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John Cage Artworks

American Composer, Theoretician, and Writer

John Cage Photo
Movements and Styles: Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Conceptual Art

Born: Septemer 5, 1912 - Los Angeles, California

Died: August 12, 1992 - Stony Point, New York

Artworks by John Cage

The below artworks are the most important by John Cage - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948)

Heavily influenced by Cage's studies of Indian music and philosophy in the early 1950s, this cycle of 16 sonatas and four interludes was composed to express the eight "permanent emotions" of the rasa Indian tradition. These emotions are divided into two groups: the white (humor, wonder, erotic, and heroic) and the black (anger, fear, disgust and sorrow). Sonatas and Interludes was dedicated to Armenian-American pianist Maro Ajemian, who performed in the recording of the piece and during its debut at Carnegie Hall in 1949. Her performance of the work resulted in Cage's receipt of a generous grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Considered by many to be the composer's first masterpiece and highly characteristic of his oeuvre, the work was crafted to include improvisation while following a highly melodic structure based on a simple mathematical formula.

Theater Piece No. 1 (1952)

Theater Piece No. 1 was one of Cage's first large scale collaborative, multimedia performances, created and performed while Cage was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Referred to by many as simply "The Event," the piece involved several simultaneous performance components - all orchestrated by Cage, where chance played a determining role in the course of the performance. Some of the components included in "The Event" were: poetry readings, music, dance, photographic slide projections, film, and the four panels of Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951) suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a cross. Cage sat on a step ladder and lectured about Buddhism, or said nothing, and M.C. Richards and Charles Olson read different poems from ladders, while Rauschenberg played Edith Piaf records, Merce Cunningham danced amidst the audience (chased by a barking dog), coffee was served by four boys dressed in white, and David Tudor played improvised notes on a prepared piano, fitted with pieces of felt and wood between the strings. Cage composed the piece such that each participant did whatever they chose during assigned intervals of time and within certain parameters, but the overarching principle of chance guided the course of events. The highly involved multimedia characteristics of No. 1 are a wonderful example of the Neo-Dada movement and its incorporation of the everyday into modern art. This early proto-happening prefigured later developments in modern art, particularly the increasing focus on the outside world, as evidenced in later movements like Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, as well as performance art in general.

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4'33" (1952)

Like Theater Piece No. 1, Cage created 4'33" while at Black Mountain. However, instead of relying on a number of performers to bring it to fruition, this work depends on the environment in which it is performed and chance. The three-movement composition does not contain a single note of music. Instead, Cage wrote detailed instructions for a single musician to enter the stage, prepare the instrument - initially a piano, but other instruments have been used - and then sit in absolute silence for the full duration of the piece, 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The performer's silence allowed the sounds of the surroundings and audience members to become the music itself. This piece clearly defines Cage's interest in aleatory music, in which chance determines the outcome and any sound can be musical. This shift towards the music of silence was sparked by a 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard. Cage expected to hear nothing within the sound-proofed room, but instead heard two sounds, one high and one low - his nervous system and his circulatory system respectively. Within that anechoic chamber, he discovered the impossibility of silence. This realization led Cage to compose 4'33" and to focus on the music created by our bodies and environments.

This piece was first performed in an outdoor amphitheatre in Woodstock, NY as part of a recital of contemporary piano compositions. Cage's revolutionary re-definition of music was received quite poorly at this first performance, with the sounds of nature overshadowed by the audience's outrage at the performer's silence. Despite the initial negative response, 4'33" was embraced by progressive artists as an important foray into the incorporation of ambient sound and durational elements within musical performance. The sheer spontaneity of 4'33" is an important precursor to Allan Kaprow's happenings, which fully matured in the late 1950s and early 1960s and also relied wholly on audience members to dictate the outcome of the art.

Variations I (1958)

Cage's Variations, of which there were eight altogether, composed between 1958 and 1967, are a series of happenings and intermediate musical scores. The first of these, Variations I, was composed as a tribute to Cage's friend and collaborator David Tudor. Cage made no stipulation in this work as to the number of performers or instruments required. The key element was the instructions, comprised of a complicated grid that consisted of six transparent squares, containing various points and lines of varying size, which act as sheet music. The performers combine the squares and corresponding points and lines so that the musical structure follows a linear or non-linear path depending on the arrangement of the squares. Melody and notation were of little importance to Cage; instead, he was communicating the importance of a performer's choices and how those choices are experienced in the final piece. By allowing the performer to determine the composition, Cage relinquished direct control over the artwork, in a way similar to how Andy Warhol allowed his paintings to be created by anyone at the Factory.

Cheap Imitation (1969)

Cage's Cheap Imitation is an exercise in postmodern appropriation that relies on musical, rather than visual, quotation. Cage composed the work for dual pianists, and based it upon composer Erik Satie's Socrate (1919), the first act of which Cage transcribed for piano for Merce Cunningham's dance troupe in 1947. In 1968, he and Cunningham wanted to expand the work by two movements, but Cage was unable to obtain the rights from Satie's publisher. Instead, he quoted the rhythms of the theatrical, multi-instrument score in a piano solo, in which the pitches were determined by operations of chance based on the I Ching - the ancient Chinese "Book of Changes" emphasizing the role of chance in our lives. In this sense, Cheap Imitation prefigures the appropriation art of the 1980s, as Cage quoted from an extant musical composition and re-presented it within a wholly new context. Cheap Imitation was also the last piece Cage performed live, before he was forced to rely upon commissioned artists for his performances due to aggravated arthritis and other health complications. Through his use of appropriation, Cage made a smooth transition into the pastiche typical of postmodernism, a cultural shift that began in the late 1960s.

