on being uncagey about john, uk tour of cage exhibition into 2011

John Cage Ryoanji 17 February 1988 -pencil on Japanese handmade paper (ph Guy Mannes-Abbott)

Every Day is a Good Day [just say it, try… ]

This complete show of John Cage’s paintings and drawings is one that you need to go see, be with in real time and place. It’s not only that it doesn’t reproduce well [despite there being a very good catalogue with excellent reproductions newly photographed in it here updated link 2020] or that I’ve badly scanned one of my favourite delicate drawings done -in place of meditation- with more than one pencil around stones that were special to Cage [the allusion is to the famous dry stone garden at Ryoan-ji, Kyoto] but that until you’ve journeyed to stand before them, share their space you haven’t actually seen them.

I loved this exhibition of works for their affective simplicity -openness, lack of guile- and transforming leap from the disciplined procedures that generated them to their qualities as visual art. That is; they’re better than they have a right to be. If you know or care nothing for the notions of chance and rituals involved in their making it matters little. I always approach art as it is, able to ‘read’ it but anyway looking for more than I can read in it. However in this case ‘finding out more’; details of pencil leads, locations and finding alignments with what I knew about Cage and his work already, was fascinating. It didn’t broaden my qualitative thoughts but it did deepen them.

JC Every Day is a Good Day Kettle’s Yard installation views of Ryoanji series (ph Guy Mannes-Abbott)

My only caveat relates to surprise at the suddenly apparent need for academicism with Cage, who lurks behind so many things, is admired by so many visual art people I interact with anyway [no creative Brit writer I can think of barring Iain Sinclair perhaps, who has a declared passion for everything Black Mountain College albeit especially Charles Olson- would admit Cage’s writing to their narrow world of the possible, let alone the necessary] and who represents a vital knot of late mid century invention. This exhibition has much of that scholarly thoroughness about it but I remind you that its hardly exclusive or daunting; go, go, go, go, go as Daniel Johnson sings at the end of Speeding Motorcycle during that legendary live performance on WFMU

I didn’t get to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm this summer -caught for too long in storms far out in the archipelago- but their last re-hang had a lot of photographs of JC and Merce from their appearance there in the 1960s. I enjoyed a lot, admired a little less, Tacita Dean’s film of Merce and co in rehearsal [Craneway Event 2009] too. It’s film as an act of stripped back witness, artful in that sense and easily underestimated too, but principally worth seeing as part of Merce’s work -rather than TD’s. I realise that sounds mean-spirited but hej?

I’d been reading Cage’s 1964 piece on Jasper Johns [in A Year From Monday] around the time of this show, which employs chance techniques to little effect other than as eulogy! However, Johns’ unsorted notebook entries quoted are stunning. Three of them speak to Cage’s visual art in this exhibition;

i. ‘At every point in nature there is something to see … My work contains similar possibilities for the changing focus of the eye …’

ii. ‘The relationship between the object and the event. Can they [2] be separated? Is one a detail of the other? What is the meeting? Air?’

iii. ‘Focus. Include one’s looking. Include one’s seeing. Include one’s using. It and its use and action. As it is, was, might be.’

Look again at the Where R=Ryoanji  series of drawings Cage did and now you have the meeting of object and event in touch … although by touch I mean it in the most expanded sense that Derrida draws out of Jean Luc Nancy’s thought; the touch of eye to eye, or even, if you think about it, finger to finger. What is touching? Touching is what? One pretty good answer is the drawing above …

John Cage New River Series I, No. 3 1988

The catalogue for this exhibition is excellent, the talk I heard at Cambridge by JC’s assistant on these paintings, Ray Kass, and Laura Kuhn who runs the John Cage Trust, was warm and grand too and there is Kenneth Silverman’s new biography of Cage [Begin Again: A Biography of JC] which is just out in the States but obviously too stimulating for British publishers. Kuhn has written highly of this new biography;

“He’s clearly inclined toward the experimental and iconoclastic, and he situates Cage squarely within a camp that includes Gertrude Stein, Charles Ives, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, perhaps especially, Walt Whitman … [the book] … answers many a biographical question … [is] extremely well researched … [and represents a] first exemplary biography of John Cage…”

John Adams has just written a great review of Begin Again in the NYT here; “John Cage was one astonishing individual … “Cage studies” is by now a small industry. The flow of new books about him, his music and his aesthetics seems unstoppable … What is new in “Begin Again” is a much more nuanced picture of Cage’s personal life than has currently been available … Cage himself is revealed in a richly shaded and profoundly human portrait.”

Adams ends; “What emerges most powerfully in “Begin Again” is Cage’s enormous capacity for work, together with his exceptional self-discipline as an artist (something learned from Schoenberg) and his willingness to approach every new challenge with a “beginner’s mind. It is a book worthy of being read by anyone, young or old, who is faced with the daunting task of a new creative beginning.”

Randomhouse US has a short excerpt from Chapter 1 here.

Silverman’s biography stirred a recent New Yorker to have a focus on Cage too;

> Alex Ross profiles him here and put up a kind of blog biblio here.

> It includes the always online Ubuweb with its selection of audio files [amongst much else] including the very lovely Mureau [1972] his Mesostic Norton Lectures from 1988-89, etc.

> There is also the excellent CageTalk; dialogues with & about John Cage by University of Rochester Press here.

> There is a good biographical summary, art cv and some prints from Crown Point Press here.

Here is the remaining itinerary for the Haywood’s travelling exhibition in the UK and for once, despite having gone to Cambridge for the opening I get to ‘complain’ that we won’t get John Cage in London [though next summer at De La Warr Pavilion is going to be irresistible];

John Cage KY installation view GMA

JC Every Day is a Good Day at Kettle’s Yard (ph Guy Mannes-Abbott)

Tour Details:

Exhibition opened at BALTIC, Gateshead then toured to Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and on to;

20 November – 8 January 2011
Museum and Art Gallery, Huddersfield

19 February – 2 April 2011
Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow

16 April – 5 June 2011
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea

> BALTIC have a small pdf guide here.

> Kettle’s Yard have an illustrated pdf for schools here.

8 thoughts on “on being uncagey about john, uk tour of cage exhibition into 2011

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