Marina Abramovic’s upcoming show at Serpentine Gallery is hardly the “unprecedented moment in the history of performance art” that the gallery claims.
Brian Boucher points this out in the article "A Spat Over ‘Nothing’" in Art in America, as does Dominic Rushe in his article for The Guardian. Yet both men cite as the earlier example of “Nothings” the artist Mary Ellen Carroll, who began creating nothings “as early as the 1980s,” according to Boucher.
Yet devoted followers of this blog and the man to whom it is devoted will know otherwise.
According to Dr. Frances Beatty, Director of the Ray Johnson Estate: "Our lack of historical knowledge is nowhere so evident as the debate regarding Abramovic and Carroll’s Nothings (both fascinating artists) which astonishingly does not acknowledge Ray Johnson’s primary role as a pioneer in performing what he named ”NOTHINGS.” "Nothings" were birthed by Ray Johnson - that is what he called his legendary performances beginning in 1961 in New York. That Ray Johnson was working intensively on the deeper ideas/concepts of Nothings throughout his artistic career (1940’s- 1995) is also well-documented.”
Dr. Beatty also cites the 1965 review in The New York Times by Grace Glueck, “What Happened? Nothing”in which Glueck writes “Johnson has also won underground fame for his Nothings, a type of cool un-Happening which he invented.”
There is also a description of Johnson’s Nothings in the Estate Chronology (the collective work of dozens of scholars) on our website, www.rayjohnsonestate.com: ”From 1961 on Johnson periodically stages events he calls Nothings, which he describes to William Wilson as “an attitude as opposed to a happening.” These performances parallel Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and later Fluxus events.”
In addition, the chronology in the catalogue for the exhibition Ray Johnson: Correspondences (Whitney Museum, 2000) curated by Donna De Salvo (now chief curator of the Whitney Museum) reports: "1962: Nothing (late spring), Maidstone Gallery, New York. Sponsored by Fluxus impresario George Maciunas and advertised in the Village Voice, the event proceeds as follows: attendees gathered, nothing happened until Johnson threw a found box of wooden spindles down the gallery staircase, the sound of which was audible to attendees.”
Again, in the words of Dr. Beatty:
"The complex ways in which artists recycle each others creative concepts has been the subject of fruitful and contentious discussions for centuries and continues. We can be clear about precedent here - Johnson’s occupies the seminal place in the history of ”Nothings” and this is useful timing because, interestingly, a new book on Johnson’s writings entitled Not Nothing has just been published : NOT NOTHING: SELECTED WRITINGS BY RAY JOHNSON, 1954-1994, edited by Elizabeth Zuba, with an essay by Kevin Killian. Zuba chose this title for her collection of Johnsoniana because she was fascinated by Johnson’s revelations on this theme.
The discussion of “Nothings” will be much enhanced by delving into Johnson’s contributions. Johnson was, of course, inspired by Zen so he leads us on, back and deeper as he always does.”