In America in the late 1950s and early 60s, the world—and life itself—became a legitimate artist’s tool, aligning with Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on “enlightenment at any moment” and living in the now. Simultaneously and independently, parallel movements were occurring in Japan, as artists there, too, strove to break down artistic boundaries.
Nothing and Everything brings these heady times into focus. Author Ellen Pearlman meticulously traces the spread of Buddhist ideas into the art world through the classes of legendary scholar D. T. Suzuki as well as those of his most famous student, composer and teacher John Cage, from whose teachings sprouted the art movement Fluxus and the “happenings” of the 1960s. Pearlman details the interaction of these American artists with the Japanese Hi Red Center and the multi-installation group Gutai. Back in New York, abstract-expressionist artists founded The Club, which held lectures on Zen and featured Japan’s first abstract painter, Saburo Hasegawa. And in the literary world, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg were using Buddhism in their search for new forms and visions of their own. These multiple journeys led to startling breakthroughs in artistic and literary style—and influenced an entire generation. Filled with rare photographs and groundbreaking primary source material, Nothing and Everything is the definitive history of this pivotal time for the American arts.
“This fantastic book deftly illustrates and uncovers the direct Buddhist influence on America's twentieth-century avant-garde. A fascinating series of truly American stories brought to life with amusing and colorful anecdotes, and a true pleasure to read.” —Peter Hale, director, Allen Ginsberg Estate
“Ellen Pearlman's book is meticulously researched and an exciting read; Kerouac would be delighted.” —John Sampas, executor, the estate of Jack Kerouac
“Zen thinking permeates Western arts: the mid-century pivot to Eastern influence is a truism of previous generations, but curiously absent from contemporary mastications of history. Ellen Pearlman gets it all right: Nothing and Everything is the perfectly balanced lesson—art, and change, and friendship.” —John Reed, novelist, book editor of The Brooklyn Rail
“The influence of Buddhist philosophy and aesthetics on the American avant-garde is one of the great untold stories of modern art. Ellen Pearlman helps illuminate the way by charting relationships which sparked some of the most important exchanges in American art and thought.” —Alexandra Munroe, author of The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989
“Nothing and Everything brings insight and fact to an important Buddhist teacher whose life and work profoundly influenced the leading members of the avant-garde arts community. Pearlman's adept writing is a pleasure to read as well as informative about matters that too often are glossed over in accounts of the work of John Cage and those whose work has surrounded him and moved on. A solid reference.” —Pauline Oliveros, author of Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice
“Ellen Pearlman has done the heroic work of bringing the extraordinarily powerful and radical ‘conjunct’ between Buddhism and the American avant-garde into intelligent scrutiny and focus. It’s a tale that needs telling, one that educates as it elucidates. This is the mysterious koan of any time: why the experience of mortality and impermanence inspires such lucid contrapuntal energy and passion for artistic endeavor. We are here to disappear. Let art guide the way and stay awhile.” —Anne Waldman, poet; co-founder and professor, The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Naropa University
“The avant-garde is not ahead of its time; it is in it. Ellen Pearlman's book about the ripple effect Buddhism had in American contemporary art is a time capsule filled with treasures.” —Michael Goldberg, director of the D. T. Suzuki Documentary Project
“Ellen Pearlman reveals an amazing truth about the American avant-garde: that much of its freshness comes from ancient Zen philosophy and meditation! Nowhere else is this important story told so clearly.” —David Rothenberg, author of Survival of the Beautiful and Blue Cliff Record: Zen Echoes
“When D. T. Suzuki began to teach ‘Buddhist Philosophy 101’ at Columbia University in 1952, his class was like honey to bears among New York artists and poets, who had never met an authentic Zen Buddhist. Unknowingly, Suzuki was an important influence on the development of abstract expressionism and Beat-generation poetry. Nothing and Everything tells the story of how the seed of Zen was planted in rich, creative American soil. —Denise Lassaw, daughter of sculptor Ibram Lassaw
“Like fresh footprints after a newly fallen snow, Zen and Buddhism left mindful and distinct imprints upon the post–World War II avant-garde cultural scene in New York City. Nothing and Everything leads the reader through an odyssey of social and cultural upheavals in this post-war time and the artistic responses that burst into creative expression in art, music, dance, literature, and media. Through extensive research and interview, Ellen Pearlman explores the influence of Buddhism upon the creative milieu and how it altered the course of imaginative interpretations in the ‘new reality’ of mental awakenings. An insightful read and an invitation for continued scholarship where the arts and Buddhist philosophy interweave.” —Cathy Ziengs, Buddhist Door International
"Ellen Pearlman vividly captures the feeling of spontaneity and freedom with which the American avant-garde sought mu and experienced suchness." —Laura Hoffmann, Artforum magazine
About the Author
Ellen Pearlman is one of the founders of Tricycle magazine and the Brooklyn Rail. She has taught at Columbia University, Parsons School of Design, and the The New School as well as lecturing worldwide. She lives in Brooklyn, NY