Cage’s Zen Den at the Academy

Cage's New River Watercolor Series I on parchment paper. Courtesy: Mountain Lake Workshop

Cage’s New River Watercolor Series I on parchment paper. Courtesy: Mountain Lake Workshop

Take one of the most controversial composers of the 20th century, give him some watercolors, drop him at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and leave everything to chance. See what happens.

You’ll see the results at the National Academy Museum’s John Cage: The Sight of Silence show this weekend. Back in 1988, Cage was the artist in residence at the Mountain Lake Workshop in Blacksburg, Virginia. He spent his time making a series of watercolors inspired by his trip to a Zen garden and temple in Kyoto, where he saw stones floating on a field of raked gravel.

Cage, whose lifelong interest in using chance (via the I Ching) to select and structure his musical compositions, decided to apply the same principles to watercolors, drawings, and prints. He customized some large-scale brushes that he could drag across wet paper like rakes, picked up feathers, and collected stones from the New River.

The brush, paper wetting, colors, stones, and actions are all determined by chance to stunning effect. Watch the artist at work and hear him talk about his process here:

Now see the results at the Academy and witness pure Zen.

4 thoughts on “Cage’s Zen Den at the Academy

  1. Lovely work. I would’ve liked to have heard him talk more about the relationship with music. He says that as you go vertically through a score its a representation of time, but I think it’s a difference in tone. If given more time to talk about it, it would’ve been interesting to see where he took that. I loved the analogy of the horizontal to the horizon and that even if he’s using the I Ching, someone had to pick those rocks …

    • Thanks, Josh. I think he picked up those rocks himself at the foot of the Blue Ridge. There was a terrific PBS video in the exhibition in which he speaks more about his early music training and thinking. If I find it online, I’ll pass it along. Here’s the link to his 100th Birthday card:

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