract expressionism. Pointing out “a continuity of expression, certain continually evolving strands of thought that link all my compositions together”, Coleman suggested of his music, “Maybe it’s something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock.”2

For Robert K. McMichael, the late 1950s and early 1960s in the US were characterised by “a critical shift in the balance of moral authority from white to black which penetrated the entire social fabric” and for which the significant gains made by the Civil Rights Movement during this period were crucial.3 Concurrently, Coleman radically challenged the ongoing whiteness-based “possessive investment” in the construction of an ontologically stable Black Other.4 In the words of McMichael, Coleman’s recording of Free Jazz “underscored these social and cultural changes partly by decentring the body in musical representations of blackness through a deconstruction of rhythm and a recontextualization of the traditional blues-based harmonic structures of jazz”.5 The radical idea of sound deployed by Coleman’s double quartet in Free Jazz would become a key point of reference for later landmark experimental jazz recordings made both in the US and in West Germany, such as John Coltrane’s Ascension (1965), Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun (1968) and Manfred Schoof’s European Echoes (1969).6

In January 1962, for the very first time in its history, the jazz magazine Down Beat published a double review of an album in which both reviewers rated Coleman’s Free Jazz on the publication’s usual five-star scale. Awarding the album “no stars” and deploying psychopathological terms, the magazine’s associate editor John Tynan scathingly opined, “Where does neurosis end and psychosis begin? The answer must lie somewhere within this maelstrom… ‘Collective Improvisation’? Nonsense. The only semblance of collectivity lies in the fact that these eight nihilists were collected together in one studio at one time and with one common cause: to destroy the music that gave them birth.”7 The apparent horror with which Tynan responded to Coleman’s radical realisation of the concept of total improvisation suggests that perhaps something larger might have been at play here. As the descendant of people who were subjected to perpetual physical and psychological terror brought about by transatlantic slavery, Coleman’s utilisation of what scholar John Szwed has denoted as “maximal individualism within the framework of spontaneous egalitarian interaction” not only had profound sociopolitical overtones but took on a larger existential meaning.8 Referencing both the ring shout – a religious ritual first practised by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and US in which people form a circle, move in an anticlockwise direction and sing out loud – and John Cage’s well-known composition 4′33″, composer, musicologist and computer music pioneer George E. Lewis has observed, “It seems fitting that in the wake of the radical physical and even mental silencing of slavery (as distinct from, say, an aestheticized silence of four minutes or so), African Americans developed an array of musical practices that encouraged all to speak.”9 The comprehensive silencing of slavery addressed by Lewis thus produced a silence akin to the wilful absence of produced tones and sounds;10 this deliberate absence of sound and noise is the conducting of a produced silence. 

Similarly, scholar Gascia Ouzounian has differentiated between two fundamentally different conceptions of silence: “One notion of silence understands it as a physical or acoustic phenomenon, that is, the absence of sound – the sense in which Cage used the term when he proclaimed that ‘there is no such thing as silence.’ Another conception of silence understands it in historical and sociocultural terms, as in the silencing of a person or people.”11 The latter conception of silence is brought about by the presence of conducting. In that regard, silence is not about absence but actually about presence, albeit not in a Cagean sense. Silence is about marking a blank space, which is occupied by a multitude of sounds. In a seemingly paradoxical fashion, it is not really silence but a scream comprised of the dense polyphony of unheard voices. 

During the early 1960s, Coleman’s groundbreaking innovations began to have an impact on musical practices in West Germany too, a place not so often associated with the African diaspora, via the extended networks of Black experimentalism. Among the white German musicians profoundly impacted by what Ouzounian has denoted as the “radical collective expression” of African American experimentalists – of which Coleman’s work is clearly catalytic – was critically important saxophonist and visual artist Peter Brötzmann.12

