100 Years From Monday: John Cage: A Centennial with Friends at Carl Solway Gallery

February 18th, 2012  |  Published in *, February 2012  |  1 Comment

John Cage, Prepared Piano installation view.

Carl Solway Gallery’s John Cage: A Centennial with Friends celebrates Cage’s 100th birthday by presenting a comprehensive portrait of John Cage, the 20th Century composer, writer, visual artist, and teacher. Clippings, composition scores, diary entries, notes on mycology, and seldom seen visual art stuff an entire room of the gallery showcasing not only how incredibly prolific Cage was, but the wealth of material Solway Gallery has accumulated either for this particular exhibition or over the years. The second room is dedicated to “friends,” showcasing work from the obvious Cage affiliates (Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg) to the more casually linked (Benjamin Patterson, Alison Knowles, Ray Johnson). Although the exhibition is framed in a kind of celebratory fashion (and therefore the thread being “John Cage and the people who liked his ideas”) forging through the relationships between some of the “friends” and Cage seems an arduous task. Yet, there is, in my opinion, a fitting way to approach this exhibition.

While viewing this exhibition, I heard, from some unidentifiable source in the gallery, a song from 1969 entitled “The Moog and Me” by jazz musician cum Moog (modular controlled analog synthesizer) pioneer Dick Hyman. I recognized Hyman’s tune from its being sampled by the musician Beck in the song “Sissyneck” from his 1996 album Odelay. The Odelay album was Beck’s sample-heavy cut and paste pop music collage homage to his grandfather, Al Hansen, who was a progenitor of the happening and part of the Fluxus group. He also was one of a handful of 1960s artists and thinkers (most of them included in this exhibition) who enrolled in (and was terrifically influenced by) Cage’s experimental music course at the New School of Social Research in the late 1950s. What we have here is a kind of mid 20th century avant garde “degrees of separation” game with Cage and his influence, and this seems to be the overall narrative of the exhibition as well, showing how those who were even remotely affiliated with him took on his ideas.

One particularly interesting example of this presented is Dick Higgins’ Symphony #186: The Well Colored Symphony from A Thousand Symphonies (1968/1997). This piece fits in well with the implied narrative constructed by Solway gallery in that Higgins has a passing relation with Cage (he attended the same New School course as Hansen) and there is an apparent Cage influence in the work itself, both conceptually and visually.  In 1968, Higgins (either alone or with the aid of a police officer – accounts vary) opened fire with a submachine gun on orchestral paper, the bullet holes left on the notation lines of the paper creating a patternless, but nonetheless playable score (coincidentally, or not, played by avant garde cellist and Nam June Paik artistic partner Charlotte Moorman – both who appear in this exhibition as well). Higgins’ Symphony 186 resonates of Cage in the indeterminate way of which the notation was formed (although Cage would probably never fire a gun) and with the process of how Higgins created new forms of potential composition through chance. Echoes of this piece are seen in one of Cage’s visual art works, Cleaning My Ink Pen, a drawing featuring a variety of ink marks literally from cleaning his ink pen. Chance created this composition as chance created Higgins’, and although one was meant as a score, both are presented here as visual objects and can be viewed as such with an interrelation that can find pictorial aesthetic pleasantry over process.

One of the feathers in this exhibition’s cap is Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, Plexigram I-VIII from 1969. According to the press release accompanying this exhibition, the association between Cage (an artist in residence at the time at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music) and Solway “led to the publication…of Cage’s first graphic works…consisting of two lithographs and eight editioned sculptural objects called Plexigrams, created in tribute to Marcel Duchamp.” Resting on a ledge in the center back of the “Cage room” the Plexigrams and the lithographs that comprise this piece act as the focal point, the reason being, one can surmise, the relationship that they represent. That said they are historically relevant (in their being his first visual art publications) and are indicative of the kind of chance operated font and text printing Cage would employ in his Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) done in 1965 (also found in the exhibition published in a pamphlet form by Dick Higgins’ Great Bear imprint). For this diary Cage used “twelve different type faces, letting chance  operations determine which face would be used for each statement.” [1] For Cage to move from the diary format to an elegant art object provokes the question of what it was that prompted him to move in this direction. Perhaps it was another way to convey information through the chance methodology he employed or perhaps a reference to the “glass” works of Marcel Duchamp, who the piece was meant a tribute for.

Despite the prominence of Not Wanting to Say Anything…what struck me as the most elegant celebration of Cage, in a room that featured so many artifacts from the man, was a prepared grand piano. A cursory glance into the soundboard found nails in between the strings and resting up against the action frame, prepared, likely, in a way Cage had designated. What resonated the most about this object however was, at the time of my visit, this piano not being played, but sitting in silence, acting as a kind of serendipitous composition. 4’ 33” is Cage’s most famous composition, in which the sounds that permeate around an unplayed piano for four minutes and thirty three seconds make up the composition. Cage believed music was a collection of sounds and this idea continued while viewing this stationary player-less piano as I became aware of all the sounds that surrounded it: a gallery worker talking to (what had to be) an intern; Allen Ginsburg making some kind of noises on a video being broadcast in the recesses of another room; the sound of someone talking far too windily about Jasper Johns; building foundation noises; the phantom Dick Hyman song playing from nowhere. This is ultimately Cage’s greatest legacy, even outside of the mountain of objects presented by him and those influenced by him at Solway Gallery: the acceptance to give in to unknown forces and to heighten awareness both in thought and of our surroundings. To do such things, to quote Cage’s diary, will certainly improve the world, regardless of how worse you’ll make matters.

— Chris Reeves















[1] John Cage, A Year From Monday (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1970), 3.


  1. Carl Solway says:

    February 24th, 2012at 3:36 pm(#)

    Thanks so much for the very well written, very intelligent and thoughtful, and very accurate article about our Cage exhibition. It’s such a pleasure to read an insightful review of the gallery’s work.

    Carl Solway