A Centennial of John Cage

A Celebration with Friends at the Solway Gallery

By Jud Yalkut

In 1952, pianist David Tudor performed John Cage’s “4’33” at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York by sitting at a closed piano with a stop watch for precisely that time, a length of time determined by Cage through chance operations (which could have been any others and for any instrument or combination of instruments). This “silent” piece has reverberated through cultural history with its redefinition of time, the perception of one’s environment and the realization, which fellow composer Henry Cowell points out, “that no musical piece can twice give us the same aural experience.”

Ten years earlier in 1942 Cage composed the two minute “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs” for percussive fingers and knuckles on a closed piano to accompany a vibrato-less vocal based on texts from James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.”

He totally redefined the sound of a piano by modifying its tonalities with inserted items like screws, rubber bands, paper fragments and wooden spoons between the strings to create a “prepared piano” for his “Sonatas and Interludes” (1946-48) in “an attempt to express in music the ‘permanent emotions’ of Indian traditions … and their common tendency towards tranquility.”

In 1967 John Cage pointed out: “If you want to know the truth of the matter, the music I prefer, even to my own or anybody else’s, is what we are hearing if we are just quiet. And now we come back to my silent piece. I really prefer it to anything else but I don’t think of it as ‘my’ piece.”

John Cage (1912-1992) practiced the high discipline of using indeterminacy and chance operations to produce extraordinary works in many media beyond music including poetry, philosophy and visual art. In celebration of the 2012 centennial of his birth, and its fifty year existence in Cincinnati, the Carl Solway Gallery is presenting through April 20 the comprehensive exhibition called John Cage 🙂 A Centennial Celebration (With Friends).

Solway’s friendship with Cage began in 1968 and resulted in the publication the following year of Cage’s first graphic work “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel” with an edition of Plexiglas multi-level planar objects called Plexigrams and associated lithographs (included in this show) dedicated to Cage’s friend, the seminal artist Marcel Duchamp. Of Cage, Solway stated: “No one was more influential in helping to shape both my personal life and my professional career, and his thinking influenced and expanded … our perception of both art and life.”

Key to Cage’s compositional techniques and the elements of his writing, music, performance and art was the timeless Chinese “Book of Changes” – the I-Ching. “I gave up making choices,” wrote Cage in 1988-89. “In their place I put the asking of questions, the answers come from the mechanics in, not the wisdom of the I-Ching, the most ancient of all books.” Tossing three Chinese coins six times to yield numbers between 1 and 64, Cage was able to determine locations, rhythmic structures, and mobile and immobile elements for compositions, and word and graphic dislocations in both actions and non-actions. In 1969 he was able to use a computer simulation of the I-Ching to facilitate the translation of the resultant hexagrams into their numerical equivalents. He adds, “I use chance operations instead of operating according to my likes and dislikes. I use my work to change myself and I accept what the chance operations say.”

The Marcel Plexigrams, which were silkscreened on six clear and two bronze tinted panels, were the first of his graphic works composed by chance operations. Working with the Crown Point Press, Cage’s first project in etching was “Score without Parts (40 Drawings by Thoreau)” in 1978 and he returned nearly every year until his death. The Solway exhibition also includes his earlier color lithograph of “30 Drawings by Thoreau” (1974), the color print portfolio of the “Mushroom Book” by Cage and Lois Long (1972), and later etchings on straw-smoked paper executed with river rocks, feathers and brushes at the Mountain Lake Workshop in Virginia. These pieces reflect Cage’s long term appreciation of Zen modalities of nondualism.

Related to the Zen garden of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, Japan, Cage placed and traced fifteen stones corresponding to the stones in that garden in “75 Stones,” and realizing that one was inadvertently omitted in another arrangement created the etching “The Missing Stone” (1989). Cage also produced a series of “mesostics” built around capital letters usually running vertically down the center spelling a name, like MARCEL or MERCE, or other graphics using press type of various sizes and fonts arranged by chance operations.

These “mesostics” paid tribute to colleagues and friends, many of whom are represented in the Solway show, including Cage’s life partner and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham with his flower and bird ink and colored pencil drawings, Marcel Duchamp with his “Roto-Reliefs,” painter Morris Graves with two “Blue Mandalas” (1970) and Robert Rauschenberg with his lithographs “Landmark” (1968) and “Rival”(1963).

Cage’s classes at places like Wesleyan, Rutgers University and the New School in New York connected him with younger artists, many from the avant garde music and Fluxus movements. Among these were video artists Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota, Dick Higgins of the seminal Something Else Press who published Cage’s ground-breaking anthology “Notations,” Allison Knowles, concrete poet Emmett Williams, Robert Watts and Ben Patterson, who memorialized Cage in his mixed media “A Short History of Twentieth Century Art Final Edit Revised and Bigger” (1993).

“In Zen they say: If something is boring after 2 minutes, try it for 4. If it is still boring, try it for 8, 16, 34 and so on. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all but very interesting.” – John Cage (1961).

The Carl Solway Gallery is located at 424 Findlay Street in Cincinnati. A free concert at 7:30p.m. on Thursday, March 22 with speaking percussionist/pianist Bonnie Whiting Smith and Allen Otte will feature texts of Cage, Thoreau, Joyce, and others, with Music for Marcel Duchamp as the basis of the newest piece “Connecting Egypt to Madison and the history of the American labor movement.” Call the gallery at (513) 621-0069 for hours, information and concert reservations.

Reach DCP visual art critic Jud Yalkut at JudYalkut@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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NY born, moved to Ohio in 1973 to be Assistant Professor of Art at Wright State University (1973-1977); in NYC taught at School for Visual Arts, York College of the City University, and NYU Continuing Ed; six-time recipient of OAC Individual Artist Fellowings (including one in Criticism); 2005 Ohioana Citation in the Visual Arts in Ohio; 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Montgomery County Arts and Cultural District.

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