Brötzmann’s work and activities have been instrumental in establishing post-war Germany as an important site for jazz experimentalism in Europe. Trained at Wuppertal’s Werkkunstschule (School of Applied Arts) during the early 1960s, Brötzmann began to forge important connections to visual artists and musicians during visits to the Netherlands, such as Jan Schoonhoven and Yoko Ono. Brötzmann’s formative years as a visual artist and musician intersected with the emergence of the international and transdisciplinary Fluxus network, whose experimental concepts and practices deeply resonated with the young Brötzmann. Out of all the artists associated with Fluxus, Nam June Paik was to have the most profound influence on him. In March 1963, Brötzmann had the opportunity to work with Paik on the occasion of the Korean artist’s first solo exhibition, Exposition of Music – Electronic Television, at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal. As Brötzmann remembers, “I was lucky that I had the chance to work with Nam June Paik, who came from the music side. I was, for a couple of exhibitions and projects, a kind of assistant and he showed me that the rules are there to be broken.”13

Brötzmann is a member of a war-born “damaged” generation, which came of age during the period of post-war “conservative modernisation” and which was especially receptive to the burden of Germany’s recent political history.14  Debates were taking off during the late 1950s and gaining in momentum during the 1960s in which the issues at discussion included continuities between the Nazi era and the West German post-war, “miracle years”, as well as the complicity of the parent generation in Nazi Germany’s atrocities. This led to a mounting intergenerational conflict, which surfaced in the debates Brötzmann had with his uncle, formerly a high-ranking Wehrmacht officer. The demands of the generation born during the war for answers to their questions about their parents’ complicity in the unspeakable atrocities of the Nazi racial state were usually met with silence. As Brötzmann – speaking about the significance of his engagement with African American musical knowledge for his individuation process – has related,

After the war, we Germans were in a very special situation. We had problems. The fathers we had brought the whole world nearly to the end, in a way. And so, we had to find answers for that. And, of course, we didn’t get answers from our fathers. So, we had to find answers to the question of what life is and why things like that can happen. I had to look somewhere else and, again, music was not only a help, but it was a kind of book I could read, and I could find little answers for myself.15

In an undisguised fashion, Brötzmann’s remarks illustrate the dynamics of how, in Paul Gilroy’s words, “during the latter half of the twentieth century an appetite for various African American cultures was part of how Europe recomposed itself in the aftermath of fascism”.16

As a descendant of enslaved people and someone who had experienced segregation codified by Jim Crow laws during his formative years in Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman devised strategies that effectively resisted the silencing of radical Black voices. By engaging with Black musical knowledge, Brötzmann was able to break a different kind of silence in post-war West Germany and to artistically come into his own. 

HARALD KISIEDU is a historical musicologist and received his doctorate from Columbia University. His research interests include jazz as a global phenomenon, Afro-diasporic classical and experimental composers, music and politics, improvisation, transnationalism and Wagner. Kisiedu is also a saxophonist and has performed with George Lewis, Branford Marsalis and Henry Grimes. He is currently a lecturer at the Institute for Music at Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences and is the author of European Echoes: Jazz Experimentalism in Germany, 1950–1975 published by Wolke Verlag in 2020.

1 Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet (1961), CD, Los Angeles, 2004. 
2 Ornette Coleman, liner notes for Ornette Coleman, Change of the Century (1960), CD, Los Angeles, 2002. 
3 Robert K. McMichael, “We Insist! Freedom Now: Black Moral Authority, Jazz, and the Changeable Shape of Whiteness”, American Music 16, no. 4 (Winter 1998), pp. 375–416, here: p. 379, hereafter McMichael 1998. 
4 I have borrowed the phrase “possessive investment” from George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Benefit from Identity Politics, Philadelphia, 1998.
5 McMichael 1998, see note 3, p. 398. 
6 John Coltrane, Ascension (1965), CD, Santa Monica, 2000; Peter Brötzmann, The Complete Machine Gun Sessions (1968), CD, Chicago, 2007; Manfred Schoof, European Echoes (1969), CD, Chicago, 2002. 
7 Pete Welding and John A. Tynan, “Double View of a Double Quartet”, Down Beat (18 Jan. 1962), p. 28. Reprinted in Robert Walser (ed.), Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, New York, 1999, p. 255. Pete Welding awarded the maximum rating of five stars.
8 John Szwed, “Josef Škvorecký and the Tradition of Jazz Literature”, in id., Crossovers: Essays on Race, Music, and American Culture, Philadelphia, 2005, p. 187. 
9 George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, Chicago, 2008, p. xii.
10 In this and the following paragraph, I draw upon insightful ideas developed by my partner Andrea Rothaug during a recent conversation. 
11 Gascia Ouzounian, “The Sonic Undercommons: Sound Art in Radical Black Arts Traditions”, in Jane Grant, John Matthias, and David Prior (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sound Art, New York, 2021, p. 510.
12 Ibid, p. 512. 
13 Harald Kisiedu, European Echoes: Jazz Experimentalism in Germany, 1950–1975, Hofheim, 2020, 
p. 25, hereafter Kisiedu 2020.
14 Translated from the German “konservative Modernisierung”. Axel Schildt and Detlef Siegfried, Deutsche Kulturgeschichte: Die Bundesrepublik von 1945 bis zur Gegenwart, Munich, 2009, p. 234. 
15 Peter Brötzmann, interview with the author, Wuppertal, Germany, 2 July 2010; see also the version published in Kisiedu 2020, p. 47. 
16 See Paul Gilroy, “Foreword: Migrancy, Culture and a New Map of Europe”, in Heike Raphael-Hernandez (ed.), Blackening Europe: The African American Presence, New York, 2004, p. xviii. 

