The stunning chance-made visual art of John Cage gets its centennial due

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Cage's 'Dereau (#11),' 1982 (Courtesy National Academy)
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The exhibition John Cage: The Sight of Silence, on view through January 13 at the National Academy Museum, showcases an often neglected part of the avant-garde composer and musician’s monumental legacy: his engrossing work as a visual artist.

This month marks Cage’s centennial: he was born in Los Angeles on September 5, 1912, and he died in New York in 1992. He left an indelible mark on many different areas of artistic endeavor. With his longtime partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage shaped modern dance, pioneering the use of chance procedures in choreography and of movement not driven by plot or psychology. He was a pioneer in electroacoustic music and in the use of prepared piano. And at 100, he continues to shock and provoke. His credo is emblazoned as an epigraph to the National Academy show: “The function of art is not to communicate one’s personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operation.”

So plainly wrought, that declaration is nonetheless a fist in the eye to the Romantic notion of art as self-expression, one that holds sway even in our post-modern and post-human times. At first glance, the statement is humbly classical, too, in its invocation of art as imitation, as mimesis, an idea that harks back to Plato and Aristotle.

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But “in her manner of operation”: There’s the rub. In the Western tradition, artists and philosophers long affirmed that nature “sheweth [the] handywork” of a mighty and providential demiurge—and that in imitating nature, practitioners of the various arts partook to some degree of the Maker’s creative mastery. For Cage, though, nature’s method of working was “purposeless play.” Shaped by his studies of Buddhism, Indian philosophy, and the I-Ching (the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes”) in the 1940s and 1950s, Cage incorporated aleatoric or “chance-controlled” elements into his ground-breaking work in all media, including the watercolors, prints, drawings, and scores on display at the National Academy.

In keeping with Cage’s practice as a composer and visual artist, the curators of the National Academy show used rolls of dice to determine the placement of objects in the show. Some pieces hang nearly at floor level; others float high overhead; a few overlap. Sixty paintings that Cage executed in the 1980s and 1990s, while in residence at Virginia’s Mountain Lake Workshop, form the core of the exhibit. He and his assistants consulted the I-Ching to establish the tools and materials to use (including feathers, squeegees, and pigments) and the placement of images on the paper. The circular forms in the paintings, tracings of river stones, evoke the Zen symbol ensō, which can denote both the universe and the void, enlightenment and brokenness. Cage himself said that the idea to use stones, which he associated with “the solitary person in the world,” came to him in a dream. Other works in the show make use of scorch marks—brandings outside of the artist’s direct control, traces of heat and flame that tell of entropy and decomposition.

Cage’s paintings and drawings embody the Zen paradoxes that inspired them. For all their repudiation of ego, they are deeply and arrestingly distinctive. Both abstract and tenaciously material, they conjure up earth and flesh and things both tangible and transitory. The first work in the New River Watercolor Series II (from 1988, entitled simply #1) can be seen as a non-intentional grouping of blobs or, perhaps, as a meditation on aloneness and mortality. All of the works offered up in John Cage: The Sight of Silence bring to mind Hamlet’s injunction to welcome his father’s ghost “as a stranger”—that is, to experience primal, mundane forms and sounds in a spirit of radical openness and humility.

The National Academy exhibition also includes listening kiosks and videos on Cage. His 1960 appearance on the CBS game show “I’ve Got a Secret” is especially memorable. Youthful and nattily attired, a far cry from the grizzled éminence grise of his later years, Cage performs Water Walk, a composition for bathtub, seltzer bottle, rubber duck, ice cubes, and other objects that he had presented on Italian television in 1959. The collision of his bleeding-edge aesthetic with postwar mass culture gives rise to bewilderment and guffaws, but Cage is sweetly earnest and without condescension, and the audience receives him with surprising bonhomie. The score of Water Music (1952), a precursor to Water Walk, is included in the show, along with those for the gorgeous and mysterious Fontana Mix (1958, paper and transparencies), Aria (1958), 433 (1952), and several other compositions.

In conjunction with John Cage: The Sight of Sound, the National Academy is also offering “Chance Encounters,” a program of Cage-related events that take place through mid-January. Highlights include a concert by the toy piano virtuoso Margaret Leng Tan, a performance of Water Walk by the brilliant composer duYun, and a reading by musicologist and former Village Voice critic Kyle Gann (who authored No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage's 4'33'' ).

Beyond the National Academy, New York is bristling with Cage’s music. The Miller Theatre at Columbia University offers a John Cage “Composer Portrait” on September 20. The final lectures and concerts in “Cage Transmitted: 12 Evenings of Performance,” held at the Dumbo Arts Center, are set for September 15, 22, and 23. The New York Public Library offers “John Cage: A Living Archive,” an interactive multimedia project embracing online resources, videos, a free iBook, and a special concert on September 27. On October 4, a free performance of Cage’s radically indeterminate Variations IV will be given at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium. The S.E.M. Ensemble’s sumptuous festival, “Beyond Cage: John Cage at 100 / Music at 2012,” runs from October 22 to November 7.

Homebodies can revel in Cage-related broadcasts on NPR and WNYC, including a thirteen-part “John Cage: City Circus” series. As It Is (ECM New Series), a program of mostly early Cage works performed by pianist Alexei Lubimov and vocalist Natalia Pschenitschnikova, stands out among the flood of centennial recordings for musical and sonic richness.

Finally, Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, offers his own overview of Cage-related happenings, including information on a John Cage iPad app. Whether in the earthy, riveting paintings and drawings on view at the National Academy or in state-of-the-art software, John Cage lives on, forever challenging and astonishing us.