Not knowing exactly what to expect from an artist who is known primarily as an avant-garde composer, this show of John Cage’s visual work proved a great eye-opener. John Cage (1912- 1992) started painting and printing after an invitation from the Crown Point Press print workshop in San Francisco when he was 65 years old. His reply to the invite was: “Years ago I was invited to go walking in the Himalayas, I declined and I always regretted it.”
The first impression on walking into the vast exhibition space, where over 100 paintings and prints are hung all over the walls, salon-style, is, strangely enough, one of great calm. Cage’s works are mostly executed in warm tones; even his primary colours never seem to leap from the canvas. Among them is a large selection of drawings from the Ryonaji series, in which Cage placed large, rounded stones on prepared paper and painted the outlines with brushes or feathers. These appear at first sight to come from a tradition of cool, geometric abstraction, yet retain a loose playful quality. Every part of the painting is determined by ‘chance’, created along a unique set of rules set out by Cage from which stone is chosen, to where it should be placed, and which colour used.
Some of the prints are made on pre-stained and semi-burned paper. Sometimes shard-like pieces of plates are arranged, barely inked, or not inked at all, just leaving an impression or layered on top of a bigger image. In places there are sharp, spidery marks that remind the viewer of his musical score-writing. The works feel Zen-like – a quality which is key to Cage’s whole artistic being.
Cage was a man whose lifelong approach to art was fundamentally different to that of most artists. In 1951, he started working with chance operations, determined by the I Ching, an ancient oriental book of oracles, based on the principle that the universe is constantly changing. The I Ching contains a set of 64 oracular symbols. To access their wisdom, a question is asked and then three coins tossed six times. The combinations and permutations of the coins provide an answer. Cage used this method to create art, as well as music. Instead of the work being the answer to a question, however, his search was the question itself, something answered by the chance operation of the I Ching. This process freed his mind from preconceived ideas, self-criticism and doubt. Thus, his work was neither good nor bad; it just was determined and then executed in a particular fashion.
This Hayward touring show (which debuted at the Baltic, Gateshead) is the first major visual survey of this great avant-garde composer, philosopher, poet, music theorist, painter, printmaker and keen mycologist (that’s mushroom enthusiast to you and me). There is some amazing archival footage, too, not least Cage’s unlikely 1960 appearance on the CBS game show I’ve Got A Secret. It is a phenomenal appearance and evinces how far ahead of his time Cage really was, as well as the sincerity and kindness which he invested in his art and the criticism of it. In this TV show, he performs a piece called ‘Water Walk’ (check it out on YouTube). It’s fascinating to see how the game show host introduces Cage: his work must have stood out like a sore thumb in the world of prime time, light entertainment TV. Whoever got him on was a genius.
The exhibition also boasts a recording of a live performance of ‘4:33’, the musical composition Cage is probably best known for. In 1952, David Tudor performed this ‘silent’ piece on a grand piano with the lid down; it had the music world in uproar. If listened to on a record or CD, it lacks impact, but when seeing it performed, with an audience practically holding its breath, it is beautiful. This retrospective is worth repeat visits: after all, Cage was less keen on linear representation than on ever-changing
possibilities. To this end, the works on show were chosen and hung using a ‘random’ computer programme and the exhibition will be re-hung with images taken out or added more than once in every exhibition space.
There is a book accompanying the show: ‘Every Day is a Good Day’: The Visual Art of John Cage, published by the Hayward Press. It gives an insight into a humble artist and genius and makes one re-evaluate a view not only of art but of the world and its workings.
BALTIC Gateshead 18 June–5 September 2010
Kettle’s Yard Cambridge 25 September–14 November 2010
Museum and Art Gallery Huddersfield 20 November–8 January 2011
Hunterian Art Gallery Glasgow 19 February–2 April 2011
De La Warr Pavilion Bexhill on Sea 16 April–5 June 2011