“The remark that did him most harm at the club was a silly aside to the effect that the so-called white races are really pinko-grey. He only said this to be cheery, he did not realise that ‘whiteʼ has no more to do with a colour than ‘God save the Kingʼ with a god, and that it is the height of impropriety to consider what it does connote.”

E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)

Colours, in themselves, are meaningless. It is only in the specific context of their appearance or use that they trigger certain emotions and take on concrete meaning. The colour white as a concept seems to be exalted above every emotion and representational determination, a sheer Something, which is why Aristotle uses it to exemplify the category of “quality” in his writings on logic. But in the colonial novel A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, a certain Mr Fielding causes a scandal at the English club when he remarks that the colour of his race is not white but rather “pinko-grey”. The empirically correct observation, at least with regard to the facial hue of his fellow countrymen, is clearly an “impropriety”, just as unseemly as calling into question the god who is expected to save the King. Because, in this society, “white” is the implied distinction of beings who are destined to rule. Not even the insight from evolutionary biology that the skin colour of Caucasians is, in truth, a deficiency, the defect of the “depigmented race” (Gottfried Benn) could shake this prejudice. The belief in the inherent superiority of “whites” probably comes from further afield: from the feudal world, in which the pale complexions of the nobility signalled the divine privilege of not having to work.

The questionable nature of the attribute of “white” is, of course, not limited to the sociopolitical milieu. White is also a sensitive topic in the scientific context. Since Newton’s optical experiments, speaking of “white light” – which, when it is sent through a prism, splits into the spectral colours, which, in turn, when collected by a lens, merge again to form a white beam of light – has caused persistent confusion. Light can be intense or weak, sometimes bright, sometimes less so – but it is not white in the strict sense of physics: unless as a phenomenon in the dark room of experimentation. Whiteness is a sensory quality, not a physical fact. Confounding scientific concepts with a psycho-physical phenomenon is the root of notorious discrepancies in colour theory. This includes the belief that the colour white contains all the colours (including the achromatic ones?) – a clear instance of extrapolating from a particular property of visible light to the constitution of colours in general. Conversely, Cézanne highlighted - from the experience of the plein air painter - the intrinsic sensual value of colour with almost provocative clarity: “La lumière n’existe donc pas pour le peintre.” To the painter’s eye, light only exists as an immanent property of colour, in the harmonie générale of colour sensation, and in the difference in brightness of the individual colours. It is only in this radically empirical regard that the special colour character of white is revealed: the unique brightness that can be both glaring and reabsorb the surrounding colours and which is able to physically brighten up all other colours.

