Despite a major retrospective, Every Day is a Good Day, at the Baltic, Gateshead, in 2010, John Cage’s notoriety as a revolutionary sonic manipulator and composer is not yet imperilled by his repute as a visual artist. Here, artist Louise Clarke seeks to rebalance things a touch by running a very personal rule over a selection of Cage’s engaging and, for her, influential visual works.
What aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful, instructions! This image was pivotal to my visual learning as a young art student; I discovered drawing as a language and began to understand the nuanced difference between portraying and presenting data. These plant- watering instructions combined two important ‘systems’ that were readily available to all angst-ridden teenagers starting art school: self examination through mapping and diaries. At the time it gave me a hint of the personal life of Cage, the mysterious creative pioneer – he had plants and he cared for them!
This particular image has existed as a photocopy above my desk for many years. It’s stoically kept at bay other contenders as a personal aide memoir for my love of mapping, drawing, literature… and mushrooms. It’s also a reminder of my brief, youthful encounter with mushroom tea and the ever- changing houses of poets I’ve lived with over the years who would literally write on anything and cook and drink late into the night. Cage was always in the air, and as an avid mycologist he made nature and cooking cool, fuelling and inspiring our bohemian way of living.
Printing allows for both decisive actions and ‘happy accidents’. Print’s transformative, alchemical quality brings chance and the unknown to the fore. It’s therefore easy to correlate Cage’s use of ‘chance’ systems of creativity with his drypoints and etchings. This is an interesting example of Cage’s methodology in a print context – the work explores the dichotomies of intention and chance, the seemingly casual and fortuitous blended with the accuracy and determination of line, with deletion and masking conversely revealing.
This is an incredibly compelling image. The mercurial smoke and graphic form bring to mind the yin and yang of nature and the man- made. It provides a contemplative space to focus on the opposing and complementary elements of life. I remember once being told that, moments before a stroke, the patient would experience a strong smell of smoke. Cage died of a stroke and this exquisite image strikes a chord resonating with the fragility and fire of life.
Though complex and seemingly chaotic, this piece, like many of Cage’s visual works, prompts the viewer to both contemplate and stimulate thought. The work mines deep levels of meditation, referencing the landscapes of Japanese rock gardens – and for me, as an advocate of drawing, this print, on a basic level, speaks of the excitement of mark-making, the seductive nature of repetition and the industry of creating.