• Books: The Void in Art
  • Cover of Void in Art by Mark Levy

By Mark Levy, PhD
Bramble Books; Putney, Vermont; 2005
210 Pages; $24.95

Reviewed by Thomas Cunniff

Near the end of his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein states that: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical.” He concludes that book with a famously cautionary note: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” In his just-published Void In Art, Mark Levy has taken a not altogether opposite tack; he has opened up a discussion and an overview of how the “Void” has been depicted and apprehended by both Eastern and Western artists, in a spiritual context for the most part in the former case and secularly in the latter. In the process he raises a fascinating host of questions.

Levy tackles the most obvious question in his introduction, “What Is The Void?” where he states that “The idea of the Void or God as a formless field that at once is the source of all creation and is inextricably linked to all forms of creation is hard for most Westerners and even many Easterners to grasp.” Indeed the very definition of the Void differs widely between the two. In Western culture the idea of the Void has largely been associated with everything that is lacking in human experience: boredom and existential loneliness, Pascal’s terrifying “silence of infinite spaces,” even death itself. Levy offers that the Void for Westerners is essentially empty and lacking in presence because its role as the ultimate ground of being “is usurped by a god or demiurge who usually assumes a human form,” whereas in cultures and religions where God is “a formless field that permeates everything, the Void is full and has presence.” Variously known as the Buddhist Dharmakaya, the Chinese Tao, and the Hindu Brahman, the Void exists beyond conceptualization, indeed beyond existence or non-existence alike and, to complicate the matter further, it is not consistently described from one culture to another, even in the East.

Individual experiences of the Void can vary widely as well.  For some it is like a field of energy, for others a clear light or state of deep stillness and quiet.  Furthermore, the Void need not be associated with religious or even spiritual belief. Regardless of ones’ locale, religious belief or lack thereof, the Void is in fact so present that it can be “directly experienced in the gap between thoughts.” 

Formal Eastern meditation seeks, through an attention to breathing and a quieting of the mind, to expand this gap and so to prolong and deepen the experience of the Void, though many of the Western artists that Levy considers in his book have developed their own methods, often outside of any formal practice, to forge a connection. One has the sense that these artists have mattered vitally to the author and that the specific works examined are instances not only as objects of aesthetic mastery but as testaments of the ineffable reality they attempt to circumscribe.  Levy himself has long practiced a form of kundalini meditation whose aim, using ancient breathing techniques, is to open subtle energy centers within the body and bring the practitioner into blissful dissolution with the Great Void.  His approach in Void In Art fuses a well-traveled academic scholarship with the personal warmth of the spiritual seeker that makes for lively and informative reading.
Void In Art begins with a broad retrospective of Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist pictorial representations of the Void and one of the more fascinating realizations that the reader comes away with is just how diverse these examples can be.  For the Hindus and Tantric Buddhists the Void is usually depicted through the intermediary forms of certain Gods and Goddesses, such as Shiva or Kali, or through Tantric Yantra, which are essentially diagrams whose purpose is to aid in meditation.  As individual works of art their function is more ritualistic or symbolic than the classic Taoist and Zen landscape and object paintings.  The Taoist artist practices tai chi, a method of movement and synchronized breathing whose goal is to open the “energy gates” of the body and thereby increase the amount of chi (the circulating life energy inherent in all things). The individual’s chi can then find its resonance with the chi of any object and ultimately the Great Void of the Tao.  As the Qing dynasty painter Pu Yen-t’u put it: “When the divine magic is working, the brush-ink attains the Void.  Then there is brush beyond brush and ink beyond ink.”

A kinship to these landscape paintings, with their wandering poets gazing down into misty depths, is found in Caspar David Friedrich’s highly romanticized nineteenth century canvases, which nonetheless attempt a serious encounter with spirituality. His iconic painting, Wanderer Overlooking The Fog depicts a man, his back to the viewer beholding a fog-shrouded vastness containing rocky promontories, valleys, a distant peak and a dynamic sky.  All the elements of Friedrich’s Chinese predecessors are there, yet the painting contains a great deal more human drama, as if the man had surmounted his perch through an act of enormous will and a balance between that effort and the immensity of humbling experience were being enacted.

