Articles and Features

The Other John Cage: The Composer’s Visual Art

John Cage in June 1988. Photo by Rob Bogaerts. Photo collection Anefo. National Archive, The Hague
John Cage in June 1988. Photo by Rob Bogaerts. Photo collection Anefo. National Archive, The Hague

By Shira Wolfe

They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.

John Cage

This article series explores the lesser-known artistic output of artists who became known for another medium or genre of art. Often, great artists wear many different hats, but break through and achieve acclaim because of their work in one specific medium. We aim to highlight the multifaceted nature of their talent by shining a light not on what they are best known for, but on the lesser-known side of their artistic production. Everyone knows John Cage as the influential avant-garde composer whose controversial 1952 composition 4’33”, consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, made waves in the art world and set the tone for experimental music and art for decades to come. What fewer people know, is that Cage was also a visual artist, especially later in his career, when he started to apply the same methods of random composition to his drawings and prints as he used for his music.
In his early twenties, Cage had made a promise to great composer Arnold Schoenberg that he would dedicate his life to music if Schoenberg agreed to teach him composition. Later in life, he decided that if he were to use the same techniques in his visual works as in his compositions, he would still keep his promise.

John Cage - 4'33" by David Tudor
David Tudor performing John Cage’s 4’33” in 1952

4’33”

In 1952, John Cage composed what was to go down in history as one of the most boundary-breaking music pieces of all time: 4’33’’. The composition consisted of three movements, together making up four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. For the piece, the performer sits down in front of a piano for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and does nothing, inviting the audience to sit in silence and listen. After the first performance of 4’33’’ by pianist David Tudor, Cage said of the audience’s response: “They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third, the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

This piece was the result of Cage’s years and years of working with found sound, noise and alternative instruments, and his interest in chance procedures as well as set parameters within which to create. In 1951, Cage had visited the anechoic chamber of Harvard University, which was designed to completely absorb all sounds, thereby creating absolute silence. Cage was struck by this experience, since he discovered that he could still hear the beating of his heart and the sounds of his central nervous system, and it no doubt influenced his creation of 4’33’’.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company world tour
Merce Cunningham Dance Company world tour, Cologne, 1964. Pictured in helicopter: Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Doris Stockhausen, David Tudor, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Pictured below: Steve Paxton, Michael von Biel, and Rauschenberg. Photo: Unattributed, courtesy Tate

John Cage’s Beginnings in Composition

Cage had studied with classical composer Arthur Schoenberg at UCLA, where he realised that the music he was interested in making was very different from the music of his time. Yet he managed to find like-minded artists who were also interested in making art that broke with the rigid past. Among his early experimental collaborators were the dancer Merce Cunningham and the painter Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he created experimental performances at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Cage was already interested in composing music through chance procedures at the time, and his first experiments included the altering of standard instruments through random interventions, such as placing plates and screws between the strings of a piano. From this point, he moved on to creating entirely new instruments. In 1952, the same year he composed 4’33’’, Cage created Water Music, a piece for which he used shells and water in order to reproduce the world of sound that is all around us every day.

John Cage
John Cage, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, 1969. © John Cage. Courtesy Norton Simon Museum, Gift of Mrs. Judith Thomas, 1970

John Cage and Marcel Duchamp

Many of his ideas about the possibilities of art and music were inspired by Marcel Duchamp and his ready-made objects. Just like Duchamp, Cage was interested in finding music in his surroundings, in what already existed in this world. Duchamp and Cage had struck up a friendship in the early 1940s, and the pair shared an interest in the elements of chance in the creation of art. 

Following Duchamp’s death in 1969, Cage created his first visual artwork, a lithographic tribute to the great artist called Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel. Using the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, and its numerical system with 64 possible outcomes, Cage set out to design the work in collaboration with graphic designer Calvin Sumison and lithographic printers Irwin Hollander and Fred Genis. Text and images were juxtaposed on layers of Plexiglas, overlapping and erased in parts, in order to allow for different readings and interpretations. By using chance and eliminating his own personal choices, Cage removed the artist’s hands from the artwork and opened the piece up to limitless interpretation. By “not wanting to say anything about Marcel”, he created the ultimate homage to his friend and inspiration.

