Rock, Paper, Brushstroke: Cage as Visual Artist

United StatesUnited States John Cage: The Sight of Silence: National Academy Museum, New York City, 12.2012 (DS)

Where does visual art meet music? Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schoenberg met (literally) on the point of abstraction and atonality. Chuck Close and Philip Glass shared a penchant for unveiling the secrets of the big by revealing its tiniest parts. Grand aesthetic-changing moments might be an obvious place to look, but sometimes we miss elements of the commonest ground between these two artistic cousins. One such humble place where the visual crosses the aural is in the medium of paper, for both artist and composer put pen to paper to realize ideas, great and small.

John Cage approached the paper as both composer and artist. In the exhibition, John Cage: The Sight of Silence (in its last month at the National Academy Museum in New York), we have the opportunity to see a vast number of his watercolors, drawings and prints. Hung randomly up and down the walls in chance spacings (the placement of works was determined by rolling dice), the delicate pieces surround a central vitrine filled with visually mesmerizing hand-written musical compositions, themselves unique works on paper.

Cage painted as he composed, with the freedom of letting things happen while sticking to systems that led to infinite results. The exhibit displays numerous works from the 1980s when , on several occasions, Cage visited Virginia’s Mountain Lake Workshop. There, his system was based on rocks collected from the nearby river. Take a rock and draw or paint around it. Stick to the system, and the rocks will take the artist on varied paths of creation. While the rocks dictate size and shape, the watercolor brushstrokes are the expressions of the artist-cum-composer’s hand. The colors are the sounds, the music flowing out onto the paper. They manifest the enjoyment of the creator and inspire reactions in the viewer.

Cage’s Japanese-influenced aesthetics reveal themselves in delicate painted hanging scrolls that make up most of the New River Watercolor Series (of which there are several). In #24 of Series III, a reddish brown circular gesture makes its way halfway onto the lower half of a nearly empty scroll. Mossy green swirls bounce along the bottom of the horizontal paper in #6 of Series IV—its ephemeral grayish blue background raked across by Cage in one gentle but massive brushstroke, as if drawing lines in the sand of a Japanese rock garden.

John Cage: New River Watercolor, Series III, #24 (1988, watercolor on paper)
John Cage: New River Watercolor, Series III, #24 (1988, watercolor on paper)

Cage’s respect for the rhythms of nature whisper from these tree-sourced paper works. In Déreau, Cage evokes a great naturalist in the title, combining the word “décor” with the name “Thoreau.” A precursor to the New River series, Cage had not yet taken up the brush and made prints, in which animal and nature forms borrowed from Thoreau’s own drawings accompany algae-like swirls harmoniously floating in a garden of straight lines, perfect circles, and other geometric impressions.

John Cage: Dereau (#11) (1982, Color etching with aquatint, and engraving, photo-etching and drypoint)
John Cage: Dereau (#11) (1982, color etching with aquatint, engraving, photo-etching and drypoint)

In the gallery, earphones hang next to each score displayed inside the centrally placed vitrine. While viewing the works we might choose to listen to Fontana Mix, Aria (dedicated to soprano Cathy Berberian) or Renga – with score drawn from sketches in Thoreau’s journal. We can feel the closeness of art and music, letting one embellish and enrich the other. With a paradoxical sense of moving stillness, like that of a stream rippling across gleaming rocks, we experience what Cage as artist-shaman sought to make possible—or as Cage himself said in a 1978 interview, to allow “art to slip out of us into the world in which we live.”

Daniele Sahr