To many, John Cage seems the archetypal modern artist – a self-indulgent pseudo-intellectual who justifies his pretentious work with esoteric notions. Given that his most famous musical work is “4’33’’,” a piece in three movements consisting of four minutes and 33 seconds of the performer playing absolutely nothing, it’s understandable that his work invites eye-rolling skepticism and confusion.
In the midst of this inaccessibility, the record needs to be set straight, or rather, Cage needs to be experienced on his own terms so that more informed judgments of him can be made. The National Academy of Design, an art museum and school located at 1083 Fifth Avenue, steps up to the challenge with its recently-opened exhibition “John Cage: The Sight of Silence.” It tries to help the average museumgoer make sense of his work by offering a comprehensive view of it, from his watercolor paintings to his musical pieces, through the prism of his artistic philosophies, which are elucidated throughout the exhibit.
Most of the wall space is taken up by Cage’s watercolors, many of which come from his “New River Watercolor” and “River Rocks and Smoke” series. As the names suggest, the paintings are highly evocative of nature. The exhibition makes a point of noting on its wall descriptions that for Cage, the function of art was “to imitate nature in her manner of operations.” True to form, the paintings of the “New River” series conjure up flowing rivers with long, thin brushstrokes, and the “Rocks and Smoke” paintings effectively capture the physical qualities of smoke (Cage did this by literally using smoke to tint and create smoke-like patterns on the paper of these works).
The paintings generally differ in materials, size, and amount of canvas space used, but all are pervaded by a deceptive arbitrariness and sense of chance. Cage used what he called “chance operations,” a method of creating art in which the artist provides a framework by asking stylistic questions such as, in the case of painting, space and color, but minimizes his personal choice by leaving the answers to these questions up to chance. Decisions are made by coin tosses and arbitrary sequences of numbers.
The exhibition does well to explain the chance theory, devoting a whole gallery to it. On display is a glass case showing Cage’s original materials that he used to apply chance to his watercolors: numbered rocks, used for tracing shapes onto paper; bird feathers, used as brushes; as well as ordinary painting brushes. Cage would consult the “I Ching,” a Chinese book of divination, for patterns of numbers to decide what combination of rocks, brushes, and paints to use. Aside from the display, the gallery contains a 12-minute documentary in which Cage elaborates on his method. This gallery in particular does well to give some rhyme or reason to Cage’s work for those totally perplexed by it.
The rest of the exhibition, however, could have done more to win over skeptics. It opens by giving visitors the chance to listen to recordings of Cage’s work. Included is “4’33’’,” which also follows chance method because its sounds are exclusively ambient and not determined by the performer (in this sense, it’s not a piece of “silence,” as the exhibition’s title misleadingly suggests). But most of the other recordings are sound collages consisting of superimposed sounds and records, accompanied by a presentation of his unconventional graphic scores. While the pieces are rewarding to the patient listener, their bizarre and alien format and medium serve to begin the exhibit on an uninviting note. Cage’s “Music of Changes” or “Music for Piano” would have been better suited for the exhibit. These pieces retain the experimental chance concept while also illustrating Cage’s aesthetics in the recognizably musical framework of solo piano instrumentation.
Undoubtedly, many will leave the exhibition still unsatisfied and still firm in their skepticism of Cage’s art. Cage probably wouldn’t have had a problem with this, but he’d warn the viewer against getting too worked up. He ultimately sought to achieve the high and noble goal of imitating nature, but was apparently lighthearted about it all. “There are two things,” Cage said, quoting Immanuel Kant, “that don’t have to have to mean anything. One is music, the other is laughter.”