Nonetheless, the difference between the light element and the sensory quality is a petitesse, an academic dispute, compared to the contradictory perceptions of white in everyday culture. The ubiquitous presence of advertising promises to those obsessed with cleanliness that white is the colour of purity, freshness and immaculacy. But that is, at best, only half the truth. For the majority of humanity who live in the Middle East and the Far East, white clothing is primarily associated with burial rites. Whereas black has been the colour of mourning in the West since the end of the Middle Ages, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists remember the dead with the colour white, the “great silence”, which according to Kandinsky “is not dead, but rather full of possibilities”. This custom would even appear to have been the more original one. The white wedding dress, incidentally, is supposed to have been introduced by Queen Victoria. Whether making a start in life or mourning the end of it, both celebrations seem to find the appropriate sentiment in this colour. Thus, the ambiguous conception of white – comparable in this regard only to the more intrusive red – exposes a scandal of symbolic discourse that seems to appertain to the entire world of colours: it is not just that colours are perceived differently in different contexts; no, in one and the same context, the same colour can assume opposing connotations. If there is a rule, or better an etiquette, for understanding colours, then it is the observance of contradictions that are not mutually exclusive; and white is the textbook example par excellence.

Cultural history is full of such vicissitudes of reason. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus knew of the white flag as a sign of surrender from legionnaires. However, this did not stop the French kings of the early modern period from waging war under the white banner of the commander-in-chief. The local traditions of the Old World paid little attention to unambiguity and universality. In 1570, Pope Pius V was probably the first to specify ritual colours in the Missale Romanum, the Catholic missal, as a definitive and general prescription in accordance with the “universal” claims of the church: white for the high holidays of the ecclesia triumphans, black for Good Friday and funeral masses. Goethes remarks on the “sensual-moral effect of colours” in the didactic section of his theory of colour were an important step on the way to exploring the cultural reality of colours, even if he – as a result of his controversy with Newton – simply ignored the effect of the “non-colour” white! It was only in the twentieth century, with colour psychology, that a field of research claimed authority over the interpretation of all colours. With a heavy bias toward application, it tends to confound colour perception with consumer behaviour – and falls victim to the erroneous assumption that colours are an unambiguous offering. But the stumbling block is not so easily cleared away. More recently, interior-design gurus have taken on modern living tastes and found that pure white is simply “hostile to life”, because the colour tends to paralyse the nervous system: it is just as boring as it is overly stimulating, constantly causing tension and persistently anaesthetising, a tranquilliser and a stimulant all at once. One hardly dares to think about what the true, relaxed contradiction-free chroma of life could be: diverting immersion in multicolourism?

It is not by chance that this latest trend in interior design had a precursor in the visual arts. During the course of the postmodern reckoning with the “purism” of modern art in general and the Bauhaus idea in particular, the presentation forms for art in the twentieth century have finally also been critically examined. Brian O’Doherty’s essay Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976) can certainly be compared in terms of its influence on art discourse with Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (1935). Both authors share an interest in an insufficiently observed change in the conditions for the reception of art. O’Doherty, who himself had worked as a conceptual artist, analyses how the homogeneous white gallery space, which had become the standard in the 1960s, transports works of art to a sphere of quasi-religious devotion: elevated from the production conditions and unsullied by the commercial calculations that lurk in the back room. This sociocultural approach to a seemingly self-evident fact provides a wealth of critical insights, but it is nevertheless too deeply rooted in the intellectual discourse of the New York art scene. Experienced art dealers such as the doyen of the Basel Art Fair, Ernst Beyeler, soon realised that the ideal of the “white cube” was rather detrimental to business, because it suggested to private clients that the exhibits actually belonged in a museum – and not in the mixed environment of a normal home.

The problem with the white presentation space is in fact rooted in an art museum dilemma: What role has white played in the history of art? The art historical consensus since, at the latest, Wolfgang Schöne’s book Über das Licht in der Malerei (1954) has been that the reflected light from white walls distorts the inherent brightness of traditional paintings that were created under different luminance. So, what colour should the walls be then? Conversely, white walls do seem to be appropriate for the presentation of modern works – and not only because the Bauhaus shaped our living aesthetics, and the museum of modern art defined the style in which works of art are presented: white is quite simply the characteristic colour of modern painting. This began in the nineteenth century with the alla prima method – the direct application of paint without any underpainting or glazes, practised in particular by the impressionists – and culminated in the twentieth century with the introduction of white as a primary pictorial colour by such diverse artists as Matisse, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Léger. Perhaps one day, when the bewildering diversity of individual expression no longer bemuses our judgement, we will recognise the colour white as the characteristic trait of modern art, just as we regard central perspective as a common feature of Renaissance painting.

