John Cage is the most important modern artist. This is true first due to his lineage with Marcel Duchamp. And whether or not the first line here smacks of polemic, Duchamp’s effects on the directions of twentieth century art are inarguable. An emphasis on context and the social construction of fine art; the appropriation of popular forms and media, collage and found objects, these all were legitimated first by readymades, so easily translated to twenty-first century obsessions. Cage advanced sound art, new media art and performance art, even before they knew they were arts. Taken together, you might say his works flatten media, taking art into life through music as well as noise; language, as well as its beyonds, always in equal measure. Duchamp and Cage may well have talked very little about chess during their games.
While he was not alone, Cage is also important for his precursory involvement with sacred traditions in South and East Asia. The force of global spiritualisms was felt throughout even popular culture in the 1950s and 60s, however Cage is unique in vouchsafing his interpretation within the contexts of the city. Never claiming to follow any particular scriptures, an avid student of Columbia University Zen scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Cage developed his practice in tandem with the white noise and political bureaucracies of New York City, referring to the I Ching toss of the die to create his path.
The artist’s involvement with The New School and Black Mountain College also continue to resonate. Instrumental to happenings, a close collaborator with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, among many others, Cage was a teacher cognizant of the learning achieved in the course of a meal. His Lectures on Nothing and Something remain in print and high demand even though their presentations caused initial disquiet and cranky boredoms. And however he may have seemed at the time, Cage was deliberate about absurdity. In his early work straight through to his contributions to the Aspen lectures[i] Cage stood for the politics of awareness.
A musician and composer first, Cage’s work in his own field was always most controversial. His voice has long been referenced in visual arts, often for performative scores, lectures and other works conceived outside of visual concern. Using a super-banal approach to innovation, his random, inky compositions and scores on graph paper, raw graphic designs on transparency, are sensational for negating sensation―precisely what in the age of futurism so often came tricked out in technicolor spacey aerodynamism. Exploring deeply nuanced communications theories, often citing Marshall McLuhan and the pervasive relationships between new technologies and the everyday, Cage and his circle wholeheartedly embraced new technologies as generative, if also documentary media.
For example, a prominent contributor at the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) Nine Evenings developed by Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, Cage’s Variations VII and other, iterations, used chance-triggered telephone and radio channels to express the underlying omniscience of media in their world. Dialing up, and, mashing up the undressed sounds of “the kitchen of Lüchow’s Restaurant, the Times printing presses, the aviary at the Zoo, a dog pound, a Con Ed plant, a Sanitation Department depot, and Terry Riley’s turtle tank”[ii].
While it may be true that for Cage anarchy was “simulated”―doing nothing to displace the genius artist author, his practice did, and still does problematize expectations for a beginning and end, a front and center, obscuring the edges between meaning to also complicate the then much more entrenched, silo-effects of disciplinary research. As in reference to collaborations with long time partner, choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, Cage notes,
“What we have done in our work is to bring together three separate elements in time and space, the music, the dance and the décor, allowing each one to remain independent. The three arts don’t come from a single idea which the dance demonstrates, the music supports and the décor illustrates, but rather they are three separate elements each central to itself.”[iii]
Of course, Cage’s influence is not in what he had anticipated―indeterminacy, anarchy, chance, and the open field embracing as they do the entropic rift and common grounds of contradiction[iv]―Cage’s genius is rather found in the impossible cool: a radiating spirit of joy in a time sometimes overburdened with a strictness of etiquette, premonitions of disease or apocalypse; confidence despite living on the edge of poverty, and a clarity of voice through cacophony of ridiculous patriotisms.[v]
Conceived and curated by Jeremy Millar the current retrospective touring exhibition, Cage’s first in the UK, is complimented by another premier, the first publication focusing on Cage’s work as a visual artist. Including over 100 works: late prints from the Crown Point Press, film and video, written works and performances, the exhibit is determined by chance operations, an approach Cage used for Rolywholyover A Circus, the year of his death, in 1992. The book covers all aspects of Cage’s visual art, with more than sixty plates and other illustrations, and four interviews by with authorities on Cage’s visual art work, all of whom knew him well. It includes a substantial extract from the critic Irving Sandler’s 1966 interview, and a ‘Cage Companion’ of quotations and commentaries, from ‘Anarchy’ to ‘Zen’.
* Every Day is a Good Day: The Visual Art of John Cage is organized with the close support and guidance of the John Cage Trust, in collaboration with BALTIC. The exhibition opened at BALTIC in June 2010, then tours to Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge; Huddersfield Art Gallery; Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, Glasgow and De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea.
sb 09 2011
[ii] Alex Ross, “Searching for Silence: John Cage’s art of Noise,” The New Yorker, October 15, 2010, 59.
[iv] John Cage, Silence (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press), 38.
“To ensure indeterminacy with respect to its performance, a composition must be determinate of itself.”