Controlled Chaos: John Cage at Crown Point Press

When one first encounters the prints by composer and artist John Cage, the lines, circles, and doodles that intermittently dot the pages could be described as simply abstract compositions. Some are monochromatic, others colorful. Some recall the sparse structure of a Jasper Johns, others the charred and distressed surfaces of a Robert Rauschenberg. While these artists were major influences in Cage’s life and work, the inclination to call the work derivative is hardly the whole story. - Nadiah Fellah, San Francisco Contributor

A video clip of John Cage using fire to print the Eninka series at Crown Point Press in 1986 (jump to 1:34 to view Cage’s process):

Kathan Brown first invited John Cage to Crown Point Press in the 1970s, when her studio was located in Oakland (in 1989 she moved to its current location in San Francisco). Cage, not usually thought of as a visual artist, and therefore initially hesitant, finally accepted her invitation. Over the next 15 years he took the opportunity to experiment liberally with etching and printing. Cage both explored and challenged the medium by setting fires on the printing bed, or saturating the paper with water until it nearly disintegrated. Between 1978 and 1992, the year of his death, Cage spent 1 to 2 weeks a year at Crown Point Press where he produced 27 groups of prints, resulting in over 600 individual works. While many of them are dispersed all over the world in public and private collections—from the National Gallery in D.C. to the Hyogo Museum of Modern Art in Kobe, Japan—a number of artist proofs have remained at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, where they are now on view.

John Cage | Déreau, 1982, #22 from a series of 38 related color etchings with aquatint, engraving, photoetching and drypoint, Paper Size: 18-1/2 x 24-1/2"

When Cage arrived in the Bay Area in 1978, he brought with him a method he had employed since the 60s to compose music, called I Ching. The method was derived from an ancient Chinese book of wisdom or prophesies. In Cage’s case, he used it primarily for generating random series of numbers to make decisions by means of ‘chance operations.’ The I Ching method called for throwing three coins six times, which results in one of 64 possible sequences. (This is a simplified explanation, for an exhaustive description, Kathan Brown tackles a full account in her book on Cage’s prints.) Cage then used this randomly-generated number, or chance operation, for everything from determining the arrangement of plates on a print (he used grids so that I Ching could determine exact coordinates), to the colors mixed for each component. In this way, prints like the series Déreau—a combination of the words ‘décor’ and ‘Thoreau’—are intricately mapped-out compositions determined through lengthy manipulation of I Ching numbers.

John Cage | Déreau, 1982, #11 from a series of 38 related color etchings with aquatint, engraving, photoetching and drypoint, Paper Size: 18-1/2 x 24-1/2"

John Cage | Déreau, 1982, #20 from a series of 38 related color etchings with aquatint, engraving, photoetching and drypoint, Paper Size: 18-1/2 x 24-1/2"

In many cases the artist’s complex method required printers to run dozens of plates to produce a single print. For a series done in 1980, Changes and Disappearances, the final work included 298 different colors, each of which had to be run individually by the printer.

Cage incorporated a multitude of influences into his printing practice, much as he did when he composed music. For the images that form the fixed décor in Déreau he chose drawings from Thoreau’s Journal. For the coiled lines present in the same series, Cage drew from a technique Duchamp used to obtain curves in his 1913 sculpture Three Standard Stoppages. He dropped a meter of string from the height of one meter on a plate, which produced a random, twisting line. He then traced the fallen string using drypoint. In this way, Cage’s prints are a physical manifestation of the chance-derived practice that dominated a majority of his work, and all the iterations possible from a single operation or process.

He was also, as evidenced by the I Ching technique, greatly influenced by Asian philosophy and Zen Buddhism. One series in the Crown Point Press show, R=Ryoanji from 1983, particularly exemplifies this. Ryoanji is a Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan, famous for its ancient rock garden. When he decided to begin this new series, Cage brought fifteen rocks with him to the studio—the same number as those that exist in the legendary garden. He also specified that the dimensions of the paper match the dimensions of the rock garden. Using I Ching, Cage generated a series of numbers which dictated how many times he would trace the stones on a single plate. The title of each work in the series reflects his process in each instance. For R3, he engraved a line around one rock 3,375 times on a single copper plate. Since R=15, the number of rocks he used, he multiplied it to the third power, as stipulated by I Ching. The monochromatic picture plane becomes an optical illusion, as each line is not clearly defined, but slightly blurred. This is a result of the engraving tool Cage used, which produces a trail of raised metal in its wake, called a burr. When ink is applied to the plate, the burr catches most of the ink, which gives the appearance of fuzzy lines. Cage continued to use stones in many of his visual works, and a few are on display at Crown Point Press, mounted on the walls alongside his prints.

John Cage | R3 (from the Where R=Ryoanji series), 1983, drypoint, Image Size: 7 x 21-1/2", Paper Size: 23-1/4 x ", Edition 9-1/4

The rock garden at the Zen temple Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan. Cage first visited Ryoanji in 1962. The temple and garden are thought to have been built in the 15th century.

John Cage is known as an artist and composer who lived by the assertion that art and life were close together—indistinguishable, in fact. In an interview, he once spoke of a conversation he had with de Kooning in the 1950s, at a restaurant in New York, about what exactly defined art. De Kooning gestured to some breadcrumbs on the table, saying that to put a frame around them would not inherently make them ‘art.’ Cage ardently disagreed. He later recounted, “He was saying that it wasn’t [art], because he connects art with his activity—he connects with himself as an artist, whereas I would want art to slip out of us into the world in which we live.” Ironically, the extreme to which Cage relied on chance and randomness actually generated a body of work that is distinctly purposeful and focused. The same can be said of his music, the virtuosity of which continues to inspire generations of students and followers.

John Cage | Eninka #28, 1986, #28 from a series of smoked paper monotypes with branding on gampi paper chine colle
Paper Size: 24-1/2 x 18-1/2"

John Cage | HV2, 1992, color etching, Paper Size: 11-1/2 x 14-1/2", Edition 45


John Cage was born in 1912 in Los Angeles. He attended Pomona College for two years before dropping out to travel across Europe, where he studied art, architecture, and classical music. When he returned to California in 1931 he decided to devote his time to composing, living briefly in Chicago before settling in New York. He is best known for pioneering avant-garde and experimental music, often collaborating with his partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham. He died in New York in 1992, at the age of 79.

John Cage is on view through March 31st at Crown Point Press in San Francisco.

Nadiah Fellah is a curatorial assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)


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