The reasons for this are manifold. Certainly, the emergence of photography contributed to a change in how pictures were conceived in painting. On the whole, modern paintings are no longer solid, self-contained artefacts incorporating messages or meanings, but imaginary surfaces that will find their true existence only in the response of the spectator. But the main reason for the emancipation of the colour white in modern art is the profound lack of any basis underpinning the endeavour called “art”. The white canvas appears to be a tabula rasa, a working surface that is essentially vacant, because all traditional inputs have vanished: the social mandate, a binding iconography, artisan tradition. Only silence in music is comparable to this direct manifestation of the starting point for all modern art. The white emptiness can, in this context, become even blinding and intensify to form a mental block – and yet it is nothing but the reverse of what the simple-minded buzzword “artistic freedom” means. “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it” (John Cage). The shock of the void and the exhilaration in face of an unexpected potential belong together. The exhibition The Infinite White Abyss! Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian in the spring of 2014 in Düsseldorf celebrated this second aspect. But the triumph of the great abstract painters is not the last word on whiteness. The “peculiar state of hopelessness, perplexity and high spirits” (Gerhard Richter) persists. The “NOTHINGTOSEENESS – Void/White/Silence” exhibition project by the Visual Arts Section pursues this trail anew.

Layering. Layering is a principle derived from the process of artistic creation and at the same time a political concept. It can mean the structuring of an image through colour layers as well as the palimpsest of time through the splicing together of successive film sequences and the overlapping of image and sound. A shift of boundaries takes place between depiction and exhibition, between layering and space. The layers of the process become the work. Layering is not just to be understood in a material sense but should also be seen as a process-based, multifaceted mechanism that finds its way into the exhibition.

Black matters. Black is a colour. As a material, black was and is a conveyor of meaning. Currently, its most radical expression is in the form of discourse. Paradoxically, materiality has become a key concept in a digital knowledge society that conceives of itself as immaterial. This paradox will be explored by examining various methods and possibilities of layering and relating them to their narrative ply. Black/material, colour/form and negative/effect.

Black. An anarchic colour, expression of melancholy and poetry, search for light and reflection from asphalt to war. This applies, though not exclusively, to the topos of painting. In the moving image, for example in film, it can be the black silhouette of moving people, the film material itself or a separation of picture and sound, as a side-by-side coexistence of layers, as it were. The quality of that which is non-reproducible (with regard to the economisation of art) connects painting with visually oriented performance. Despite its temporary nature, this places an emphasis on an image, a photograph, a symbolic act or action. Surfaces of images as a factor of time take on an expansive quality. Ranging in focus from tonal colour in music to the visual nature of poetry, there will  be an exploration of the intrinsic value that can be attributed to the colour black. Life is in colour, but black and white is more realistic.

Surfaces. To reach the core of things, one has to remain at their surface. Behind and beneath each layer lies another. What if the surface were a space, instead of a representation of one? And, more importantly, what if the surface were not merely linked to the visual perception of an art object but could also be experienced through other senses? Is it always the case that the surface creates distance between itself and the viewer? Surfaces are touched, underlying layers are created, the boundaries of objects are changed. Layering comes about not only through the overlapping of materials but also through the densification caused by variation. Seeing is augmented by hearing, smelling, touching, tasting. The two-dimensional surface can be an expression of the space that has no inside and outside. Surfaces are organisational forms of actions. Surface is everything.

Time layers. Whereas at the beginning of the twentieth century black stood for the end of all images or for their salvation, after the experience of war and the end of the Second World War, black enjoyed  a manifest presence in painting and drawing. At the same time, black gained in global significance with the entry of photography into museums, in the discourse on Negritude through to the Black Lives Matter movement. What is the significance of the colour as material and as a concept of painting after the “end of painting”? Which border crossings transgressions contain historical references? For the French artist Pierre Soulages, black is the colour of light that contains all the colours of the spectrum, the most active colour of all: in his main work – the glass paintings for the windows of the Monastery of Sainte-Foy in Conques – his experience of outrenoir, the otherworldly black as a mental field, is no longer bound to the support of the canvas but instead to the light.

