New York

John Cage

Christine Burgin Gallery

It takes a show of such integrity and grace as this modest exhibition to reinstill one’s faith in the possibilities of greater articulation and expansion an artist may find in another discipline. John Cage here displayed the fruits of two conceptually related but procedurally different series. “Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham,” 1971, consisted primarily of some of Cage’s compositions of word/form-interplay poetry from his book M: Writings ’67–’72, nicely framed and posing as word art. The more visually stimulating language/ sculpture/silkscreen hybrid “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel” was a set of eight “plexigrams” from a signed and numbered edition of multiples Cage had fabricated in 1969 in conjunction with Calvin Sumsion.

In “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel,” the effort Cage invested in making exquisitely seductive these art objects of an elaborately contrived and theoretically burdened process of randomness is impressively equal to his more widely known skills as composer and poet. These plexigrams not only translate into new form the program active in his concrete poetry and music, but also evoke the same sensuality that distinguishes Cage from dry academicism.

The plexigrams are delicately tinted plates of Plexiglas lined closely together, yet precisely apart, set in a wood base. Like Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare . . . , which asks its audience to look through the glass, the Cage sculptures are essentially frontal and their effects are achieved by looking through the plates of Plexiglas. In so viewing the work, one sees a swirling collage of words (often, poetically abstract linguistic sounds) and visual images floating in a lyrical assemblage of two- and three-dimensional space.

Cage is undeniably one of the great figureheads of America’s avant-garde and is deservedly regarded as an important theoretical innovator. In this status, however, he is partly the victim of an inbred curse whose inheritance he must accept along with the historical glory of his allegiance to Modernism. The euphoria of continual revolution became an addiction sapping further the resources of novelty from which Cage and his contemporaries struggled to coax new and appropriate esthetic species. One of the last great warriors of the collapsing dynasty of cultural rebellion, Cage’s best art articulates the rigorous mathematical logic needed to advance the limits of newness to their penultimate extension.

In much of Cage’s work, the spontaneity acknowledges the inevitability of its impending obsolescence in the role of the brand new The belligerent posture of preeminence that characterizes so much of 20th-century art becomes less emphatic as the awareness increases that any procedure of expression is destined to become formula, just as any new attitude of upheaval strangles itself in the rhetoric of its own dogma. To go about breaking rules is an act that manufactures its own rules, and it was Duchamp to whom Cage turned in “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel,” as a rare kindred soul suffering the embarrassment of a self-realization that perceives its innate pompous hypocrisy. By invoking Duchamp’s defiance of the cultural acceptance that drains art of its force for change, Cage only makes more sacred a profanity that tried to destroy all cultural authority only to be entombed by the worship from those very codes of taste. The title, “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel,” a fragile and lovely little contradiction within itself, cannot help but reveal the human character that all its calculation is unable to erase. Du-champ’s readymades posited that anything and everything could be art, but could not obliterate the esthetic boundaries they were aimed against. Society merely adopted the gimmick as a limited possibility reliant on the declaration of the artist. Even then it would have to be judged by standard criteria of conceptual and visual strength to the artist’s conceit.

Cage’s computer-inspired randomness, which literally left its content to the toss of a coin (adapting the I Ching), pushed the absence of the artist to a precipice where alienation nearly nullifies involvement. Existentially, this extension of antiart lives or dies in the uneasy balance of when no choice is a choice in itself. Cage dives into the void of theoretical anonymity only to find himself in its haphazard shards. His stalemate cannot make the final break from lyricism and meaning. The final choice is between individualism or progress, and as Modern art it must have both. Cage takes us to the stagnant zugzwang where the endlessness of the scientifically random becomes a physical pointer to a philosophic speculation in which the redundancy of infinity becomes conceptually repetitious. Cage may be speaking the last dying word of Modernism: “et cetera.”

Carlo McCormick