09/30/2013 09:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nothingtoseeness: The Visual Art of John Cage at CCS Center Galleries

John Cage. New River Watercolor, Series 1, #3, 1988. Watercolor on paper. (All images courtesy of the John Cage Trust at Bard College.)
Most people know John Cage (1912-1992), of course, as one of the twentieth century's most important and original avant-garde composers and thinkers. Fewer know that he was also a visual artist, having regularly made works on paper, plexiglass, and other materials starting in the late 1960s and until his death just three weeks shy of his 80th birthday.

"Nonethingtoseeness: The Visual Art of John Cage" at CCS Center Galleries presents examples of his visual art for the first time in Detroit.

Like his musical compositions, Cage's visual art typically employs aleatory techniques as part of the creative process. The series "Changes & Disappearances" (1979-1981), for example, uses the Chinese I Ching (also known as The Book of Changes) to determine the placement of small printing plates on paper whose impressions were arranged and rearranged in layers in an additive process. The individual pieces evolved over time without preconceptions as to the final images.

The series "Strings 1-62" (1979) takes its cue from Marcel Duchamp's 3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) (1913-1914). Again the I Ching provided direction for dropping paint-soaked strings from a ladder onto watercolor paper to create a sequence of monotypes bearing the traces of free fall.

The trace is also central to a series of works done in the mid-1980s in which Cage used fire and smoke to register an image either directly onto the paper or indirectly off the plate. This seemingly simple (even simplistic) device results in veils of tone backgrounds reminiscent of post-painterly abstractionists such as Helen Frankenthaler and to a lesser extent Morris Louis. Later works in which hand-drawn images are overlaid on smoked paper, as in 9 Stones 2 (1989) and River Rocks and Smoke 4/13/90 (#4) (1990), are especially evocative in that regard.

Perhaps the masterworks in Cage's visual oeuvre are the many pieces he executed inspired by the famous Zen rock garden of the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Beginning in 1983 and continuing on up to his death, Cage made hundreds of works, both unique and in multiple edition, based on the motif. In addition to the I Ching, Cage employed mathematical formulae (specifically powers of 15, the number of stones in the Royan-ji garden) to dictate the placement and quantity of images comprising individual works.

My favorite pieces are those done for the "New River Watercolor" series of the late 1980s. This series of some 50 works was begun as part of a painting workshop at Mountain Lake in Virginia. Cage gathered stones from the New River that courses through Appalachia and used them along with chance operations dictating the type of paper, colors, tools, and techniques to make watercolors, some of them quite large, of minimalist beauty. The knockout is New River Watercolor Series II, #2 (1988), a six-foot expanse of white paper simply punctuated by a broad swash of black at the top that extends to the right edge with the outline of two stones, one done in red, the other in green, suspended below.

John Cage. 9 Stones 2, 1989. Color spitbite and sugar lift aquatints on smoked paper.
In addition to the works intended to be purely visual, the show also includes a couple of pieces that doubly function as musical scores. Score Without Parts (40 Drawings by Thoreau): Twelve Haiku (1978) is based on fragments from Henry David Thoreau's Journal. The piece has 23 elements to be assembled by the conductor. It has been performed by the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras. Fontana Mix (1981) is constructed of silkscreen on paper and plastic; it uses curved lines and random dots on transparent sheets to be superimposed on a grid and thereby indicate differences in tone, duration, and volume of sound. (The 1974-1975 composition Etudes Australes also uses the technique, based on star maps of the Australian sky, and is available on a four-disc CD issued last year by Nonesuch.)

Tying all of Cage's life work together, including the visual, is the Zen principle of non-attachment (Nekkhamma). Chance operations offered a path of "right intention" for Cage to relinquish control over his compositions, releasing its expressive possibilities into the universe and away from the narrow proprietary authority embedded in Western notions of the Artist handed down from Romanticism (and not coincidentally capitalism as well). Non-attachment underlies Cage's embrace of silence, the opening up of individual being to the common experience of environmental ambience, a way to get the ego quite literally out of the way. As Cage (decades before August Rush) once said: "Music is all around us; if only we had ears."

"Nothingtoseeness" has a very personal significance for CCS Center Galleries director Michelle Perron, who is celebrating her 15th anniversary at the venue's helm. Cage once spent the night in her childhood bedroom while she was away at college. (Her mother, the noted art patron Anne Spivak, hosted many visiting artists through the years; she also had the distinction of being the first chair of what is now the DIA Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art after the death of its founder and longtime previous head, W. Hawkins Ferry. Cage was in town for one of his many visits to speak and perform at the DIA.) Perron later worked for Cage's partner, the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, and was at the Cunningham Dance Foundation office the day Cage died.

For this exhibition, Perron took a page from Cage's playbook and used chance operations, in her case the rolling of dice, to select and install the work. Chance operations will be used to reinstall the show on a weekly basis, the traces of which -- nail holes, wall-mounted checklist numbers, etc. -- over time will become a score of sorts for mapping the visual equivalence to silence, the "nothingtoseeness" of works no longer there. One thing that shouldn't be left to chance, however, is seeing this show, preferably more than once.

"Nothingtoseeness: The Visual Art of John Cage" is on view until October 19, at CCS Center Galleries on the Walter and Josephine Ford Campus, College for Creative Studies, Detroit. A free catalog is available. Free admission. Call 313 644 7800 for information.