Critics’ Picks

Jason Moran, Before the Downbeat, 2021, pigment on gampi paper, 42 1/2  x 78".

Jason Moran, Before the Downbeat, 2021, pigment on gampi paper, 42 1/2 x 78".


Jason Moran and John Cage

Josh Pazda Hiram Butler
4520 Blossom Street
April 1–May 27, 2023

Uniting prints and drawings by experimental composer John Cage as well as jazz pianist (and Houston native) Jason Moran, this cross-generational exhibition from two musical innovators-cum-visual artists is mutually enlightening, if counterintuitive. Cage, an influential proponent of chance and indeterminacy, was notoriously hostile to improvisational practices (e.g., jazz) for their tendency to fall back on inherently clichéd and ego-driven expressionist patterns. Yet his turn to printmaking in the late 1970s—on the urging of Kathan Brown, the founder of San Francisco’s Crown Point Press—began to yield evidence of the authorial hand. The handmaidens of his softened attitude toward intentionality: organic processes and natural materials. Cage’s prints in this show feature smoke tracings, burn marks, and painterly outlines of rocks, and his handmade papers are confettied with medicinal herbs. The grungily atmospheric monotype Variations No. 30, 1987, was created by sending flaming newsprint though the press, leaving behind an earthbound aura of marbly smudges shrouding faint wisps of text.

As with Cage, Moran’s works on paper are perhaps the most conventional sort of art he produces. Although he’s a relative newcomer to artmaking, his art-world collaborations go back to at least 2005 and have involved the likes of Glenn Ligon, Adam Pendleton, Adrian Piper, and Kara Walker, often involving performances and events staged within set-like installations. His gampi-paper and dry-pigment pieces here, which grew out of a series of experiments the artist began in 2015 using his piano as a drawing and printmaking instrument, blossomed out of his desire for a different kind of “improvisation.” Moran’s approach, which initially yielded a limited range of results, has now reached virtuosic maturity. In works such as Before the Downbeat and A Spirit that Propels, both 2021, Moran has refined his technique by deprioritizing the musicality of his process. The keyboard is unmoored from its traditional contexts and instead operates like a press, which generates hallucinatory, vaporous, and abstract images full of mysterious depths. Cage and Moran are fitfully united here in their shared investment in material indeterminacy and spirited invention.