New York

William Anastasi, Sink, 1963, rusted steel, water, 20 x 20 x 1/2". From “Notations: The Cage Effect Today.”

William Anastasi, Sink, 1963, rusted steel, water, 20 x 20 x 1/2". From “Notations: The Cage Effect Today.”

“Notations: The Cage Effect Today”

William Anastasi, Sink, 1963, rusted steel, water, 20 x 20 x 1/2". From “Notations: The Cage Effect Today.”

No study of composer John Cage’s legacy would be complete without acknowledging his own influences and frequent collaborations. In the case of visual-art practices, his work with Robert Rauschenberg looms largest. Indeed, in Hunter College’s exhibition “Notations: The Cage Effect Today,” organized by Joachim Pissarro with the help of an international group of curators (Bibi Calderaro, Julio Grinblatt, and Michelle Yun), Rauschenberg is a silent but dominant partner in the proceedings.

Cage credited Rauschenberg, whom he met in New York in 1951 and worked with at Black Mountain College and beyond, with opening up a space of apparent emptiness in art and revealing it to be, in fact, full of diverse activity and experience. At the time of their meeting, Rauschenberg was exploring what seemed to be the ultimate “anti-art” provocation—the monochromatic canvas. Cage was intrigued with the way in which the resultant White Paintings, 1951, seemed to enhance the experience of typically overlooked events, calling them “airports for the lights, shadows, and particles,” and attributed his famous 1952 “silent” composition, 4'33", to Rauschenberg’s challenge of empty openness. Just as there was no emptiness in the White Paintings, Cage argued, there was also no silence in life.

Between this circuit of silences pregnant with sound and emptiness full of incident, the artists in “Notations” continually return to Cage by way of Rauschenberg. The exhibition’s spare, refined installation rewarded sharp attention and patience, as many works would be overlooked in nearly any other context. Matthew Deleget’s Monochrome (Sleeper Cells), 2007, consists of three reflective panels coated nearly to their edges with white paint the same color as the gallery walls. Such a work might elicit a shrug elsewhere (as no doubt many monochromes sometimes do), but the discursive field of “Cage/Rauschenberg” demands subtler perception. Deleget’s paintings amplify shadows, and their color and appearance vary according to light conditions. Additionally, the roughly applied perimeter of paint appears like the slapdash coats thrown up to cover graffiti on city walls.

The earliest of the twenty-eight works on display, William Anastasi’s Sink, 1963, responds to the exploration of duration in Rauschenberg’s 1953 Dirt Painting (For John Cage) (which was not on view here). Sink is a floor-bound square sheet of steel that emphasizes the mutability of any process of creation and display: The work rusts as it ages—water is poured on it regularly—just as the packed earth of Dirt Painting blossomed sprouts and later molded over the years. Rivane Neuenschwander’s installation O trabalho dos dias (Day’s Work), 1998, literalizes Cage’s argument that Rauschenberg’s monochromes are screens for everyday experience. Adhesive vinyl sheets line the walls and floor of a room. The squares were previously white, but Neuenschwander swept the dust and debris from her home onto them; as the viewer walks through the space, the sheets continue to accumulate residue, functioning like giant flytraps. These are truly airports for particles, predominantly bodily ones such as skin and hair (which also brings to mind Cage’s tale of visiting an anechoic—an echoless, insulated, and therefore soundproof—chamber, in which he heard the high pitch of his nervous system and the low drone of his blood pumping). There will be no silence, no emptiness in the world, so long as there is the body.

The sense of the artwork as a screen for bodies that Cage took from Rauschenberg—for example, in the first Happening, which Cage staged at Black Mountain in 1952, the White Paintings oscillated between acting as paintings and operating as screens for slides or films—also recurred throughout “Notations.” Perhaps its most direct expression could be found in David Lamelas’s Limit of a Projection 1, 1967, consisting of a darkened room with a single white spotlight projected onto the floor. The cone of light the beam demarcates is an invitation for viewers to perform, to countervail the perfect geometry of the circle with the gangly reality of their bodies, to enter into the work and collapse art into life. For as Cage proclaimed, “Art’s obscured the difference between art and life. . . . Where there’s a history of organization (art), introduce disorder.”

Eva Díaz