Although best known for his work as a composer, John Cage (1912 – 1992) was also an accomplished visual artist and writer. Having studied with innovative composer Arnold Schoenberg in the 1930s, Cage began his career creating musical accompaniments for choreography. In the 1940s, his interest in Zen Buddhism and Indian philosophy inspired Cage to remove, or attempt to remove, intention and personal taste from his work, both musical and visual. Chance was the means to this end. His revolutionary musical work 4’33’’ (1952), for example, comprises random environmental sounds made by the audience or drifting exogenously into the concert hall while the ostensible performer sits silently at the piano.
Throughout his career Cage associated with other many prominent artists including Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and, significantly, Marcel Duchamp who had pioneered the use of chance in art years earlier. These influences, along with Cage’s increasing interest in the visual presentation of his musical works, led him to begin creating visual art in a variety of media including painting, printmaking, and photography.
One early example of Cage’s visual art is Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (1969), created after Duchamp’s death, which takes its name from a comment Jasper Johns made after being approached about the possibility of creating a piece as a memorial for Duchamp. For this limited edition work, Cage created two lithographs and eight “plexigrams,” each consisting of eight plexiglass panels held in a wooden base and silk-screened with bits of text. In homage to Duchamp, Cage had used an aleatory process to select fragments of text from the ancient Chinese text the I Ching and to determine the details of their presentation on the lithographs and plexigrams.
The making of books and print portfolios was an important part of Cage’s artistic output. Seven Day Diary/Not Knowing (1978) is notable for being a portfolio of prints that records Cage’s first visit to Crown Point Press, during which he learned new printmaking techniques. Cage would return to Crown Point Press many times to create a total of twenty-eight series of prints between 1978 and 1992. Another noteworthy example of Cage’s work with books is Themes & Variations (1982), which he made in collaboration with photographer Robert Mahon. In this book, Cage continued to explore the mesostic, a poetic form that he had invented in the 1960s. Other books Cage contributed to include an early example of a democratic multiple called An Anthology of Chance Operations (1963) and a collaborative artist’s book called Mushroom Book (1972), for which he created ten lithographs to accompany botanical prints by Lois Long and writing by Alexander H. Smith.
Books with John Cage available from Boreas Fine Art:
Cage, John, Lois Long, and Alexander Smith. The Mushroom Book. New York: Hollander Workshop. 1972.
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