Washington, DC

John Cage

The Phillips Collection

This exhibition of 30 watercolors by avant-garde composer John Cage, originally organized by Julia Boyd at the Virginia Museum, presents his first experiments in painting since student days. Cage has been making prints since 1978, and this experience inspired a series of drawings in 1983 referring to the Zen-inspired Ryoanji Garden in Japan. Titled “Where R = Ryoanji,” these works were made by drawing around stones with pencils of various weights, selected, as were the stones and their positions on the paper, by chance operations. In 1988, using rocks he selected from a site along Virginia’s New River, Cage produced four series of untitled watercolors by a similar procedure. In these works, the painting instruments (both feathers and brushes), as well as the size of the rocks and their position on the paper, and the size and color of the washes were determined by chance procedures derived from the I Ching. These works, however, were not entirely dictated by chance. In “Series III,” Cage chose to paint around a single stone creating a circular shape near the bottom of each work, a reference to the ensō paintings of Japanese Zenga (Zen Calligraphic painting). In Cage’s paintings, however, the stone’s position along the horizontal axis was determined by chance so that the circular shapes were often cropped by the paper. Even works requiring many more “moves” (chance operations), involved choices made on esthetic and symbolic grounds. “Series I” was limited to 15 stones, the number found in the Ryoanji Garden. In “Series IV,” Cage restricted the stones to the lower part of the paper, this time in reference to his “Ryoanji” pencil drawings.

While Cage’s watercolors look like gestural abstraction, they do not share the same motivating impulse. Here gesture does not symbolize the heroic, angst-ridden self; instead, the controlled mark offers a balance between the individual self and nature. In “Series III,” the circular shape refers to nature through its relationship to the stone, and random shifts and crops destabilize any reference to a dominant, “centered” self suggested by the circle (the ensō). Furthermore, by violating accepted esthetic rules, Cage deliberately eschews the idea that art must consist in a balancing of visual form and shape into a unitary whole. Instead, in Cage’s watercolors gestures unfold in sequence and remain clearly layered in time as a series of activities “scattered” within the “space” of the paper, a space that is both a real and a metaphorical arena in which to act.

What is perhaps most radical in these works is the way Cage sublimates the individual ego through the use of chance procedures that deny the need for absolute mastery. He rejects the accepted conception of the self as a superior and dominating force epitomized by the myth of the egocentric artist, proposing a more harmonious, open relationship to the world and to the possibilities of life.

Howard Risatti