“Most people who believe that I’m interested in chance don’t realise that I use chance as a discipline. They think I use it as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask.”

John Cage
John Cage
John Cage, HV2, No 17b. © John Cage. Photo courtesy Crown Point Press and the John Cage Trust

Chance and the I Ching

The I Ching was first introduced to Cage in 1950 when his composition student Christian Wolff gave him a copy. Cage was already interested in eastern philosophies, and this ancient Chinese text excited him immensely due to its capacity to radically alter his working methods. The I Ching is a devotional and a divinatory volume with 64 images and interpretations initially derived from the practice of casting a turtle shell into a fire and reading the cracks that appeared. The patterns were eventually ordered into 64 possibilities, with a ritual of tossing a set of three coins, six times. The way and order in which these coins fall then lead to a statement, from which an answer can be extracted.   

Cage was delighted with this practice, using it from then on as an inspiration for his music, writing and visual art. Using the philosophy of chance, he would consult the I Ching and toss a coin every time he encountered a problem in his life and work. Over time, Cage abandoned the book and the coin tossing in favour of a computer program he developed that could produce lists of random numbers between 1 and 64. From the 1980s, up until his death in 1992, Cage took to carrying printouts of these lists everywhere with him. He used them to compose music, lectures, poems and visual art. Cage’s use of chance was not meant to embrace chaos, but was rather a way to ask new questions within a set of parameters. He explained his philosophy of chance as follows: “Most people who believe that I’m interested in chance don’t realise that I use chance as a discipline. They think I use it as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask.”

John Cage, Dereau #3, 1982. One of 38 related colour etchings with aquatint, engraving, photoetching and drypoint. © John Cage. Courtesy Crown Point Press.

Crown Point Press Prints

In the late 1970s, Cage was invited by Kathan Brown, the director of Crown Point Press, to visit the press and to make use of their printmaking facilities to create visual art. Though initially hesitating to accept the offer due to his promise many years before to Arnold Schoenberg that he would dedicate his life to music, Cage finally accepted. He decided that if we would make visual art using the same methods as for his compositions, he would keep his promise to Schoenberg and be able to expand himself artistically.

Cage set to work using chance to select the elements and their arrangement in his visual works. He experimented extensively with etching and printmaking, and also worked directly with paper by crumpling it, staining it with tea and coffee, and even running over it. Eventually, he also ran into blockades and insecurity, falling into a lengthy depression and claiming his life’s work was a failure. He finally treated the paper he had been working with fire, burning and smoking it. This act helped Cage to emerge from his depression and to continue working with pleasure and inspiration at Crown Point Press.

One of Cage’s most acclaimed series from the Crown Point Press works is the so-called Ryoanji Series, which he produced in the 1980s, inspired by the Ryoanji garden in Kyoto, Japan. The Ryoanji garden is Japan’s most beloved Zen garden, in which 15 stones are arranged in five mossy islands. For this series, Cage drew around the outlines of stones that were scattered across a paper or printing plate, according to chance. In one case he drew around 3375 individually placed stones. He did not allow any of the stones to cross the edge of the plate, in keeping with his self-imposed delimitations. Between 1983 and 1985, Cage also produced a series of compositions titled Ryoanji, as such paying homage to this garden both visually and musically.

John Cage
Installation view of the “Circus movement” at the Rolywholyover exhibition, LA MoCA, 1993

Rolywholyover

Towards the end of his life, Cage worked on several exhibitions that showed his own artworks and those of others following the chance operations that he worked with. An important exhibition was Rolywholyover (the title is a portmanteau word from Finnegans Wake). Cage devised the exhibition with Julie Lazar, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. They decided that the content and arrangement of the show should be entirely decided by chance, making it a kind of composition for the museum. At times, the exhibition would change so much that you would barely recognise it from one visit to the next. The show took place at MoCA in 1993, a year after Cage passed away, honouring the great artist and his philosophy of chance with something that resembled a musical performance more than a conventional exhibition. Or, as Cage himself had imagined it, more of a circus than a gallery show.

Relevant sources to learn more

The Guardian
SFAQ
Baltic+
Norton Simon Museum