10 Artworks That Don’t Really “Exist”


Last week, the Museum of Modern Art made a very important purchase, acquiring 4 minutes and 3 seconds of… nothing, just “three folded sheets of almost blank onionskin paper” — notation for conceptual artist John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece of music with no musical notes whatsoever. A silent orchestra. A conductor with a stopwatch. Instead of strings and horns, the audience experiences the sounds of waiting, of their own murmur, or — as in the open-air auditorium in Woodstock, where the piece premiered in the ’50s — of the rain, the shuddering of trees, the wind, and the piano player closing and opening the instrument that was never played. Subtle? Hokey? Radical? Here’s to work that doesn’t actually “exist” in a traditional sense, but makes its audience think, sense and feel. Calling all knee-jerking “This isn’t art!” trolls: I hope you’re ready. Here are 10 more silent, blank, absent and amazing works of art.

Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (1951) inspired John Cage’s 4’33”. The canvases appeared all white, but they were not “blank.” They were what John Cage described “airports of the lights, shadows and particles” — hypersensitive surfaces that picked up and displayed any subtle change in the room’s ambiance and social composition. They were there to frame and focus the audience’s perception — paintings in the purest sense.

Like many extreme minimalists, FLUXUS artist Nam June Paik was influenced by Zen Buddhism. This is Zen For Film, 1962-64, an eight minute, black and white (but really, just white), silent video video piece, described simply as “clear film, accumulating in time dust and scratches.” As a concept, it is so pure it frees the artist to let go of superfluous, conflicting distractions of “subject” or “form.” It is a natural portrait of deterioration itself, through time.

A part of artist James Turrell’s practice was experimenting with projections of light. His technical process isolated parts of a dark room with radiant, effused light, flattening any surface or corner into a glowing geometric object. Is it minimal or ephemeral or just cool?

Jeppe Hein’s Labyrinth (2005) is an empty room, only it isn’t. Visitors traverse a grid in an invisible maze while wearing infrared sensor-equipped headphones, following the vibration signals. The maze changes depending on the day of exhibition. The artist explains: “The invisible labyrinth is a new form of architecture or sculpture, since it is no longer a visible or physical tangible object, but a work of the imagination and thus only becomes a sculpture through the interactivity and psychology of the viewer.”

Tom Friedman’s 1992 piece Untitled (A Curse) referred to the cubic volume of space directly above the podium. This space was allegedly cursed by a witch. The work asks several questions, like “What is metaphysical space?”, “How do you confine the intangible?”, and “Who believes in this witch stuff anyway?” The work was exhibited at the Invisible show at the Hayward Gallery. It was displayed near a very similar-looking white plinth — Andy Warhol’s Invisible Sculpture, upon which he once allegedly stood in 1985 at a New York nightclub, imbuing the empty space above it with his fabled celebrity, christening it with the ghost of his presence. Hopefully, those psychic streams never crossed. They’d be stuck with a gypsy-cursed ghost of Andy Warhol. Yikes.

Art’s affair with minimalism isn’t without a sense of humor. Let’s go all the way back to the work of French writer and humorist Alphonse Allais. This is his 1883 “illustration” entitled First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow.

Yves Klein was the first artist to dare to display actual blank walls in 1958, but the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris recently devoted a show to them — Voids, a Retrospective , an entire floor of empty, white rooms, complete with gallery guards. Roman Ondak’s More Silent Than Ever was empty except for a panel that informed the visitors of a hidden listening device somewhere in the room. The purpose was to make them examine nothingness, to explore the void. To look, but to not necessarily find. There’s something almost religious about it.

Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Breath is nothing but air. Granted, it is air from the artist’s very own lungs exhaled ceremoniously into a balloon that, over decades, deflated into… um… nothingness. But see it less than an empty, shriveled vessel and more of a conceptual statement on artist celebrity, subjective tangibility and death. Too personal? He’s done deeper, and trust us, it wasn’t as pleasant.

And finally, here is notorious artist Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled (1991), another highlight from the Hayward Gallery show. Unable to come up with a new piece for an upcoming show, Cattelan filed a police report about an invisible sculpture stolen from his car. It was taken seriously by the authorities and investigated. And so, this became a piece of conceptual art — commentary on bureaucracy’s ability to legitimize the existence of something not tangibly existent… or something like that. Point being, Cattelan created something out of nothing. All praise Cattelan!

Since John Cage’s revolutionary 4’33” there have been endless parodies, homages, and rip-offs in art and pop culture. Even John Lennon and Yoko Ono pulled a Cage in 1969 with “Two Minutes’ Silence” from the “Life with the Lions” EP. After Cage’s conception of “silence,” it was hard to make something “silent” and not redundant. John and Yoko were a bit too serious about it, so here’s something not that serious: The Best Of Marcel Marceao, a 1970 tribute to the work of the famous mime Marcel Marceau. There are two sides, 20 minutes long each — 19 minutes of silence followed by one minute of applause. Ta-da! Where’s ours?