The perception of imagery and movement has changed because the understanding of images is in flux. It is no longer exclusively the privilege of the fine arts or of Western European societies. In whatever the medium – whether on stage, in the cinematographic perception of architecture, in the process of the creation of art, or in politically and religiously motivated mass movements – black is in the process of reinventing itself. Investigating layering processes means searching for the effect and grandeur of negation.

White is a colour. “Is it nothing? [...] But that through which I see everything is not nothing. I see [...] an indescribable certain something that starts to move beneath the eye.”1 These words do not stem from John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”,2 the visual text score that is of such central importance for conceptual and minimal art and also contains the neologism NOTHINGTOSEENESS, which gives the exhibition its title. Instead, these words were published by the early baroque painter and art theorist Marco Boschini, in his work La carta del navegar pitoresco. They are used in reference to the Venetian Renaissance painter Titian and his visible brushstrokes, which break loose from the shapes he painted, to the haptically applied white comma-like strokes and the intrinsic value of colour as material. This makes him a prominent antagonist to a Western notion of art that equates conception and figuration with the form of an idea and assigns to colour a mere chromatic, decorative function. At the height of its marginalisation in the realms of theory, the concept of colour as a material is a question not merely of the pigment but of the imagination that extends beyond an intensification of perception.3 In the context of the iconisation of Cage – that catalyst for the dematerialisation of art – it is often forgotten that he makes use during the twentieth century of the resistance and processual nature of the material. “The technique of handling materials is”, he explains in his “Lecture on Nothing”, “on the sense level, what structure as a discipline is on the rational level.” Nothing means no-thing, the absence of things, leading us to the void – to the void of a narrative of art history that gives forms priority over colours. “Colours instead of shapes”, to use the words of Vilém Flusser.4 And white is a colour. The lead-white pigment of the Renaissance – the brightly saturated titanium white of modernity, the innumerable nuances of layers and colour constellations in the evolution of painting – the use of white as ground, primer and the embodiment of an idea in colour. Colour obsession versus colour oblivion.

At the beginning of the third millennium, in various exhibitions in New York, the Italian painter of the Quattrocento, Fra Angelico, was compared to Willem de Kooning, pioneer of American Action Painting. Ellsworth Kelly’s white paintings were described as non-figurative Renaissance masterpieces, while his Two Whites (1959) was celebrated as a homage to Malevich’s White on White (1917).5 Fra Angelico’s work, long considered medieval and backward-looking, had undergone a re-evaluation. One might say that being almost modern was modern enough. Malevich and Kelly are reference points for a form of painting that is considered monochrome and is directed against the gestural work of an artist like de Kooning. One might say that being modern was not modern enough. Paradoxically, the concept of materiality has evolved into the key concept in a digital knowledge society that conceives of itself as immaterial. What is the significance of colour as a material of painting after the “end of painting”, and what historical connections are revealed in the crossing of boundaries? Different painting techniques imply different layers.

The ground helps paint the painting. – The visibility of the invisible. Malevich’s serial production of Black Square (1915, 1923, 1929, 1930) corresponds to the painting White on White from 1917. The white border, which pushes in tentatively, surrounds an almost square black field of colour made up of visible and rapidly applied brushstrokes and dabs of colour. This “naked icon of its time”6 was originally positioned, like a Russian icon in the living room, in the upper corner of the exhibition space. Malevich painted on a wet surface; the oil paint had not yet dried out. He removed parts of the picture surface with a solvent, replacing them with new layers of black paint, which created variations in the gloss on the skin of the painting. He must therefore have known that craquelure would occur – in other words, that the fissures created from the start would play a role in painting the picture, so to speak. They reveal the invisible. Violet shimmers through these cracks in shades ranging from blue to yellow. For his Black Square, Malevich painted over one of his own pictures. And Robert Rauschenberg, pioneer of Pop Art, asked de Kooning in 1953, two years after his White Paintings, if he could destroy or erase one of his drawings. Layering and erasure as an artistic act.