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Number Pieces (1987-1992)

Composed in the final six years of Cage's life, the extensive series of works that make up the Number Pieces are each named for the number of performers, which range from a soloist to an orchestra of 108 musicians (e.g. Seven for seven performers, One9 for the ninth work in the series for a single performer). The pieces relied upon Cage's time bracket technique, which is based on short compositional fragments that often contained a single note and an indication in minutes or seconds for how long it should be sustained. The majority of the works in this suite incorporate aspects of aleatory music, relying upon instrumental silence or the whims of the performers to complete the composition. Given Cage's ailing health in his late years, the quantity of the Number Pieces (52) indicates just how highly prolific and dedicated he was to the art of composition which he first perfected under Schoenberg's tutelage in the early 1930s. Most of the Number Pieces were composed to be performed using traditional instruments, with the exception of several compositions for the Japanese sho and conch shells, as well as an electrified, elongated version of 4'33" (1952), entitled One3. This updated version does not use time bracketing, is played by using an amplification system set instead of a piano, and continues until the performer decides the work is finished. This final series by Cage prefigured many postmodern artistic pursuits, especially later explorations of duration and ambient sound and the use of new technology to create art. His application of chance elements and new media in the Number Pieces further cemented his position as an innovator throughout his entire career.

Related Artists and Major Works

3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Art takes on a scientific guise in this intricate piece whose several component parts are neatly displayed alongside or slotted into a bespoke wooden case. To make this piece, which reads like a visual demonstration of the workings of chance, Duchamp dropped three threads, each exactly one meter long, from a height of one meter. He then carefully recorded the random outline of the fallen thread on canvas, glass and wood. Chance also dictated his choice of title: Duchamp apparently hit upon stoppages, French for the "invisible mending" of a garment, after walking past a shop sign advertising sewing supplies.

White Paintings (1951)

White Paintings (1951)

Artist: Robert Rauschenberg (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Originally viewed as a scandalous swindle, Rauschenberg's White Paintings were an early codification of the artistic ideals that dominated his entire oeuvre. The White Paintings currently exist in five different permutations of multi-paneled canvases, which Rauschenberg intentionally left free of any mark of the artist's hand. By removing any gesture, the works could be, and were, re-fabricated by his friends and assistants, including fellow artists from Cy Twombly to Brice Marden. This removal of an authorial mark presaged both the mechanical appearance of Andy Warhol's silkscreened works and the slick surfaces of Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Paintings (1952-67), while also hearkening back to earlier modernist works like the monochromatic paintings of Russian Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko. The seemingly blank canvases, evenly coated in white house paint, serve as a backdrop that activates as viewers approach, coming alive with their shadows while also reflecting the light and sounds of the room they occupy. Thus, Rauschenberg succinctly allowed the "subject matter" of the White Paintings to shift with each new audience and new setting, and illustrated his interest in aleatory, or chance, processes in art, while also questioning the role of the artist in determining the meaning, or subject, of a work of art.

The White Paintings were initially exhibited in the dining hall of Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952 as a backdrop for The Event (Cage's Theatre Piece no. 1) - a multimedia performance combining poetry reading, dance, music determined by aleatory processes. During the performance, four panels of the White Paintings were suspended from the ceiling in the form of a cross with films and slides projected on them. While Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards read their poetry, Merce Cunningham danced through the audience, David Tudor played Cage's music on the piano, John Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen, and Rauschenberg himself played wax cylinders of old Edith Piaf records on an old Edison horn recorder.

Target with Four Faces (1955)

Artist: Jasper Johns (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

In this work, Johns effectively merged painting and sculpture while wittily engaging the viewer with "things which are seen and not looked at." As in Flag, Johns relied upon newspaper and fabric dipped in encaustic to build the intricately textured surface of the painting. However, he also made plaster casts of only the lower half of a female model's face over four successive months, and fixed these out of order in a hinged, wooden box that he attached to the top of the canvas. By incorporating the sculptural elements in the same space as the painting, Johns emphasized the "objecthood" of the painting, as Rauschenberg did in his "combine paintings" of the late 1950s. This merging of mediums reinforced the three-dimensional object-ness of the paintings and was the Neo-Dada response to the recent progression of abstraction away from representation to an ever more reduced imagery that merely reiterated the surface of the canvas.

Beyond the material surface of the work, the concentric circles of the target imply the acts of seeing and taking aim. However, Johns excluded the model's eyes from the plaster faces, and thus thwarted any exchange of gazes between the viewer and the faces in the work. This forced the viewer to examine the interactions between the painted target and the plaster faces. Viewed through the lens of the Cold War era, the seemingly benign images can imply the targeting of the anonymous masses by global political powers as well as by corporate advertising and the mass media. Conversely, contemporary viewers might read the anonymity of the Internet in the work. Every individual's interpretation is shaped by his or her own history and knowledge. As part of his continued exploration of how people see the world around them, Johns intentionally chose the vague symbols of the target and a nondescript human face to solicit multiple, varied readings of this elusive work that straddles two historically distinct mediums.

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