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Here, too, John Cage is outside the box

Davis show collects pieces about composer

Ray Johnson’s “Untitled’’ (1987) from the exhibit “Prepared Box for John Cage.”ray johnson

WELLESLEY — There’s an emptiness at the core of “Prepared Box for John Cage” that the composer would no doubt smile upon. Emptiness is kin to silence, and Cage, who died weeks before his 80th birthday in 1992, was the maestro of silence.

The exhibit at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College spotlights a portfolio of work about Cage, the groundbreaking modernist whose ideas rippled well beyond music to influence artists, poets, choreographers, and more. Cage, a follower of Zen Buddhism, would compose music by chance, posing a question to the ancient I Ching text to determine what would come next in the score. His visionary use of silence, in particular in the 1952 composition “4’33”,”  during which the musician or musicians did not play their instruments, shifted paradigms: Music was no longer about what you listened to, it was about the act of listening. Taking a cue from Marcel Duchamp, who famously found art in everyday objects, Cage found ready-made music in ordinary sounds.


In 1987, the Carl Solway Gallery staged an exhibit in honor of Cage’s 75th birthday at the Chicago International Art Exposition. Allan Kaprow — who instigated happenings, the revolutionary performance-art events of the 1950s and ’60s — solicited anecdotes, essays, and artworks, collecting 45 in all from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Yoko Ono, and Robert Rauschenberg.

The catalog for that show was made into “Prepared Box for John Cage,” a box of unbound pages, one of which is in the Davis Museum’s collection. Last year marked the centenary of Cage’s birth, and Elaine Mehalakes, curator of academic programs at the museum, has mounted this exhibit to celebrate.

The portfolio-as-exhibition will frustrate those expecting a visual experience. Much of it is text, mounted on the walls, sometimes too high to read. The visual art is all in reproduction, so we don’t see paintings that Jasper Johns and Jean Tinguely made; we see small, glossy prints of them. Tinguely’s typically festive, wheeling abstraction evokes so many eardrums vibrating.


Same for the sculptures. Christo’s cheeky wrapped telephone and Rauschenberg’s assemblage of broken pipes, a flashlight, an old boot, and more, are both seen here in small, black-and-white reproductions. That’s no way to look at art.

But let’s embrace that limitation, because immateriality, or its cousin impermanence, underlies Cage’s ethos. The exhibit, in a way, resembles a Cage piece: So many sounds gathered from disparate sources to make a surprising whole.

“Prepared Box for John Cage” does not include work by Cage himself, so it’s like the folk tale about the blind men and the elephant. The men touch different parts of the animal and imagine they’re touching things other than an elephant. These artists aren’t blind to Cage, but they resonate with him and his many ideas in many ways. Their multifarious delights in and interpretations of his work, his game-playing, and his grace make a mostly merry tapestry, with a few heady, academic threads.

Kaprow writes a shrewd essay, suggesting that art of the 20th century had been built around the artist’s struggle. “In Cage’s cosmology,” he writes, “the real world was perfect, if we could only hear it, see it, understand it.”

“Untitled” (1987), a sketch by John Cage’s longtime partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham.Merce Cunningham

Video artist Nam June Paik writes that three meanings of spring — the season, the coiled piece of metal, and the idea of something new always bubbling up — were embodied in Cage. Choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s longtime partner, sketches elegant branches with pine needles and cones. Collage and performance artist Ray Johnson, best known for his mail art, impishly painted Cage’s name across a pair of saddle shoes.


These evince Cage’s playful spirit and lighthearted energy. What’s missing is Cage himself. He might argue, as a Buddhist, that the self is transitory and intangible anyway. It can’t be pinned down — and that makes anything possible. Perhaps that’s where Cage’s spirited curiosity, and his openness to any sound as music, came from. He had no expectations. He would pose a question, and life, or the I Ching, would offer up an answer. The answer was not up to him.

Curator Mehalakes supplements “Prepared Box” with wisps of the composer himself, although they’re not part of the original portfolio. In the hallway outside the gallery, she has assembled a handful of Cage’s scores, and a couple of iPods loaded with his music, so viewers may listen as they wander through “Prepared Box.” It’s essential to do this — the music, with its odd turns and unexpected silences, helps to provide a more complete picture. The whole elephant, as it were.

The scores, although not intended as visual art (Cage was a visual artist, as well; the processes of printmaking fit neatly with his random approaches), are actually the most eye-catching works on view. They resemble musical notation about as closely as a Cage composition resembles a Mozart sonata. Unexpected marks such as closed, ragged loops dart over musical staffs.


The score for “Fontana Mix” comprises 10 sheets of paper, each sporting six curved lines, and transparencies with randomly distributed points, or a grid, or a straight line. To play, superimpose transparencies over a sheet of paper. Intersections mark actions to be taken.

Lively as they are, these don’t make up for Cage’s absence in “Prepared Box.” The exhibit pays tribute to the vitality of the composer’s imagination and his gentle engagement with his work and his friends. He seemed to be a man who did not judge, but greeted the world — or at least his work — each day with fresh excitement and curiosity. How could we not miss that?

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.