John Cage is most famous for a composition that claims to be music but acts like an artwork—a conceptual piece, in function and in form. The Museum of Modern Art in New York now owns the score, a recent gift of Henry R. Kravis. 4’33” (In Proportional Notation) consists of three pieces of 11-by-16-inch paper that Cage folded in half, booklike. Then he drew a single (sometimes a double) vertical ink line descending down successive pages.
The vertical line is an instruction that describes an “action” that consists of doing nothing. The action is “performed” by having a pianist (or any other instrumentalist or any combination of instrumentalists) sit silently during three “movements” totaling four minutes and 33 seconds, the duration specified by the ink lines. The intention, clearly articulated in Cage’s writing, is that each performer will quietly listen with full awareness to the sounds audible at that moment. The score was first performed by David Tudor at the piano in Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952, a decade before New York Conceptualism got rolling.
Cage’s starkly empty drawing is the centerpiece of a finely textured exhibition, There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”, organized by MoMA curator David Platzker and cocurator Jon Hendricks in the galleries for prints and illustrated books. Establishing the context for 4’33” and Cage’s artlike intentions are dozens of intertwining stories of the artists Cage knew, the artists who influenced him, the artists who befriended him in the 1940s and ‘50s, and the artists he influenced, including Allan Kaprow, the Fluxus group, and some early ‘60s Minimalists and Conceptualists.
The score of 4’33” stands on a plinth at the center of the exhibition. On one side of it is a Barnett Newman painting, The Voice (1950), a white emptiness modified by a single vertical off-white “zip” near the right edge. In January 1950, Newman opened his first exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, followed by a full-throated celebration at the Club, the floor-through loft on Eighth Street where the artists of the oncoming New York School partied with poets, critics, writers, creators—Cage and Merce Cunningham among them. Cage embedded with these artists the minute he settled in New York in 1942, and he swiftly became coeditor (with critic Harold Rosenberg) of a small journal run by Robert Motherwell. The New York art scene was a tiny community in the ‘50s; everyone was watching over everyone else’s shoulder. Cage and composer Morton Feldman met nightly in the Cedar Tavern and argued vehemently about painting. Newman’s “sublime” would have been on Cage’s mind in 1952.
On the other side of the plinth is Zen for Film (1965), a white rectangle of light on the wall. Nam June Paik’s continuously running 16mm film isn’t soundless—the whir of the projector ensures that. And it’s not abstract—flecks of black dust, caught on the film stock, whiz by on the wall. But then, 4’33” isn’t soundless either, and it isn’t abstract. Paik had been studying music when, in 1958, he heard Cage speak at a composers’ gathering in Darmstadt, Germany. Cage’s arousing, outrageous performance so overwhelmed Paik that he decided to become an artist.
The exhibition begins early in the 20th century with artists who lit up the mind of the 23-year-old Cage when he saw their works in 1935 in the Los Angeles home of collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. Tellingly, everything in this first half is either a painting or a sculpture—even 3 Standard Stoppages, Marcel Duchamp’s 1913–14 experiment with chance composition. Duchamp randomly dropped three threads, but he transferred the resulting curves to pieces of wood, which he placed in a wood box. The operation of chance as a compositional device is the invention most often borrowed from Cage by other artists, and this is a reminder of how far back the conversation began. A chance piece by Jean (Hans) Arp and assemblages by Kurt Schwitters round out the picture.
Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, who were both personally close to Cage, are represented by two small but spectacular paintings owned by MoMA. The Graves is black-over-black night-moodiness, and the Tobey is a casual pileup of white writing. On the same wall are two pieces by Josef and Anni Albers, who taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the site of Cage’s many notable collaborations—with friends Willem and Elaine de Kooning, for instance, as well as Buckminster Fuller. Richard Lippold, in Five Variations within a Sphere (1947), made a set of lighthearted wire constructions for his friend Cage’s loft at 326 Monroe Street.
The leap to Paik’s Zen for Film is meant to be as jarring as it was at the time Paik first exhibited the piece. In the second half of the exhibition, almost nobody (except Cage’s close “accomplices” Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) makes paintings or sculpture. Instead, artists who knew Cage, studied with him, and admired his radical performative vision—first demonstrated at the debut of 4’33”—put forth an explosion of nonconventional forms.
The first originators of Fluxus-type actions were either students in Cage’s classes at the New School for Social Research (now the New School) in New York in the late ‘50s, or friends of Cage, or both. A graphic diagram of influence, drawn by George Maciunas, puts Cage near the top, with many lineages descending from him. Maciunas told a filmmaker: “Wherever John Cage went he left a little John Cage group, which some admit, some not admit his influence. But the fact is there, that those groups formed after his visits.”
In an interview with this writer, Kaprow recalled that he created the first proto-Happening to fulfill an assignment in Cage’s class. Kaprow, who had admired Cage since seeing 4’33” performed in New York in 1954 and who studied with him at the New School, began writing his own articles and reviews from this new viewpoint. As shown at MoMA, Paik, Kaprow, Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, La Monte Young, Yoko Ono, George Brecht, Henry Flynt, and their friends changed the performance universe and integrated “multimedia” into the realm of possibilities for art-making.
Less well known is Cage’s pervasive influence on artists who picked up his book Silence: Lectures and Writings after 1961. The final galleries of the exhibition examine the early years of Minimal and Conceptual art through artists with degrees of connection to Cage: Robert Morris, Walter De Maria, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Ryman, Fred Sandback, Robert Barry, Ian Wilson, and Dan Graham. (Others not mentioned at MoMA include Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Robert Smithson, Andy Warhol, dancer/choreographer Simone Forti, and the Movement Research dancers of Judson Memorial Church in New York.) Though De Maria and Smithson turned against Cage’s ideas, they both called him a forceful speaker with a clear philosophy. “I never did like his music, actually,” De Maria remarked. “But the ideas were always well stated.”
There was a “before John Cage” and an “after John Cage,” and the two worlds are so distinctly separate that they seem to have existed in different art universes. MoMA’s exhibition suggests as much in the first bay off the entry doors, where Cage’s graphic notation for Fontana Mix (1958) introduces the argument. Graphic notations, invented by Feldman and Cage and their friends in the early ‘50s, are drawings that compare to paintings of the period. Fontana Mix, an intricate swirl of looping and straight lines and dots on plastic, asks that performers interpret a visual medium as sounds.
Though Cage was a composer and, late in his life, a visual artist, neither of those descriptions achieves the significance of his world-altering role in the new universe of the postmodern.
Kay Larson is the author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Penguin Press).
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 54 under the title “The Sound of Silence.”