San Francisco

John Cage

California Palace of the Legion of Honor / Crown Point Press

DURING THE LAST FIFTEEN YEARS OF HIS LIFE, avant-garde composer John Cage produced a substantial body of visual art, mainly in the form of prints. Beginning in 1978, he visited Crown Point Press for a week or two almost every year. There, working closely with the press's master printers, he made art using methods borrowed from his approach to musical composition. He allowed every aspect of a print to be determined by what he described as “chance operations” (reading from the I Ching, throwing dice, and so on). The complex notations that serve as a record of these operations, referred to by Cage as scores or maps, dictated the actions he and the printers were to take—from the color of ink to the length and number of marks and the positioning of elements in the image.

As the works in both the Crown Point show and the slightly larger exhibition at the Legion of Honor revealed, Cage combined conventional printmaking techniques (engraving, drypoint, and aquatint) with highly unorthodox operations, including branding the paper with hot metal and “smoking” it with soot, using rocks as templates, and inking pieces of felt or foam instead of plates. In one series, he even set a fire in the press bed and ran damp paper through the press. Though both exhibitions included a wide range of prints, the selections were complementary, and each venue offered something unique. At the Legion, one wall was devoted to the “Déreau” series in its entirety. These thirty-eight engravings were printed in 1982 in an edition of two. (Much of Cage's production consisted of very small editions or unique images; the twenty-seven series he produced at Crown Point over his many visits include 667 unique works.) The title “Déreau” is a portmanteau of the French word décor (scenery) and “Thoreau,” the American transcendentalist philosopher whose journals were something of a touchstone for Cage. In the prints, photoetchings of drawings from the journals—small, eccentric images that accompanied the writer's observations of nature—are choreographed with geometric shapes in a kind of visual ballet. The drawings appear in the same place on the page throughout the series, like stage sets, while the shapes move around them.

Cage's fascinating preparatory materials for the “Déreau” project were on view across the city at Crown Point, accompanied by two prints from the series. Overall, the Crown Point show was far richer in the scores from which Cage and the printers worked. These pages of notes and grids of directions are compelling and eloquent, whether or not they were meant to be considered in their own right. Furthermore, having access to the set of operations determining the parameters of the images, though not strictly necessary, does add to the viewing experience.

Considering that Cage never deviated from the directions for these images, they exhibit an extraordinary richness. In one series based on a well-known rock garden in Japan, Cage traced around fifteen stones on printing plates. Some of the resulting works have a delicate, Zenlike simplicity—a few lines on an otherwise empty page. In others, those same lines—repeated thousands of times—almost fill the sheet. In the end, the strongest impression created by these shows is of a body of work enlivened with intelligence, curiosity, and a remarkable lack of fear. Cage really didn't care about the product. He just wanted to see what would happen. He once remarked that some people “think I use chance as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask.”

Maria Porges