20th century artists, abstract painting, chance, watercolour, Zen buddhism

John Cage, River Rocks and Smoke 4/11/90 No.1

May 6, 2011
John Cage, River Rocks and Smoke. Courtesy The John Cage Trust

The universe, it seems, has good taste. Here is a painting it did. Or rather, here is a painting John Cage allowed to happen, letting the I-Ching direct his brushstrokes if true to form.

Observe the wispy sfmuato effect, created by students with burning straw. Look at that delicate use of colour and the almost Assyrian shapes, each one traced round the edge of a stone.

You could hang this on a wall and feel a deep oneness. Or you could marvel at the process involved, the radical shift towards egolessness.

Either way, it is great in theory. You don’t even need Cage for this. You could leave a sketchbook out in the rain or scatter blossom on an adhesive canvas. That too would be pretty.

Of course, Cage is pushing at the boundaries. Perhaps he is saying we don’t even need artists, in the same way it seems he once said we don’t need composers. Perhaps we don’t.

But surely life is not a zen garden. It seems more like a game of chess. Chance dictates which side we are on and then we need to attack and defend. Aimlessness is not often the best approach.

Cage apparently loved chess, but he wasn’t the world’s best player. It is said friend Marcel Duchamp was known to lose all patience with him for making silly mistakes.

Of course, the I-Ching paintings may have been an ! move in chess terms, threatening bishops and laying siege to kings. Except Cage is so light-handed, he hardly touches his pieces.

John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day is at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until June 5 2011. See gallery website for more details. Read my review of the show at Culture24.

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