It was not until the early twentieth century with the advent of the 0.10 exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1915 where, amidst a circle of artists, Kasimir Malevich had hung his black square paintings, that a radical new note was struck on behalf of the spiritual in art.  Malevich, a relentless seeker, had mastered and passed on from all of the major artistic movements of his day: New-Primitivism, Cubism, and Cubo-Futurism, before he discovered the pure abstraction of what he would term Suprematism.  He had been influenced by Cezanne’s idea that painting is based on an artist’s sensation and P.D. Ouspensky’s notion of the artist as seer.  For Malevich the square was the simplest formal device for presenting pure sensation.  He wrote: “The black square on the white field was the first form in which nonobjective sensation came to be expressed.  The square-sensation, the white field, the void beyond this sensation.” Levy has chosen Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White for the cover of his book.  It is an imperfect white square tilted on an off-white square ground, a quintessentially minimal form for the twentieth century.  Stripped of any vestiges of the past and perpetually angling into motion, it can be read in seemingly endless variation, as forward looking now as the day it was painted.

Half of Void In Art is devoted to twentieth century artists and this is where the book makes its most forceful case, namely that the underlying phenomenological ground for the artists studied is in fact the Void as it is understood in classic Eastern traditions. With the advent of Eastern philosophies in the West beginning roughly in the late 1940’s, it isn’t surprising that artists would be among the first to discover ways to work its insights into fruitful modes of expression (though their numbers remain, even now, surprisingly few).  What could be a more powerful challenge to art than the Heart Sutra’s dictum that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”?  Levy distinguishes between artists like Mondrian, Brice Marden, or Robert Ryman who, he claims, use empty space in their works for purely aesthetic reasons and those for whom it represents an embrace of the Void.  Some of the works considered quite consciously pay tribute to Eastern visual models and their underlying spirit, like Ad Reinhardt’s cruciform panels of dark squares which resemble the patterning of certain mandalas, Mark Tobey’s calligraphic “living lines” and Agnes Martin’s dissolving grids that, in the spirit of Taoism seek “an empty form that goes all the way to heaven.”  In each case the visual effect is of elemental forms deployed not as symbols but as living signs which call attention to that which is hidden in plain sight.  In Reinhardt and Martin there is a minimalist aesthetic at work that invites the attentive viewer to slow down and focus closely on what is there.  Levy makes the crucial observation that it is the experience of “a mental suspension, not a mental diversion,” similar to that experienced in meditation, that subtly animates their work.

There are, however, artists for whom Eastern philosophies have not figured in any discernible manner, but for whom a mutable grasp of form seemed to spring from a visceral personal need.  At the heart of this book is Levy’s bold assertion that for such artists the experience of the Void was of primary importance in the shaping of their work. He makes a convincing case that Giacometti’s metier had never been existential alienation but rather the dissolution of forms in space based on the artist’s lifelong, near scientific observation of the human body. Levy offers anecdotal evidence that Giacometti suffered at times from a kind of vertigo where matter appeared to him to be devoid of weight or solidity. It has been pointed out before that distance is one of the keys to understanding Giacometti’s approach to form and that in the enormity of this perceived distance his figures seem to exist on the threshold between being and nothingness, like apparitions of a mirage. While in exile in Switzerland during World War II Giacometti’s sculptures had been worked to such a miniscule degree that he carried them in six matchboxes in his pocket. “A sculpture,” the artist wrote, “is not an object, it is an interrogation, a question, a response.”

There is a fascinating chapter on Rothko’s mature paintings, their powerfully sensuous and emotive quality that nonetheless achieve a “luminous emptiness.” The artist situated his painting through a mastery of formal repetition between the transcendental and the tragic, a sensual medium of color and light that seems to allow for an infinite exchange of possibilities for the viewer. He was well aware of the effect it had on his audience: “The people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” Toward the end of his life Rothko had abandoned his signature hovering color fields. Levy describes the final paintings, a series of monolithic black panels for the Houston Chapel, as ‘forbidding in their density and opacity.” Rothko committed suicide before the completion of this work, and Levy alludes to the Kabbalistic Ein-Sof, the infinite, beyond all categories, which one approached with fear and trembling as a fitting sign for a master who had “traveled far into the Void.”

Other artists considered are Yves Klein, painter and a kind of early mystical performance artist, John Cage, Nam June Paik, Samuel Beckett (“Nothing is more real than nothing’), Sam Francis, James Turrell, and sculptors Anish Kapoor and Montien Boonma, all of whom, with the exception of Beckett, intentionally worked within a modern aesthetic informed by Eastern traditions.

In Void In Art, Mark Levy has given us a unique and courageous study and one that freely invites further discussion and exploration of what is yet a marginalized subject.  One has to admire the tenacity that this project must have required, not to mention such a head-on consideration of the spiritual, for the most part either an unwelcome or bewildering topic in the contemporary art world, though one that’s gaining wider currency as the world around us continues to unravel into late capitalist chaos. As Levy points out in his afterword, “Many of the works in this book take us above the level of the mind rather than just allowing us to substitute one set of thoughts for another.” The same can be said for the expansive gesture of the book itself.


— Thomas Cunniff is a writer who lives in San Francisco.