John Cage leaves it to chance with paintings and prints at De La Warr Pavilion

By Mark Sheerin | 27 April 2011
An abstract painting with coloured outlines and smoky smudges
John Cage, River Rocks and Smoke: 4-11-90 #1. Watercolour and smoke on rag paper© Collection The John Cage Trust at Bard
Exhibition: John Cage – Every Day is a Good Day, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until June 5 2011

Unless you are a zen master, the visual art of John Cage does not speak for itself. The critical info here is that Cage has used the I-Ching to choose colours, brushes, washes, engraving techniques and spatial arrangements in his paintings and prints.

Likewise, the works on display in his largest ever retrospective have been chosen and positioned at random. Mid show they will be taken down and a new random hang will be installed. Surplus works can be seen stacked in a side room with a glass door.

It is tempting to say that chance is more interesting in theory than in practice. Cage’s best known artistic statement was, of course, a piece of music lasting 4’33” comprised only of ambient noise. It provokes gentle laughter but it fails to induce rhapsodies.

The American composer was quite comfortable with such a reaction. It is “better than tears” he points out in an early appearance on TV, shown here. But in another film you can see him using the I-Ching to make paintings; he was very serious about it.

Such a mix of light touch and method is represented well by a series called the New River Watercolours. Here Cage will perhaps contrast a monotone wash with coloured stone outlines.

They come together best where the colours are most naturalistic. Series IV, No.7 seems composed of the very cool freshwater it apparently represents.

But elsewhere Cage uses a bewildering array of techniques. He makes his own paper, or dampens it with a hose, or blackens it with smoke; he would burn work or brand it with a Japanese teapot; he would experiment with countless engraving methods and submerge plates in acid; he would use ink rollers and create photoetchings in darkrooms. And his guide at almost every turn was mere accident.

The results are at their most interesting when they are most intense. Scorch marks add some welcome drama to a work like Fire No.1. Regardless of authorial intentionm, you can feel the heat turned up in order to make this work. Even more focussed is Where R=Ryoanji: R3, in which Cage has drawn around one or another stone 3,375 times.

There are two of these mindblowing Ryoanji works to the third power in the current hang of the show. But wouldn’t you know it, both are positioned well above the line of sight. A zen master could probably appreciate that. But many may well simply ask themselves: why?

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