“Everything arrives at the state of white. [...] Black still keeps a hope alive for something to discover, something unknown; the white square indicates that everything is bright and that nothing will emerge from it in the form of an object,”7 proclaims Malevich. In 1917, before doing his own replicas – with minimal variations – of the black paintings, he painted a white picture, the lesser-known White on White: a white square, tilted at a slight angle toward the right side of the painting. Unlike its black counterpart, craquelure is not part of the equation. The painting thrives on the subtle gradations of two different nuances of white, causing the white square to seem to float weightlessly above the white ground. Yet the visible brushstrokes running horizontally across the borders between square and ground turn the woven structure of the canvas into a part of the painting. It is thus not a work that denies the artist’s personal touch but rather deliberately puts it on display. The ground represents a barrier-free, open infinite space. At the same time, the white square imagines an endless light, before colour or forms materialise in the light. The generation of Yves Klein – think of his Untitled White Monochrome (1957) – would take this up in gestural monochromy. The objectivity of the colours and painted surfaces (poverchnost) embodies the faktura of the material language, which was interpreted as modernity’s characteristic self-referentiality.8

Whereas Malevich uses white oil paint on prepared canvas, Agnes Martin – half a century later in her series The Islands, I–XII, created in 1979 – uses the combination of gesso (a luminous, absorbent acrylic-based chalk ground that serves as a white colour mixture for the priming of the canvas) with chemical polymer paints and the traditional graphite. The gesso mixture lends the matte white colour a plaster-like, dull and haptic quality. It generates a vibrating calm at the limits of visibility, which the artist describes as a fusion and dissolution of form.9 The delicately drawn fabric of lines also blends optically into the colour surfaces, and thus into the paradox of a fulfilled void that leads to the material of white as a colour in the image.

The fact that the ground is somehow incorporated into the painting process is not an invention of modernity. The separation of tonal value (brightness) and tonal intensity (colour perception), as is characteristic of Fra Angelico’s paintings,10 is expanded on by Piero della Francesca through his further development of the painting’s priming coat – often in a dark-yellow or light-brown tone. By adding thin glazes, he creates smooth communication between light and dark. The light and dark layers are seemingly created out of the material itself.11 In the Brera Madonna (1472–1474) – in which the white egg appears as a non so che, an inexplicable something – the grey gives coherence to the colouring right down to the shadows, anticipating the reduction of hues in Titian’s late work and thus the painting of early modernity.

Relief and faktura – surface as space. Ellsworth Kelly, the American painter of monochromatic colour fields, explained in 2011 that his visual thinking in black and white had its origins in a divergence of “the complete absence of colour and the utmost intensity of light”.12 The colour should itself be form and not define it. It is not merely an intentional choice of his to avoid the visible brushstroke; instead, in contrast to Malevich and Martin, he isolates the pictorial field from the form. For Kelly, it is an act of removal, taking distance from Renaissance painting.13 But is that truly the case? In his 2004 works White Curve over White, which unlike many of his later paintings were not painted on an aluminium base, but rather with oil on canvas,14 the curved edges of the colour fields seem to float – as they do in some of his reliefs – in front of the wall and into the room, as if they were in motion. In contrast to his early painting Two Whites (1959), in which, as with Malevich, an almost square white form is painted over a warmer-coloured background, here the two curved parts of the picture, which has been joined into a trapezoidal form, are painted in the same white colour. Only the narrow, curved line of separation, which resembles a groove, is marked in a lighter tone. Tendentially, the painting becomes the object, while the wall becomes the frame. Yve-Alain Bois’ term “already mades”15 – a reference to Marcel Duchamp – points to their semiotic character, since shadow is half of the form of something present.

At the same time, Kelly’s play with shadows does not seek dissociation from Renaissance painting but rather proximity to it. The reduction of colour to black and white in a substantial number of his works gives particular weight to the value of light and shadow and thus to the concept of relievo in illusionistic painting, as introduced by Cennino Cennini around 1400. What is meant is not real three-dimensional relief but rather the appearance of three dimensions in painting, generated by light and shadow, understood as a layering from dark to light. In Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto (1450/75), for example, a colour perspective can be seen in the fluid overlapping of brushstrokes through which the plaster shines through in the fresco, culminating in the vertical white slit – a white that Piero uses in unmixed form, contrary to the recommendation of Leon Battista Alberti. The sculpturally modelled index and ring fingers artificially angle the extended middle finger and suggest that it is pushing into the folds of the undergarment. For the cult of Mary, an unexpectedly erotic gesture, and for the concept of painting, a radical one. In the Early Renaissance, the painted relief coincides with the surface. Later, with the anti-illusionist tendency of modernism, the image itself coincides with the surface, giving rise to the concept of faktura.

In Ceal Floyer’s wall-filling projection work Peel (2003), the surface becomes the space. The impression is generated of the white gallery wall slowly “peeling away”. Layer by layer, the skin of the exhibition space peels off. Peel – the name of a video- editing program – generates the effect of one image merging into another. The curved white form in the white square that casts soft shadows. Colour as material, separating, layer by layer, from the ground that is itself. The square as figure and ground at the same time. White as the denaturalisation of colour. The concept of non so che that came about during the Renaissance, that certain inexplicable something, is formulated by Lodovico Dolce in his Dialogo della Pittura, published in 1557: that certain something is part of the charm, a magic that cannot be expressed in words, which affects the viewer. The colour reveals itself as having a dual role – as a material property and as an act of perception. In the case of the colour white, it is not merely perception that is the issue but rather the production of an intense perception of light. It is not only with the painting of white surfaces that we have reached, to use the words of Heiner Müller, the “end of reproducibility”.16

1 Marco Boschini, La carta del navegar pittoresco, ed. A. Palluchini (1664), Venice, 1960, p. 327. In his description of Titian’s painting, Boschini homes in on the sprezzo of the brush, the visible quality of what is done, the skill of a painting performed with ease, and thus also on the material of paint.
2 John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing” (1958), published in Incontri Musicali (August 1959), pp. 128–149.
3 Nothing is essentially different from some-thing, any-thing and every-thing. Any yet, paradoxically, there is a clear relationship between these four terms. Nothing is a parent of something, anything and everything. See the exhibition with the almost identical title Nothingness, Galerie Eugen Lendl, Graz, 2004.
4 Vilém Flusser, “Farben statt Formen”, in id., Lob der Oberflächlichkeit: Für eine Phänomenologie der Medien, Mannheim, 1993, pp. 118–133.
5 Roberta Smith, “Renaissance Radiance, Gilded in Gothic”, in The New York Times, 28 Oct. 2005, and ead., “Focus: Ellsworth Kelly”, in The New York Times, 4 Jan. 2008.
6 Graham Bader, “Die absolute Besonderheit von Kasimir Malewitschs schwarzem Quadrat”, in Hubertus Gassner (ed.), Das schwarze Quadrat: Hommage an Malewitsch, Ostfildern, 2007, pp. 201–206. See the X-ray images of Black Square, which the artist backdated to 1913.
7 Kazimir Malevich, quoted in Astrid Nettling, “Das Unterfutter des Himmels überwinden”, Deutschland Funk, 29 Jan. 2020, https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/der-maler-kasimir-malewitsch-das-unterfutter-des-himmels.2540.de.html?dram:article_id=468788.
8 Aage Hansen-Löve, “Wie Faktura zeigt”, Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 53 (2004), pp. 47–96, esp. pp. 82ff.
9 Heinz Liesbrock, “Figure and Emptiness: Agnes Martin’s The Islands at the Josef Albers Museum”, in Ulrike Growe and Heinz Liesbrock (eds.), Agnes Martin: The Islands, Düsseldorf, 2004, p. 41.
10 Marcia Hall, Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Painting, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 52ff.
11 Piero della Francesca liked to present his colours in contrasting juxtapositions of the complementary colours red and blue, with the blue often blending into green and violet.
12 Ellsworth Kelly, quoted in Ulrich Wilmes (ed.), Ellsworth Kelly: Black & White, Ostfildern, 2012, p. 5.
13 Ibid., p. 13.
14 Stephen Hackney, On Canvas: Preserving the Structure of Paintings, Los Angeles, 2020, p. 34.
15 Yve-Alain Bois in id. (ed.), Ellsworth Kelly: Die Jahre in Frankreich 1948–1954, Munich, 1992, p. 21.
16 Heiner Müller, “Für immer in Hollywood, oder: in Deutschland wird nicht mehr geblinzelt”. Here in reference to Robert Ryman’s interview with Frank Raddatz, in Lettre 24 (1994), p. 4.